Nostalgia takes flight at JFK’s TWA Hotel

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Nostalgia provokes many feelings. Triggered by smells, tastes, sights and sounds, these moments take you back to a point in time when you felt optimistic for the future but can likewise leave you feeling melancholy for the past.

It’s a powerful tool that has been used by designers, advertisers and marketers for years. Childhood throwbacks, historical moments, and even the seasons are packaged up and peddled back to us to sell happiness in the form of products or experiences. Before you know it, you’re you – but different – with the heady days of your youth once again laid out in front of you.

Our built environment can recreate these sentimental moments in time, leaving us suspended in an altogether different reality that can influence how we feel as we interact with the space around us.

It begs the question: what is the importance of nostalgia in architecture? And what if, rather than observe these moments, we could inhabit them?

I was inspired by this question when I came upon the newly completed TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, which is one of the strongest visual representations of nostalgia I’ve seen in years. It is a moment captured in time and framed for the present day yet still presents itself as a contemporary vision for a modern day audience, or in this case, passengers embarking on glamorous adventures.

Originally designed by Eero Saarinen, the winged structure at JFK first completed in the 1960s – the so-called ‘golden age of flying’ – and was known as the TWA Flight Centre, a terminal designed for Trans World Airlines. Sadly, by the 1990s the terminal was rendered unfit for purpose as the cost of flying became less cost prohibitive and passenger numbers increased as a result. Despite threats of demolition, common sense prevailed and by 1994 the building was officially landmarked and, in 2005, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Brought back to life by architects Beyer Blinder Bell and Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, the building has been converted into a new ‘first-class’ hotel for over 500 passengers and features a 10,000 sq ft observation deck. With its striking wing-shaped roof, expansive views, and an interior style that perfectly encapsulates the thrill of aviation travel in the 1960s, it’s hard to differentiate reality from the set of Catch Me If You Can or Mad Men, such is the nostalgic force it hits you with.

It is an intelligent and playful design that shows the power of nostalgia when preserving such iconic buildings, but also sentimental. When I think of passengers checking in to the TWA Hotel, I don’t imagine them waiting for the time to pass, I see them reliving moments and memories that make them happy or optimistic for life’s next big adventure.

Trends come and go but our familiarity with the past will never fade. Thankfully, the TWA Hotel has been preserved and restored so it won’t be lost to memory but will take us back to a simpler time where nostalgia truly is the destination.