It was never a practical building. By the time it opened in 1962, the Trans World Flight Center terminal in New York in the United States was already outdated. The first jumbo jets were developed while it was still under construction, and so from the start, the building could not keep up with passenger numbers.
However, the building by Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen was spectacular in its own way. At the time, it was hailed as the world’s most distinctive example of corporate show piece architecture, and it went on to become the subject of countless doctoral dissertations before it was closed down completely in 2001.
With its huge, sweeping wing-shaped roof made of reinforced concrete, the futuristic-looking building was an obvious symbol for flying. “Most people are blind,” Saarinen said when presenting his plans. “If you get too subtle about architecture, people come in and walk through it and never notice the difference.”
When the terminal was opened, the airport was called Idlewild and was still small and surrounded by a lot of empty land. It was renamed after US President John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963.
The airport has since massively expanded, and the original building is now squeezed among Terminal 5, the connecting rail AirTrain and a collection of busy roads. People have likened it to a stranded UFO.
But now, the Trans World Flight Center has been given a new lease of life as a luxury hotel. Hotel group MCR acquired a 75-year lease on the building in 2015 and has turned it into the centrepiece of a new hotel complex, the TWA Hotel.
At its grand opening in May, actors dressed as pilots and flight attendants danced and sang their way through the terminal in the style of the 1960s before guests retired to their rooms, which cost almost US$300 (RM1,254) per night.
As to what makes it so special, Kaunteya Chitnis of MCR says: “In the entire building there is not a single straight line. It took them 30 hours straight just to complete the 6,000sq m concrete roof. The cement trucks were backed up all the way to the highway. This building could never be built this way again.”
Chitnis, head of acquisitions and development at MCR, is in charge of breathing new life into the building. For nearly 16 years it has stood empty, and there was even talk of tearing it down. But people couldn’t bring themselves to do it. As the Atlantic magazine noted, the building was “too useless to live and too beautiful to die.”
It gained worldwide attention as a setting where Tom Hanks is pursuing Leonardo DiCaprio in the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. Soon after, the building was placed under national protection.
Speaking about the new hotel, New York governor Andrew Cuomo previously said: “The conversion of the TWA Flight Center into a new state-of-the-art hotel will preserve this iconic landmark while cementing JFK’s status as a crown jewel of aviation.”
Chitnis says, “The TWA terminal is the star of this project. We delved deeply into the archives and aim as much as possible to return it to its original state.”
MCR invested US$265mil (RM1.1bil) dollars in the project, which saw the terminal becoming the new hotel’s lobby. The previous check-in area has eight restaurants, including a food hall featuring specialties from Brooklyn and Queens food vendors, as well as conference rooms, a cocktail bar and a nightclub.
The landmark TWA building is to be flanked by two six-storey crescent-shaped buildings containing the hotel’s 505 guest rooms, a rooftop swimming pool and an observation deck where guests can watch planes landing and taking off.
Despite being inside a busy airport, Chitnis says the rooms are “very quiet” with sound-proof, seven-layered glass window panes.
Chitnis notes that the project poses many challenges. He points to the large slanted glass panes of the terminal building. No two of the 486 panes are the same size.
“See that? Each glass pane has a different dimension. We have to replace them individually.” – dpa