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Terminal decline: building the international nexus

The romance and excitement formerly encapsulated in land, sea and air terminals has become homogenised, a ritual of anonymous processing, reverting to type and renouncing style and context

We know the score now, we enact it almost as if sleepwalking. Belts off, phones in the tray, laptops out, toiletries in a flimsy plastic bag and then on through the plastic X-ray arch. Every plane journey starts with this strange ritual. Once we have entered and scanned our tickets, our civil liberties disappear and we subject ourselves to indignities, suspicion, humiliation and the possibility of yet more intrusive searches and possible detention at every step. We become nervous, aware of the possibility of missing the plane, the location of the gate, afraid of being delayed or detained. And that is precisely the point, to transform travellers into docile units, bereft of solidarity. All airport planning is targeted at that docility, from the flow to the travelators, a moulding of passengers into units and then into customers.

It is something very different from the idea of travel which lasted a little more than a century roughly between the middle of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries. I recently visited the revitalised TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962. Now repurposed as a hotel lobby stranded in the middle of the airport it is a thing of absolute wonder. The expressive concrete curves evoke wings, the interior is a pure reflection of the embrace of the shell and the fittings, notably the information kiosk with its retro-futuristic curvaceous form are spectacular. It is also small. It was built for an era when air travel was an elite activity, a privilege. 

Termini-architectural-review-kings-cross-tracks

Termini-architectural-review-kings-cross-tracks

Source: Sean Sprague / Alamy

Before aeroplanes, the main form of distance travel had been by train, with stations like King’s Cross epitomising a grand entrance into the city

The airport’s predecessor was the grand railway terminus which appeared in the second half of the 19th century. They were an entirely new archetype and the main responsibility fell at first to engineers with architects called in to tart up the frontage. Their architecture was called upon to create a new national narrative, Neo-Gothic for St Pancras, Indo-Gothic colonial for Kolkata, National Romanticism for Helsinki, priapic Roman monumentalism for Milan and New York. There is a particularly British fetish for trains and stations and iron and glass which has guided this island’s architects towards an architectural culture which begins with the Crystal Palace, carries on through St Pancras and ends up somewhere around Stansted. Take King’s Cross Station designed by Lewis Cubitt in 1851, the same year as the Great Exhibition in Paxton’s great glasshouse. It is a paradigm of architecture parlante, an architecture of remarkable clarity.

At its centre, towering above it is a clock: time was suddenly the centre of everything with the arrival of mass transit. Before that, it had been a mainly local affair, but now it was nationalised, standardised, critical. Then there are two huge arches through which the trains are visible, on display to the city.  

Termini-architectural-review-pullman-palace-train-carriage

Termini-architectural-review-pullman-palace-train-carriage

The Pullman Palace railway carriages from 1893 featured ornate interiors with opulent swivel chairs, bevelled mirrors, and intricate brass trimmings

In the 20th century the station, ferry terminal and airport began to merge into a generic architecture of denuded big space with detail being provided by richly veined marble or waffle ceilings (see Euston) and, curiously, bus stations became, for a brief moment, a way of inserting modernity – usually via an expressive sculptural roof – into provincial towns. The Communist Bloc excelled in this kind of budget bus iconicity, the fag end of which has recently been celebrated in quirky photo albums, not least the juicily ‘Ostalgic’ Soviet Bus Stops.  

‘All airport planning is targeted at docility, a moulding of passengers into units and then into customers.’

The capacity for expression was rediscovered in the late 20th century by the big urban boosters. Whether it was Santiago Calatrava in Lisbon or Liège (his stations are currently underrated) or Foreign Office at Yokohama, transport was rediscovered as a space of potential urban identity rather than globalised banality. Calatrava has somehow survived as the totem of transport, popping up again at Ground Zero with the eccentric dinosaur skeleton of the PATH interchange.  

After a brief moment at the end of the 20th century (and the insane expense of Calatrava’s $4bn PATH station), the railways appear to have retreated into an architecture of engineering, not in the manner of the ambitious Victorians but rather in a sense that architecture is seen as a wasteful add on. The designs for HS2 which destroy the elegant, if overcrowded Euston complex, demonstrate how far we have fallen. This is infrastructure as an adjunct to development, with no real existence in its own right except as a Trojan Horse for investment from which private capital will profit. Similarly, the colossal sheds of Beijing’s airports or even Heathrow’s Terminal 5 are more of an agricultural concern, structures for containing and directing crowds as if they were cattle, keeping them docile and subdued, herding them towards the metal tube onto which they are processed as quickly as possible to keep turnarounds short.  

