A reverie on airports and urbanism, first published in Next (Rizzoli, 2002), the catalog of the 8th Venice International Architecture Biennale.

Non-places are the real measure of our time; one that could be quantified — with the aid of a few conversations between area, volume and distance — by totaling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called ‘means of transport’ (aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extra-terrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself.

Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Verso, 1995


A BANK OF SCREENS, hanging like some advanced form of vine from black brackets. Here, usually, she would expect to find rows and rows of city names, in bit-mapped lettering — or, if at Schiphol, in elegant Frutiger typeface — and begin to scan, starting from wherever her eyes happened to alight on the alphabet, to find her destination. Looking to the right or to the left, up and across onto neighboring screens. At last spotting where she was going, she would feel a palpable wave of relief that it did after all, exist in this particular taxonomy of cities. Still leaving. Boarding Gate X. On Time.

Instead, she sees on these screens a montage of freeways, roads, underpasses; passages of light and shadow, confirmatory “Welcome To…” signs looming ahead, approaching, passed beneath. Miscellaneous road signs, billboards. The vertical punctuation of street lamps — some casting their orange halo by night, others more like a fringe of etiolated corn stalks along the edge. The adjacent screens seem to show the same journey, the same movie, just slightly out of phase. The landscapes are nearly identical — different but not so different. The non-committal color of concrete: retaining walls curling around in various arcs, bounding the view. The back ends of the vehicles in front. A silent movie seen through a taxi windscreen.

After a while, this syncopated ballet of forward motion gives way to more variety: on some screens, in the distance, a jagged artifact appears, indistinct but perceptibly urban form. Now and again, there’s a vertiginous turn on one or other screen and another kernel is yielded into view: a bud of city-hood, still far off and only potential. Then, gradually, they emerge, differentiated skylines, like so much packaged goods, shiny reflective glass towers that catch the light then drop into matte dullness as the road bends and the view-angle changes. The serrated horizon: evidence of a place, a destination. Each particular arrangement on the adjacent screens is like an array of trophies: an emblem, a logo in three dimensions.

There is the sense of moving towards, into the city, but the skyline somehow seems an entity unto itself, a freestanding artifact, like an arrangement of objects on a mantelpiece — the horizon. Something one could reach out and grasp. Gradually, imperceptibly, these urban tableaux take up more and more of each frame. More built form, less sky — the opposite of take-off, when one ascends into the atmosphere, climbs to another vantage and sees buildings recede into mere specks within a settlement pattern.

With every additional mile, the gap closes, and yet, asymptotically, the more each looming city fills the frame, the more its iconic form dissipates, breaks down into the dreary specifics of tunnel entrances and freeway off-ramps and above all, the cordon sanitaire of toll booths. To arrive, then, means to lose track of the skyline, relinquish its cardboard-cutout clarity, to be sucked into the grain of the city itself, succumb to its complexities. Zeno’s Paradox. The closer you get, the more it recedes.

• • •



People are basically in three kids of moods in airports, so Paul Mijksenaar tells us: all three are states of anxiety. There’s Departure: the anxiety of making it to the gate on time. There’s Arrivals: the anxiety of the baggage carousel — where’s my luggage? how the hell do I get out?

His firm, Bureau Mijksenaar, has designed the signage at Schiphol airport and at all three New York Port Authority airports: JFK, La Guardia, and Newark. He reports that a European traveler, when approached by a researcher, will typically stop and take time to answer a few questions, whereas the typical American traveler’s response is “Mind out of my way. Can’t you see I’m trying to get out of the fucking airport?

And then there’s Waiting Mode. Airports and railway stations are receptacles for time, laboratories for the coagulation of delay. Gelatinous, hanging heavy, irritable time, spent accommodating one’s body to the ergonomic strictures of chairs designed with the Average International Traveler in mind. Fixed rows of seats point you glumly outwards at the world through the glass windows, a world of busy vehicles, feeding each other with fuel, luggage, packaged meals. Sealed inside, you rehearse for the hours ahead to be spent sitting in other uniform seating, tightly packed facing forward.

• • •

At Kennedy’s TWA terminal, when I first travelled to the States in the late 1970s, some of the boarding gate seats had little coin-operated televisions attached to them, each a private theatre, a telescope onto a distant world, some other "elsewhere" than the one for which you were waiting to leave. “Anywhere! Just so it is out of this world,” as Baudelaire said. Those chairs have mostly gone, but the screens have grown and spawned: on seat backs in Economy, or retractable, emerging from the armrests in Business Class. And these days, almost nowhere in any airports can you a find a seat out of range of a full-sized television, burbling sports news or financial news or CNN.

Apart from casinos, with their constant gurgle of slots and the metallic waterfall of coins disgorged, and sports stadia, with the announcers and eruptions of crowd enthusiasm, there are few environments so saturated by sound — layers of sound — than airports. Refracted through the ambient din, through the underwater acoustic distortion of PA systems and the niceties of institutional speech, perfectly straightforward information turns comic: “Miss Harris, Miss Angela Harris, please make your way to the nearest white courtesy phone for a massage.” Then there is the threat, the one that passes through all ears despite the apparent specificity of its address, serving as a generalized warning to all who dally in Duty Free: “Passengers Cooley and Habibi, please go to Gate 67 where your plane is ready for immediate departure.” At the baggage claim a voice warns you to check the label on the suitcase you select, to verify ownership. Outside, another threatens removal of “unauthorized” vehicles. Throughout the interior, at regular intervals, a narcotized female Martian — you can practically hear the insincere smile — intones that “this airport offers a Smoke-Free Environment,” levying a pre-emptive moral penalty for illicit exhalations.

