Ross Harley and Gillian Fuller, “Airports”, in Mike Crang (ed), Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, Sage, London, [in press] 2007.


Airports are important transportation and communication nodes that have played a crucial role in reorganizing the time-space of modernity and urbanity. The first airports evolved in the early decades of the twentieth century as air transportation (mainly in the form of postal services and later passenger services) became integrated into national economies and urban planning. The onset of globalization and the ‘network age’ has seen their significance proliferate in many ways: in the rising rates of airport construction and upgrades; in the increasing contact that people have with airports in their daily lives as air passengers; and in the rise of the airport as a site for the dual spectacles of security and consumption. Airports demonstrate a new mode of urbanity organized around networked organization that is both dispersed and convergent. In many ways, airports are cities in themselves. They are transport hubs that house shopping malls, convention centres, entertainment quarters, restaurants and an array of national and international institutions and companies. Airports are also nodes of dispersed cities: each airport forms part of a global network that is essential to infrastructure and design. Dispersed throughout geographic space and interconnected by sophisticated systems of communication, control and synchronization, airports are essential hubs in the global organization of movement.

The Birth of the Aerodrome

The first structures built for air travel were largely produced in an ad-hoc and unplanned manner. Fields that were operating as landing strips built temporary sheds to store and service planes and later to shelter passengers. Records indicate that operational airports existed as far back as 1909. Most of these early aerodromes were rudimentary, often a convenient repurposing of local athletic fields, parks and golf courses. Some of these air strips were upgraded into regional airports and private landing fields, others were expanded into the modern terminals of Newark, Orly and Sydney (some of the oldest airports in the world). The early years of flight were restricted to the adventurous and the elite. Unreliable aircraft generated real anxieties for a potential public up until the 1960s. Flying was uncomfortable, noisy, turbulent and expensive. Small propeller planes flew at low bumpy altitudes, stopping frequently to refuel. Unlike today’s jets, early planes were much more reliant on favourable wind conditions in order to take-off and land, and early airport design was dominated by the positioning of runways. Up until the post war period, there was no one discernible template for airport design. Airports resembled other large institutional structures of their period and place, such as trains stations, factories, and military sheds.

Runways, passenger terminals and communication networks were constructed with little concern for logistical interconnection or future development. For this reason the growth of complex urban infrastructure around the early aerodromes quickly outstripped their original usage, and surrounding hinterland became annexed as part of the growing regime of the airport. Many cities whose major airport grew out of the early aerodromes soon found their physical capacity for expansion severely limited by the growth of sub- and ex-urban developments. This (coupled with a growing need for local, state and national government regulation) led to a number of crises that culminated in radical planning proposals to solve the problems of airports in the immediate postwar period.

The modern airport evolved out of the converging operations of commercial, governmental, military and private interests. In the US, civil aviation began with a government-run air-mail service, which accounted for the vast majority of civil aviation until 1925. As air-mail traffic increased, federal authorities began to divest themselves of the costly activity of aviation and its associated infrastructure and began to encourage private interests. The Kelly Act of 1925 awarded all the mail services associated with the profitable New York-Chicago-San Francisco route to private contractors. Passenger services were initially dependent on government policies that linked profitable mail contracts to the less profitable cargo of human passengers. Passenger services have always been one of the least stable sectors of aviation and remain secondary to military aviation in terms of profitability as well as research and development. Civil aviation, like telecommunications, has had vigorous competition on the profitable main routes, and airlines have had national obligations to service less-profitable regional routes.


As aircraft design and flight times improved, air travel became desirable and potentially profitable. In the post WWII years, urban planners and architects began envisaging a future in which air travel would facilitate new business opportunities on an international scale. Various design styles for both terminals and airports were trialled during this period. Large hall structures, satellite designs and terminals encircling ring roads were all tried, each attempting to resolve logistical issues of getting passenger to terminal to plane, and plane to terminal to runway as seamlessly as possible. Representative airports of this period are: Paris-Orly (1932), New York’s Idlewild Airport (1948, later renamed in John F Kennedy International in December, 1963), and Berlin’s Templhof (1923).

In the early 1960s, 70 per cent of the population of North America (the most frequent flying nation in the world) had never taken a commercial flight. When jet travel went commercial in the late 50s, flying became more popular and many terminals became obselete. Airports had to be re-engineered to accommodate the bigger planes and the higher throughput of passengers. Speed overtook them.

