Once glamorous gateways to freedom, airports have become zones of consumerist tedium and state terror – but the emotional intensity of the departure gate endures
Seen from above, there is something strangely zoomorphic, even endearing, about a massive airport, the terminal ringed by planes like a sow with piglets at her teats. The huddled jumbos, which we know to be so large, seem comparatively diminutive when nuzzling the building that feeds us to them through airborne corridors. Seen from within, the story is quite different: in fact it’s nothing less than hell on earth.
The experience of flight – one of the defining modern experiences – exploded the human sensorium. The view from the plane gave a new sense of our place in and over the world, which seeped into art, film and literature. It has since become more democratic and, as a consequence, both more mundane and more harrowing. Previously the preserve of a class designated by its familiarity with this mode of transport – the ‘jet set’ – it has become cheap enough to reshape the globe, in both positive and negative ways: we can now afford to pop to Alicante for the weekend, at the small price of a ruined planet.
Typology airport towers
At the same time, since the advent of budget air travel the airport has lost its glamour, becoming a processing plant for massed bodies. There were around 37 million flights last year, with about a million people in the air at any one time, and when they come back down to earth it is with a bump: Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta is the busiest in the world, with 100 million passengers in 2012. But despite the increasingly quotidian nature of flight, this concentration of anxious people lends the airport an extraordinarily high emotional pitch, captured at its most transcendent in Mark Wallinger’s 2000 video Threshold to the Kingdom, which showed travellers arriving at London City Airport to the sound of Allegri’s Miserere.
The following year, this intensity would be heightened yet further as airports became the front line of the paranoiac security state. ‘Enhanced measures’ have constipated the airport-machine ever since, necessitating extra room for huge queues and interrogation cubicles (in Stansted these have cute names like ‘sweet chestnut’). The right to privacy accorded in everyday life is rescinded as we plod shoeless towards the scanners, our intimate belongings displayed to the crowd in plastic bags and trays. If you’re not white, the airport is even more unpleasant, since you are immediately singled out as a target of the global security regime – especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from six majority-Muslim nations to the USA.
Partly in order to facilitate this situation, airports are non-places – liminal zones in the now-clichéd language of ethnography. More concretely speaking, they inhabit a legal Narnia, a fictional otherworld beyond (or between) the state that allows nations to suspend or at least bend the usual rules with regard to visitors. The latter are thereby transformed, however briefly, into liminal beings: unwelcome, automatically suspect, momentarily out of place. (Berlin’s Nazi-era airport Tempelhof has been repurposed as Germany’s biggest refugee camp, giving this airport state of statelessness a semi-permanence.)
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This liminality is weaponised in special examples of the type, such as military air bases used as ‘black-op sites’ in the war on terror; this global network inhabits the extraterritorial world of island air bases such as Diego Garcia, the British overseas territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean that was cleared of inhabitants in order to give the CIA free rein.
For users of commercial airports, the legal implications of liminality are veiled, becoming strangely familiar thanks to the proliferation of retail zones, non-denominational prayer rooms, food courts and bars. In larger airports, these facilities expand to include cinemas and art galleries. The contemporary airport is an experimental securitised space, an everyday high street replete with conveniences but drained of civil rights, from which one might be whisked away at any moment by grim-faced enforcement officers – a spatial state of exception that is being rolled out to encompass the entire city, which becomes pervasively liminal in turn.
These multiple and changing demands have produced a variety of airport spaces since the invention of mechanical flight. College Park in Maryland, which claims to be the world’s oldest continually operating airport, opened in 1909, but commercial flight didn’t really catch on until after the First World War, with its concomitant improvement in aeronautics and development of airfields. Both were quickly adapted for civilian use. Le Bourget outside Paris was one such; Croydon, to the south of London, followed in 1920. Its two-storey terminal building was the most advanced of the time; it was also the first to have a dedicated air-traffic control tower.
These early examples already demonstrate the essential and inherently contradictory elements of the type, although the relative importance of these has fluctuated over time: airside facilities for planes, landside facilities for passengers, and the most convenient and secure interface between the two. The buildings’ proximity – or otherwise – to metropolitan centres is another enduring problem.
Tempelhof was built in 1927, and was significantly expanded under the Nazis by Ernst Sagebiel, becoming the grandest airport of its time. It was also the first to be linked to an underground rail system. Although its sweeping, 1.2km semi-circular terminal reflected local topography, the form quickly caught on, and airports of varying degrees of circularity were built in as far-flung locations as Rio, Yerevan and Kansas. This last has three linked circular terminals orbiting a central circular hub, offering an elegant solution to the problem of airport expansion – a problem that defeated Tempelhof, which was closed in 2008 in anticipation of the still-unfinished Brandenburg Airport, perhaps the greatest white elephant of our time.