In Chicago, taking the neon-lit underpass from one United terminal to the other (designed by Helmut Jahn’s firm) one is lulled by the reverse Doppler effect of the voice repeating its hosannas about the looming end of the people-mover. “Please look down. The moving walkway is now ending.” Certain syllables emerge as dominant; the rest evaporates. “Walkway…walkway…Walk…Quack…Quack…” Ducks in a row, here we go.

There is a fear of silence in airports, or rather, there’s a premium to be paid to be removed from the assault of sounds, from the olfactory high-notes of fried fast food and that inexorable international airport odor: Eau de Transit Lounge. The sharp tang of industrial-formula bacterial cleansing agents used in the hands-free-sinks blends with the cinnamon aroma pumped out from the bakery concession, in a bid to recall Norman Rockwell-style home cooking, and with the stale air oozing from pressurized cabins down through the ‘fingers’.

• • •

Take away the airfares, hotel bills, bar tabs, steak dinners, rental cars, wrinkled suits, male bonding, female bonding, cold cuts, personalized coffee mugs, and what you’ve got is an MCI conference call.” 

Advertisement for MCI Forum conference calling service, 1991

At the dawn of this new millennium, America’s airports are more important than ever. No longer islands in the sky, they’re integral to, — and reflective of — the cities they serve. Forget about teleconferencing and emails. Without face-to-face contact, commerce doesn’t work, and relationships wither. It all comes apart.

The Airport Guide 2002, New York Times advertising supplement, June 4, 2002.

• • •

Disposal bin for prohibited items, at London Heathrow. Photo: Janet Abrams

Disposal bin for prohibited items, at London Heathrow. Photo: Janet Abrams

Post September 11th, a new element has appeared as a standard feature of airport information graphics, amidst the departure/arrivals boards, way-finding signage, airline liveries and franchisees’ logos: the diagram of Prohibited Carry On Items. A dozen or so implements are displayed, including scissors, tweezers, trimmers, hair picks, corkscrews, Swiss Army knives, and of course, the infamous box-cutters. Sometimes a barely decipherable, multi-generation photocopy, sometimes more elaborately laid out as a series of individually labeled snapshots, this graphic always reveals its improvised nature, its’ ‘after the horse has bolted’ aspect. Too late to avert the catastrophe, it represents a pathetic attempt to prevent a recurrence, a gesture meant to reassure that security has been stepped up. Something about it recalls the Sears catalogues of the late 19th Century, or a page from a botanical classification: a didactic display, the likes of which could just as easily appear in the window of a tobacconist or hardware store showing available merchandise. But here, in the airport, glued hastily to the side of a check in desk or freestanding next to the cordons preceding X-ray, it has a more sinister cast: personal effects as potential terrorist weapons, the secret lives of everyday artifacts.

A didactic vitrine, at London Heathrow Airport. Photo: Janet Abrams

A didactic vitrine, at London Heathrow Airport. Photo: Janet Abrams

* * *

The mobile phone and the airport: kith and kin. Being stranded in this Non-Place, as Marc Augé has eloquently defined it, propels a desperate desire to be in contact with someone — anyone — you actually know: a secretary, or one’s own voicemail box. Surrounded by thousands of strangers, released into post-identity check/pre-departure limbo, even a call from a telemarketer would be welcome. Hence the intense presence of personal communications, from mobile devices to pay phones (a dying species) to those banks of courtesy phones that have replaced, wherever possible, live humans, for the reservation of shuttle vans, rental cars, hotels and other means of escape.

Have you ever actually seen someone using those courtesy phones? Does anyone? At Dulles Airport — Saarinen’s swooping bird — white handsets are perched at the ready on a wall-length battery of canted information stations just before the exits, which must have looked futuristic when first installed, almost like a row of confessionals. Lured by their grand but lonely abandonment, I try one out and come away with a bus-ticket scroll of data about local pizza restaurants and ground transportation I have absolutely no intention of patronizing. With computer screens inset at an angle and a rounded ‘bumper’, they are just like console slot machines. All that’s missing are the fixed, one-legged chairs. (In Las Vegas airport, the slots are real: the melancholy of departure can be dissipated by gambling more money away, right up to the gate.)

* * *

Does airport architecture really matter? Can a specific building really differentiate among nodes on a global service route-map? Are these epic vessels any more than switching stations, sheds of the processing of vast numbers of voluntary migrants/refugees? Can architecture alleviate the sameness of the contemporary air travel experience, with its formulated speech, culinary deprivations and class distinctions inscribed in hierarchies of waiting areas [and today, in the complex ritual of boarding priority lanes]. The variety of forthcoming airports showcased in this section of the Biennale surely testifies to innovation in this building type. Yet so much besides the physical envelope of the airport conspires to provide travelers with their experience of this archetypal (non-) place: generic sounds, smells, signage and luminous back-lit advertising.

By now, we know by heart the Stations of the Cross in both directions, the sequence of operations and examinations to which we must submit in any airport; the hardware that enables smooth running – on the landside, at least. The queue control cords and stanchions, the X-ray archways [and now: Arms-in--the-Air X-ray cylinders], plastic buckets for laptops and mobile phones, imbricated metal baggage carousels, recalcitrant baggage carts. Each iconic airport tries to serve as a quasi-autonomous city, umbilically attached to the Real City (wherever your final destination may be).

But this seems to indicate nothing more radical than the persistence of a triumphalist 19th Century urban typology. Distributed around the world, rather than assembled on a designated plot in a given city, and intended to represent the might and technical bravado of their respective nations, contemporary airports are really just far-flung pavilions at a global World’s Fair.

• • •

It was night, it was another arrival at another airport, in another city. For the first time in his life, he felt he’d had enough of travelling. All cities were as one to him.

Wim Wenders, “Reverse Angle,” 1982, in The Logic of Images, Faber, 1988.