The Rise of Jet Age
The introduction of jet aircraft such as the Boeing 707 provided a major boost to the flagging civil aviation industry. Faster, quieter, more comfortable and able to fly longer without refuelling, jets began to make passenger services financially viable. The first full jet services in the early 1960s spawned a new popular vision of aviation as accessible to the ‘common man’ flight itself had become a commodity.
Jet Age airports staged this popular vision by way of their architecture, entwining capitalism and glamour in order to invoke a particularly optimistic vision of the future. Their individualistic shapes and vaulting interiors helped to sell and promote the idea that anyone could access the limitless horizons that had previously been the provenance of the rich and powerful. The age of the Jet Set popularised the practice of global travel and put it up for sale as a piece of the future, as part of progress.
Representative airports of this period are Saarinan’s TWA building at New York’s JFK (a new concept for airport design based on the a circular loop road and a series of individual terminal buildings located around the perimeter of the road) and his famous design for Washington’s Dulles Airport in 1963. Paul Andreu’s circular terminal surrounded by seven satellite buildings at Paris Charles De Gaul is another important benchmark in terminal design, completed in 1974.

The Global Shopping Mall
As traffic increased so did the complexity of corporate, individualist and nationalist forces that materially and symbolically shaped the airport’s technical design. A runway must be so long and so wide, and a departure gate must be able to accommodate a series of different model planes. The variety of inter-nationalist protocols, immigration, flight path routing, safety standards, corporate ‘customer focus’, airside management, signage systems, landside access and flow management converge and create architectures of global logistics. Higher rates of traffic flow demanded larger structures as well as providing for multiple streams of income (ie parking, retail space, convention and communications facilities), as well as income directly related to the servicing of planes and passengers. Architecturally speaking, airport terminal begin to resemble gigantice glass tubes, sometimes referred to as “groundscapers”. Many of these
huge terminals needed to be located away from city centres on purpose built islands (eg Kansai, Japan and Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong).

Airports and globalization

The growth in world air travel relates directly to major developments in globalization, and is an essential part of the process of modernization that continues to advance (apparently unhindered by diminishing natural resources and associated problems of environmental degradation) across the first world and increasingly in so-called “developing” countries (Asia in particular). The huge amount of corresponding infrastructure required to manage the rapid movement of goods and people across large distances has led to innovations in the practice, procedure and construction of airports and their related facilities. Many international airport terminals are built by well known architects such as Norman Foster, Paul Andreu and Helmut Hahn, and are spectacular displays of a nation’s ability to participate in the global economy. The vast amount of natural and human resources consumed in the process of automating movement has not been without controversy, and many local pressure groups have arisen around airports to organize political resistance to the unchecked consumption of land, the massive contribution to carbon emissions, and the intrusion of jet noise pollution into residential areas surrounding airports. In this sense, airports provide “early warning” signals or “laboratory conditions” for the positive and negative effects global networks and info-flows have upon everyday life. This is particularly evident in the post-911 context, which has seen the intensification of data profiling, biometrics, and other intrusive security measures trialled and tested throughout many international air terminals in the name of passenger safety and risk management. Airports have always been leaders in the introduction of novel technologies (for instance, airports were the first to utilize networked computer systems to manage realtime bookings of national and international flights), and so it is important to consider the different ways in which information and logistical systems have been implemented at the airport over the past century.

For many scholars, the airport is the site par excellence where these multiple networks (human and non-human, global and local) interact. The airport is one of the most significant sites of human-machine interaction in contemporary life. In such a context, social scientists and cultural historians have taken a new set of concerns into account when considering the human and cultural factors at play in everyday networks. For instance, the ability of digital technologies to duplicate, distribute and manipulate data has enabled networks to converge in an unprecedented fashion. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ networks (like technical infrastructure, code and information flows) can no longer be considered as discrete and separate.

In this sense, the word “terminal” itself is actually a misnomer: the airport is only a terminus with regard to ground or air transportation. For the passenger, it is an interface that mediates between land and air, point of departure and destination, experience and systems of language. From our perspective, it is therefore useful to consider the constant development and construction programs surrounding many terminals in terms of communication. Like the contemporary computer hardware/software ensemble, airport terminals are in a state of constant upgrade. They are forever increasing capacity, and redirecting flows. The airport terminal positions human and technological factors into a complex dynamic system that requires a constantly changing interface.

However, the world of transit doesn’t operate at the same velocity, or in the same modes in every place. For instance, The United States of America is, by far, the number one nation in terms of total-tonne-kilometres and passenger-kilometres. Of the 1.615 billion passengers moved in global civilian airspace in 2001, 36 per cent were carried on US badged airlines. Of the top 25 airports in the world in terms of passenger throughput, 17 are located in the US.

