A Cultural History of the World's
Most Revolutionary Structure
By Alastair Gordon. Metropolitan. 305 pp. $27.50
Airports have been with us for less than a century, yet in that relatively brief period they have undergone a startling and wholesale metamorphosis. What was once the starting point for journeys that promised romance, excitement and the unknown is now, as Alastair Gordon aptly describes it, a place of "jaded realism, apathy, and paranoia." Paris tells the tale. The Le Bourget, where Charles Lindbergh ended his epic flight in 1927 -- "The grounds were neatly landscaped, with gravel walkways and lines of pollarded trees; it all looked more like a corner of the Tuilleries Gardens than an airport" -- has given way to Charles de Gaulle, a chilly, chaotic, almost unimaginably hideous mausoleum that a friend of mine calls, perhaps flatteringly, a "Third World airport."
To describe the airport, as Gordon does in his subtitle, as "the world's most revolutionary structure" is perhaps a tad hyperbolic -- what about the post-and-beam house or the skyscraper? -- but there can be no doubt that it is an essential part of the modern world or that its influence extends far beyond its own territory. As Gordon says: "The airport is at once a place, a system, a cultural artifact that brings us face-to-face with the advantages as well as the frustrations of modernity. The sprawling, hybrid nature of the subject challenges easy assumptions. Its history has been a recurrent cycle of anticipation and disappointment, success and failure, innovation and obsolescence."
Gordon takes his title from the architect Le Corbusier, high priest of the Bauhaus school, who declared in the 1930s that "the beauty of an airport is in the splendor of wide open spaces!" He believed, in Gordon's words, that "nothing could compete with the [airplane] itself, and thus the only appropriate architecture was one that was practically invisible: just 'sky, grass, and concrete runways.' " In brief, a la Le Corbusier: "An airport should be naked."
Some visionary he was. The typical airport of the early 21st century is about as naked as a fully provisioned American combat soldier. Dating back to the 1950s, as jets began to replace propeller airplanes and then as jets got bigger and bigger, and as the democratization of flight brought ever-larger crowds into airports, people who designed terminals stopped trying to make them monumental, in the pattern of railroad stations, and treated them as purely functional. They were built 10 or more miles outside the cities they served, and they turned into cities themselves:
"Airports of the 1960s offered urban planners a new template for the modern city -- one that would resolve the problem of the old city center by ignoring it altogether. Gigantic new complexes were built expressly to accommodate jet travel. They were no longer like cities, but were real, self-contained urban nodes, servicing millions of passengers a year and hiring thousands of employees. By the mid-1960s, Idlewild/Kennedy was providing employment for over nineteen thousand people earning collectively over $150 million a year. Jet-age airports would have their own police and fire departments, power plants, fuel dumps, dentists, doctors, hotels, conference centers, and, in some cases, theaters, nightclubs, and churches."
The contrast to the airport of the 1920s and 1930s is startling. Not merely were the original airports small, close to the cities they served and lightly populated, but they had real character. Gordon quotes a passage from Graham Greene's novel England Made Me (1935) about the airports of Europe: "Shabby Le Bourget; the great scarlet rectangle of the Tempelhof as one came in from London in the dark, the head lamp lighting up the asphalt way; the white sand blowing up around the shed at Tallin; Riga, where the Berlin to Leningrad plane came down and bright pink mineral waters were sold in a tin-roofed shed; the huge aerodrome at Moscow with machines parked half a dozen deep, the pilots taxiing casually here and there, trying to find room, bouncing back and forth, beckoned by one official with his cap askew. It was a comfortable, dull way of traveling."
Now it's merely dull; nothing about it -- nothing at all, from the long lines at security to the minuscule legroom aboard the plane itself -- can be described as comfortable. Gordon dates the change to Nazi Germany and World War II. The former built Tempelhof, which "signaled the beginning of a new phase in airport history. 'The dethroning of the individual is the most essential principle of our now victoriously conquering movement,' said propaganda minister Goebbels, and the Reich's airport was an architectonic reflection of this mob philosophy. The message was assimilation and control." As, of course, it is to this day, thanks as well to the war, when "travel took on a new sense of urgency in a world where international tensions mounted, treaties were broken, and disputed territories were annexed by force."
Then in the 1970s, "as aerial hijackings became more common," security was ratcheted up (though not enough to forestall the calamity of Sept. 11), and the "architectural style of the day became, as one critic described it, a 'beefy concrete idiom,' fashioned by security codes and characterized by slabs of cast concrete, massive roofs, and roughly finished surfaces. . . . Antiterrorist measures turned the airport into an electronically controlled environment rivaled only by the maximum security prison." In "the arcane parlance of the day, the airport was referred to as the Passenger Processing System." Perhaps by now the parlance has changed, but the processing system has only gotten worse -- more mechanical, more intrusive, more contemptuous of all those who must pass through it.
This is dictated far more by cold reality than by airport architects and operators, though doubtless these could make airports more inviting and less brutal without jeopardizing security. The new Reagan National Airport (which for some reason Gordon does not mention, though he does mention its predecessor, Washington National) manages to do this rather well, but then it is used by comparatively small planes, has few cross-country nonstop flights and no transoceanic flights at all. For a more faithful representation of the contemporary airport, the curious Washington-area resident must venture to Dulles, where Eero Saarinen's wonderful original design is barely visible among all the Jersey barriers and parking lots, or to Baltimore-Washington International (BWI), which years ago made a mockery of its original name, Friendship.
Though blame for all this is reflexively fixed on the terrorists, the larger truth is that it's a condition of the modern world. People by the millions have to travel on business or want to travel for pleasure, and they have to be -- what other word will do? -- processed. Unless you have the wherewithal to travel first or business class, unless you belong to one of those "clubs" with which airlines reward their most frequent fliers, you have little choice except to place yourself in the hands of a processing system that is rude, dehumanizing, inefficient and exhausting. One April morning this year, my wife and I were on our feet for two and a half hours at the odious Charles de Gaulle, struggling through one security stop after another, not having the chance to sit down until we were shoehorned into the plane itself.
The price of going to Paris (or any other place you'd like to be) is measured now not in dollars but in fatigue and humiliation. The modern airport is a dreadful place in virtually every respect, and the one certainty is that it will only get worse. Gordon, who obviously likes airports despite themselves, ends his interesting, informative book on an upbeat note, but it's unlikely that he'd find agreement among any but the most privileged of travelers. The modern airport is the Tenth Circle of Hell. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.