Elsewhere, airports attempted to summon the streamlined spirit of flight, with Moderne examples being built in Venice and Ramsgate during the 1920s. This tendency continued after the war in Saarinen’s fantastic TWA terminal, disdained by Pevsner as too demonstrative, the same architect’s swooping roof at Washington, and – the crowning glory of the mode – Pereira and Luckman’s 1961 Theme Building at LAX, the sole built component of a much grander scheme with a huge futuristic dome. The tradition has been briefly revived by Calatrava in Bilbao, but the true era of High Googie airports died with the golden age of flight.
‘Architects are still producing airports of impressive lucidity.’
A more enduring tradition of airport design is that pioneered by the High-Tech architects, whose late-Modernist constructions span the globe from Osaka to Hong Kong. These employ beautifully engineered roofs to create huge envelopes of unimpeded space, which can be naturally lit from above, while all the services are hidden below ground. The idea is that progress from landside to airside is as rapid as possible, but as in the initial example of this type – Foster’s elegant milk carton of a building at Stansted – the demands of commerce have trumped the best-laid plans. Today, Stansted is a labyrinth of ‘retail offer’ culminating in the bizarre spectacle of a pub constructed in the form of a semi-ruined windmill crashing through the roof. A better metaphor for modern Britain can scarcely be imagined, but things are even worse on the other side of the Atlantic, where airports are not publicly funded and depend entirely on the money they can raise from commercial rents. The result is a truth universally acknowledged: New York has three of the world’s worst airports, their miserable spatial qualities compounded by the increasingly vicious border regime.
But these are not necessary fates. Madrid-Barajas, for instance, is one of Richard Rogers’ greatest post-Beaubourg moments – not dissimilar, in fact, from that early triumph, which might better have functioned as an airport than a gallery. Its wavy wooden roof creates a spectacular interior of great transparency and warmth. And, as the case studies presented here demonstrate, architects are still producing airports of impressive lucidity. It is the most enduring Modernist type, never having fallen to the forces of atavism, still embodying a dream of technologised freedom from nature, no matter how bludgeoned its users are by commerce or how terrorised by the state.
Foster + Partners, Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan, 2012
Norman Foster’s design for Stansted, completed in 1991, introduced a new paradigm to the airport typology. The single-storey building pared back complexities to allow as rapid a progression as possible from the entrance to the plane, eliminating level changes and services (including baggage handling), which were hidden in the basement. Foster has continued to extend this type around the world ever since. Queen Alia International Airport in Amman introduces a new and seemingly counterintuitive element: concrete. While vast roofs had hitherto been the star of the show, with all the pyrotechnics of the architecture concentrated in displays of super-light engineering, the desert context indicated a different approach. The roof is composed of modular concrete domes, which allows for the expansion of the building with a potential to increase capacity from 3.5 million passengers per annum on opening to 12 million by 2030. The high thermal mass of concrete naturally absorbs heat during the day, and releases it at night, when the desert cools.
Queen alia international aiport by foster and partners
Queen alia international airport plan drawing by foster + partners
Safdie Architects, Jewel, Changi Airport, Singapore, 2018
The huge glass dome currently under construction at Changi Airport will provide 134,000m2 of retail, entertainment and dining space for both passengers and local residents, in an unusual attempt to knit the airport into the life of the city. Standing on a five-storey podium, the squashed spheroid has a dimple at its centre through which water cascades 40 metres into a lushly planted canyon. Moshe Safdie’s design realises the futuristic vision of Pereira and Luckman’s unbuilt dome for LAX, modified for an Asian context accustomed to mixed-use buildings – this one has parking on its two lower storeys, a common arrangement for towers in the city state.
Jewel in changi airport by safdie architects
Fuksas, Terminal 3, Bao’an Airport, Shenzhen, China, 2013
The Stansted type is extended into the symbolic dimension in Fuksas’s design for Shenzhen, cross-fertilising the unimpeded, translucent-roofed span with the TWA tradition of embodied flight. Here however, flight is symbolised by a plane-shaped plan rather than extravagant aerodynamic form, and passengers experience a rational progression through the building, with arrivals, departures and services separated into three separate levels. This is, however, somewhat complicated by the cruciform plan. The roof is a double-skinned tubular construction with the structural elements hidden between the skins, which are punctured by hexagonal apertures that allow natural light into the building.
Terminal 3 baoan airport in shenzhen, china by fuksas
Lead image: Pereira and Luckman’s unbuilt design for LAX.