Uptown at the Airport

For the Archtober blog of the Center for Architecture and Architects Newspaper, October 7, 2014.
“THE MEMORY of having a really appalling cup of coffee served to you by someone who woke up on the wrong side of the bed can really ruin your experience,” said Jeremy Brown. Service is the obsession of the senior design manager of Virgin Atlantic Customer Experience, who was leading the Archtober tour of the new Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK. Virgin and Slade Architecture have spared no expense and left no detail unattended to in the pursuit of creating a memorable experience.

Virgin’s clubhouses all intend to reflect their locations, so Slade focused on a mid-century notion of “Uptown” Manhattan. Far from Harlem, Slade was thinking of Mad Men-era opulence, and layered, inviting open spaces, with the Eero Saarinen TWA terminal visible across the tarmac.

The entrance is totally white, with only subtle variances in texture. Brown said he didn’t want to use “a sledgehammer of red to cover everything.” The “Upper Class” passengers, for whom the lounge is intended, are accustomed to subtly. The only red is the uniform of the Virgin “colleague”– their word for employee – at the front desk.

Framed by the entrance, the clubhouse’s central seating area beckons alluringly. Hayes Slade, AIA, explained that from the very first, experiencing the clubhouse must be intuitive. Working from the uptown metaphor, the clubhouse is organized around a “central park” space anchored by the bar, around which, Brown admitted, the experience of the clubhouse tends to revolve.

The unusual but cozy furniture, designed by Slade Architecture and fabricated by Situ Studios, is meant to evoke the landscape of the park, “comfortable but not what you’d have at home,” said Slade. A semi-transparent wall of walnut fins screens the space, their irregular heights meant to evoke the skyline around the park.

Leaving the central park space there are various sitting and dining areas, some intended for conversation and others for solitude and work. There is even a spa, complete with a massage table and showers. High-quality materials like solid wood, leather, and wool are used throughout – materials that, Brown said, affluent passenger would be used to living with.

Slade and Virgin agree that details matter. James Slade, AIA, LEED AP, said the intention was for “perception to engage the occupant.” The traveler who has a longer stay will notice details like custom-made Empire State and Chrysler Building wallpaper in the dining room, a hotdog cart and apple wallpaper in one private nook, and Park Avenue blueprints in the bathroom.

The experience is meant to be flawless, avoiding even one bad cup of coffee. “Service, and the memorable experience you can have in a beautiful place,” should be the only take-away, Brown explained.