A project by Janet Abrams

In The Unlikely Event (ITUE) takes as its point of departure an icon of contemporary architecture — the International Airport — revealing it as a significant species of monumental urbanism, perhaps the archetypal City State of our time. This website focuses on the large scale ceramic installation that I made in 2013, which brings together 30 examples of this typology so that their forms can be compared at a glance. The airports are all built to the same scale, and shown aligned to True North, with their component terminals correctly spaced.

In The Unlikely Event,  view during its US debut at  form + concept  gallery, Santa Fe, May 27 2016

In The Unlikely Event, view during its US debut at form + concept gallery, Santa Fe, May 27 2016

ITUE is the second project in my series entitled "A Natural History of Technology," which explores the formal evolution of man-made artifacts as if they were specimens from nature. All airports ostensibly serve the same function — to move people from Point A to Point B across the surface of the earth — but this building-type exhibits great formal diversity, in terms of individual terminals and their arrangement into large complexes.

Struck by this range, I decided to make an installation of ceramic bas-reliefs of the World's Top 30 busiest International Airports, measured by passenger traffic. Using the most recent statistics available, drawn from the Airports Council International, I hand-built them in terra cotta during a three-month Artist Residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre in The Netherlands, from July to September 2013.

Initially, I envisaged making the terminal plans by creating CNC-cut Styrofoam press molds from computer renderings of their outlines. But, preferring to get my hands into clay rather than clicking on a keyboard, I ditched the digital approach in favor of manually tracing the 30 busiest airports from Google Maps satellite images. The airports were projected one by one onto a wall, adjusting the focal length to bring them all to the same scale.  Applying pinches of clay to these plan tracings, I gradually built up bas reliefs that retain the essential outline of each airport terminal complex, while eliminating parking structures and roadways.

Hand made out of yellow mud ("peanut butter texture" as a fellow EKWC resident aptly noted), the airports are finished with a coat of terra sigillata that allows my finger-marks to remain visible, rather than obscuring them under a glaze. The resulting forms look like strange plants, hieroglyphs from a forgotten language, or gigantic logos. Abstracted from their hi-tech provenance, people guess them to be many things — often they are assumed to be organic or neolithic specimens rather than miniatures of vast man-made artifacts.

The rank order of the Top 30 airports has shuffled significantly since ITUE was made, as cities/countries vie with each other to accommodate ever-increasing global commercial and passenger transportation. Major new airport buildings are under construction around the world, especially in emerging markets. Some of these will augment or entirely replace the terminals represented in ITUE in its first edition. I plan to develop this project to encompass new terminals that are being added to existing airports, and the new structures currently under construction that will supersede the airports shown here. I'm also exploring production of these forms in other materials besides clay, and at other scales.

The first ceramic edition of ITUE is available for purchase as an complete set. But custom versions of the individual airports may also be commissioned, as well as airports not included in this grouping. Please contact form & concept gallery if you are interested in commissioning a custom edition of a specific airport complex.