Network architectures
The network of international airports demonstrates the extent to which the traffic of digital information, people and things depends on high-speed logistical systems and cybernetic techniques of control. In the context of post-industrial society, airports constitute a central component of the global “city of bits”.
Modern airports like cyber-spatial networks are designed according to a logic of procedures, exchanges and traffic-flows. Airports are first and foremost cultural nodes in a new form of global architecture based on networks. Like cyberspatial networks, airports defy traditional geography, and their architectures privilege connection, movement and transience: they are highly procedural and operate across global and local institutions. However, there is still little written on the significance of airport design and critical infrastructure in broader cultural terms. In this context, it is often argued that concepts such as ‘cyber’ networks and ‘material’ networks are no longer usefully considered in isolation and must be analysed as integrated circuits of flow, control and supply.

If, in a world of constant mobility, information and architecture merge, then bodies and their relations to space change quite significantly. All modes of movement are increasingly subject to the same regimes of verification and control. At the airport a complex series of discreet procedures, such as passenger and baggage processing by both airline and government agencies, the turnaround of planes on the tarmac, the management of ground and air traffic are perfectly synchronized. Such precision enabled by digital networks and surveillance and tracking may be quite common in modern logistics companies which can operate on some levels as ‘closed systems’”” operating within one purpose-built informational network which provides an integrated infrastructure across all operations. Such seamless integration is not possible at the airport where there is no one system that manages and controls operations. The airport must remain for its own economic survival an open system. It necessarily needs to find ways to continually absorb new networks and their associated viral contaminations, such as monitoring people’s temperature during a SARS outbreak or adapting to procedural changes stemming from the United States’ Patriot Act.
Airports are extremely sensitive to global cultural and technological developments. They are constantly upgrading, adapting for bigger planes, more traffic, increased security measures and for the frequent flying population, for whom perpetual transit is becoming a way of life. In many ways, analysing the interactions of humans and various network processes at the airport is a way of watching humans use networks from within the network itself. We argue that how a body can move has become crucial in understanding contemporary mediation. The constant movement of people and things across multiple networks means that navigation and synchronization have become key media concepts in the information age.

Networks are not merely technical, they are also political. The growing integration of digital/networked information systems into the planning and infrastructure of almost all contemporary systems is reordering the social landscape of everyday life. Along with key thinkers in architecture (Lynne, Koolhaas, et al), digital media (Mitchell, Kittler, Hansen,) and philosophy (Deleuze and Guattari, Massumi, Murphie) many social scientists argue that the separation between ‘bits and bytes’, and ‘hard and soft’ is over. Increased global connection and mobility is having a series of effects on systems of mediation and communication, and on how humans/computers and humans/institutions interact.

Contemporary airports are a central part of the ubiquitous global networks that constitute contemporary spaces of flows (cf Castells). Spaces designed to facilitate movement (such as airports, information networks, highways and ports) are becoming crucial sites of political and technological activity as global flows of information, people and things intensify.

The history of airports is therefore also a telling snap-shot of how technocultural innovations (like cars or planes) and economic/political contingencies (like two world wars and the rise of liberal capitalism )can quite literally rewrite cultural landscapes. The airport is an immanent system constantly overcoming its own limitations, branching into new dimensions,making new connections.

Fuller + Harley

[i] Cited in Lewis William D (2000) Airlines Executives and Federal Regulation; case studies in American enterprise from the airmail era to the dawn of the jet age, Columbus: Ohio State University Press p 34

Further Readings and References

Augé, Marc (1995) Non-places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, J. Howe (trans), London:Verso.

Castells Manuel, (1998), The rise of the network society Oxford: Blackwell.
Edwards, Brian (1998) The Modern Terminal : New Approaches To Airport Architecture, London: E. & F.N. Spon.

Fuller, Gillian and Harley, Ross (2004), Aviopolis: A Book About Airports, London: Black Dog Publishing.

Gordon, Alastair, (2004) Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s most revolutionary Structure, London: Metropolitan.

Iyer, Pico, (2000), The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, New York: Vintage Books.

Koolhaas, Rem (et al) (2001) Mutations: Harvard Project on the City, Barcelona: Actar.

Pascoe, David (2001) Airspaces, London, Reaktion Books.

Pearman, Hugh, (2004) Airports: A Century of Architecture, London: Harry N. Abrams.

Rossler, Martha (1998), In the Place of the Public: Observatoins of a Frequent Flyer, Frankfurt: Cantz Verlag.