Termini-architectural-review-harry-gruyaert-charles-de-gaulle-long-distance

Termini-architectural-review-harry-gruyaert-charles-de-gaulle-long-distance

Source: Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos

Harry Gruyaert’s passenger at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, in Long-Distance Traveller, 2010

The legibility of the Victorian train station – a main concourse as civic piazza leading to the snaking lines of railway cars – is the good-willed inspiration for some airport architecture, whether at Foster’s Stansted or RSHP’s Barajas or Terminal 5. The idea that we are all under one great roof with the planes visible on the other side seems to have retained an almost sacred status. It is a realisation of the big shed fetish of the 1960s, the Bucky Fuller/Pompidou axis, the idea that a High-Tech superstructure could contain a malleable interior landscape of constantly changing objects. The clarity of the train station, perversely, has been muddied in the same way as the 21st-century airport: a colossal shed through which customers are funnelled through retail offers.  

In the late 20th century there was an idea that the airport, on the edge of the city, would generate its own context, a new aerotropolis which would become the contemporary agora, a genuinely cosmopolitan, high-tech meeting place for global citizens. It seemed almost possible for a time. When JG Ballard was asked to name his favourite building he chose Michael Manser’s Heathrow Hilton. ‘Sitting in its atrium’, he said in 2003, ‘one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being.’ Ballard admired precisely the generic anonymity of the architecture. Before him it was Paul Virilio who predicted the airport would become the pivot of a new, accelerated city and John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay codified the phenomenon in their breezily optimistic book of 2011 Aerotropolis

Termini-architectural-review-edward-hopper-compartment-c-car

Termini-architectural-review-edward-hopper-compartment-c-car

Source: Artepics / Alamy

Alone in transit: the eerie atmosphere depicted by Compartment C Car, 1938, by Edward Hopper is echoed in today’s news photographs of empty planes and closed airports – global travel in waiting as the Covid-19 pandemic paralyses the movement of populations

There is, of course, a very real and distinctly not utopian aerotropolis on the edge of every major city, an edgeland of warehouses, distribution sheds and food-packing factories and, in less economically developed countries, the huddled ad hoc, self-built housing of the poor who are condemned to live beneath the flight path because the land is less desirable. The airport is fake public space, more akin to Guy Debord’s city of spectacle in which everything is a simulacrum. It is a world in which the architecture embeds one realm of privilege for the served and another of insecurity, invisibility and instability for the servants. The airport is the ultimate gated city, fenced, patrolled, under surveillance, defined and separated out from everything around it. They have their own rules, customs areas and jurisdictions. There might be free ports and duty-frees, they operate outside the rules of the city and the nation, a global network of supra-national places.

‘There was an idea that the airport, on the edge of the city, would generate its own context, a new aerotropolis’

The railway termini, on the other hand, represented something very different to our airports. They were intensely public buildings and, even if glass-roofed, embedded in their respective cities with a solidity and civic presence that hadn’t been seen since the Romans. Just think of Grand Central or the much-lamented Penn Station, they were insanely, almost unreally grand, modelled on Roman ruins. Their solidity was a riposte to the transience of travel, anchoring the journey in the fabric of the city. 

The idea that airports are generic non-places, as suggested by Marc Augé in his book of that title, has become a kind of received wisdom. The mode of travel, the planes, trains and buses have largely homogenised. Apart from the profound probosces of the still-extraordinary Japanese bullet trains and the metallic gleam of the elephantine double-decked Amtrak monsters, most trains, like planes, are distinguishable from one another only through their condition. Their seats are the same, the toilets are the same, the tickets are bought in the same way. There is little sense in the leisure of travel, that the journey itself might be a pleasure, it is more a ritual of processing.

Termini-architectural-review-empty-coronavirus

Termini-architectural-review-empty-coronavirus

Source: Carl Court / Getty Images

Termini-architectural-review-de-chirico-anxious-journey

Termini-architectural-review-de-chirico-anxious-journey

Source: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

De Chirico’s The Anxious Journey (1913) poignantly foreshadows recent haunting scenes of empty termini and closed check-in desks

If the modes of travel have become globalised then it makes sense that the points of arrival and departure, the termini, should be equally disorienting, more linked to each other than to their contexts. ‘The “art” of architecture’, Koolhaas wrote, ‘is useless in Bigness.’ Airports are the ultimate in bigness, architectures that have more to do with other airports on the other side of the world than they do with their own surroundings. Perhaps the nature of globalisation has allowed us to be tricked into accepting homogeneity, and taking for granted that we can travel cheaply, flexibly and often. Once cities had triumphal arches and grand gateways to welcome visitors and to leave a lasting impression of

a metropolis as a place of permanence and power on their way out. Now we have a grey plastic X-ray arch, the CCTV panopticon, identikit stores, porno-scanners and total control which can make us behave in ways we are not even conscious of through an insidious architecture of suggestion and surveillance and an exit that leads through an ominously empty customs hall of stainless-steel examination tables and ceiling cameras. Air travel has gone from a luxury to being a necessity to being a pain. Its architecture and its furniture is meticulously designed to instill exactly the right paradoxical cocktail of function, fear, comfort, discomfort and ennui. Welcome to the global city of tomorrow.

Lead image: The TWA Center at JFK Airport, New York, by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962, exuded style and glamour, targeted at a travelling elite

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today