Over the winter I had one of those phone calls that every academic dreams about. A genuine Hollywood producer had some questions, and I was one of the few people in the world who could answer them. Did I have a few minutes?
I’d sort of hoped they’d fly me out for a consult, but we managed to get through his questions over the phone pretty easily. He was working on the new TV series Pan Am, and was looking for information on the terminal at JFK airport. That building played a central role in my Master’s thesis, on international airport design, and I excavated some of that research for a paper that appeared in Design Issues in early 2005.
That paper focused on the role the building played in the aesthetics of the jet age–vaporous, sublime interiors that went beyond mere function and provided something of an atmosphere for travelers in the early 1960s. The glass waiting area and the suspended concrete parasol of the original Pan Am terminal at Idlewild (later Kennedy) airport was maybe the clearest example of the clean lines and light construction that marked jet-age architecture. It went hand-in-hand with aircraft interiors and corporate branding programs that also emphasized cool style. Life magazine went so far as to stage a fashion shoot in and around the terminal in 1961.
While the paper went on to show how much changed in five years–the terminal was converted into a far less atmospheric labyrinth of services and circulation for Pan Am’s new 747s in 1968–the show’s producers were interested in its early years, and rightly so. Pan Am premiered earlier tonight, and I have to say they got a lot of things right–the opening sequence in the terminal was an uncanny reconstruction using CGI of one of the early 1960s’ iconic spaces–one that’s still there but buried under a crust of later circulatory and security editions. A picky historian would have noted that there were also some things that weren’t quite accurate. The jet bridges, for instance, were designed like ship catwalks, and the show made them seem much more permanent. But they captured the jet age elan quite well, and I’d like to think that a relatively obscure paper and some off-the-cuff advice helped out a little bit.
Now, if NBC wants to do a miniseries on Daniel Burnham’s office, I’m willing to consult, too. For a cut, or at least a trip to L.A.