Airport 94, The Australian, 1994.

Airport 94

Airports are the city gates of our time. As entrance to a place of arrival or gateway to the rest of the world at large, they dramatise the non-human scale of national and trans-national travel. Modern airports are like vast supermarket chains where the traveller becomes the product, packaged off to destinations that bear an astounding similarity to the original points of departure. For the first thirty minutes at least.

Small wonder that “today you don’t know whether you’re in a mall or an airport”, as Japanese architect Noriaki Okabe puts it. Together with France’s Renzo Piano (who was responsible with Richard Rogers for the construction of the well-known Centre Pompidou in Paris) he is approaching the final phases in the construction of the Kansai International airport in Osaka Bay, Japan.

Scheduled for completion later this year, the impressive-looking Kansai project was the first public building in Japan to be awarded by an international competition. The dramatic 1.7 km long terminal cuts an aerodynamic figure with its stainless steel and glass fabric. It is all the more striking for the fact that it sits atop a $5 billion artificial island that connects the middle of Osaka Bay to land via six lanes of highway and a bullet train. For the architects, it is a chance to respond to the blandness and uniformity of so many airports.

“This is not a depressing cathedral”, says Okabe. Judging from recent photographs he’s quite right. Like Helmut Jahn’s satellite buildings for Chicago’s O’Hare International, the “free-span” roof and “folded truss” steel superstructure define a spacious environment that is marked by an abundance of natural light. Even before its completion it is a Spielbergian monument embellished with the rhetoric of transition from the 20th to the 21st century.

Not that the passenger ever gets to see such monuments in their entirety. Unlike other structures of our built environment, the airport terminal is only ever glimpsed in fragments. Even from the air one never gets a complete picture. Once on the ground, the terminal disappears into a labyrinth of baggage claims, check-in counters, international pictograms and taxi queues.

Flow of movement rather than symbolism is the key design feature of any air passenger terminal. Unlike the grand cathedrals of light built for the railways in Europe at the turn of the last century, airports must solve an enormous number of complicated problems to do with traffic control, flow of personnel, passengers, visitors, luggage, ground transportation, customs and so on. Hence the form of the airport is particularly subservient to the function of highly regulated and efficient movement. The complex routine of the air traveller centres around negotiating mazes of long, glassed corridors and numbered gate-lounges that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In places like Los Angeles or Frankfurt, international airports are almost mini-cities, so vast and labyrinthine are their layouts. Making it from Gate 27 to 173 in time for the connecting flight stresses even the calmest and well-seasoned of air travellers. But if you end up missing the connection, all is not lost. You can always take a nap in one of the many leather lounges dispersed throughout the terminal, or you could even book into a room to sleep in for a few hours.

The connections between consumer anxiety and travel are far from trivial. Malls have become one of the most efficient and soothing (some would say mind-numbing) channellers of people through retail space. Shoppers are sated by an apparently endless display of goods lined up along a course of familiar windows, mirrors, display cases, and escalators . Air travellers are similarly subjected to a corporate “neutralisation of space”.

The heyday (if there is such a thing) of modern airport design saw the construction of such American monuments to tourism as New York’s JFK International Airport. Built from the 1940s through to the 1960s, this mammoth project employed the design talents of “superstar” architects such as Eero Saarinen, I.M.Pei, and the office of Skidmore, Owings and Merril. Charged with creating efficient, elegant spatial solutions to the complex problems of transit and circulation, these design teams worked with a modernist iconography of exposed concrete, glass and steel. Saarinen’s curvaceous TWA terminal now stands as something of a nostalgic, if still triumphant monument to this idea of distinctive architectural identity.

And yet despite all the attempts to make one airport different from the next, the fact is most are remarkably similar (with or without the “superstars”). As part of a system of multinational tourism, air terminals are standardised out of economic and “navigational” necessity. It is as if the anxiety traditionally associated with travel needs to reduced by appealing to universal norms of space, language and motion.

Maybe this is why airports are the perfect non-space of postmodernity that so many critics talk about. These are spaces emptied of the present and filled with an absent destination, all paid for in advance. One doesn’t end up at the airport, one merely passes through, perpetually en route.