[Archive Home][Date Prev][Date Next][Index]
"Book Review: Naked Airport - A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure"
Sunday, September 5, 2004
Book Review: Naked Airport - A Cultural History of the World's Most
Revolutionary Structure By Alastair Gordon
Futuristic designs give way to grim realities
Reviewed by Michael Roth
The San Francisco (CA) Chronicle
Did you travel by plane this summer? If you did, you probably have an awful
airport story to tell. Mine occurred in the once-fancy Roissy Charles de
Gaulle Airport outside of Paris, where nobody from Air France would provide
information about a connection (Regardez la telé!), and where the recent
terminal building collapse seemed to play havoc with signage and traffic
We all have awful airport stories to tell, don't we? With "Naked Airport, "
Alastair Gordon explains why, as he also recalls a very brief moment when
airports seemed to promise a better kind of public space. In the early
1900s, airplanes would land on grassy fields, often former sporting arenas
refitted for the new flying machines. In the second decade of the century,
the idea of air travel began to capture the imagination of writers, artists
and architects, and some dreamed that airports were crucial to the city of
the future. In 1919, the London-Paris route opened for regular travel; one
way, 21 pounds. American dreamers were given a shot of adrenaline by Charles
Lindbergh, who returned from his transatlantic flight in 1927 to help
American aviation catch up with Europe. He preached the gospel of air travel
and urged cities to connect with one another. Within two years, there were
more than 60 passenger lines operating in the United States.
Gordon, an architecture and design critic, tells his story well, bringing to
life some of the main characters and highlighting some of the important
issues concerning urbanism and airports. Juan Trippe was 26 when he took
over Pan American Airways, and he would lead the company for decades. He
moved Pan Am into Cuba, the Caribbean and on to South America. If there were
no airports for his planes, he built them. If the government didn't want an
airport dominated by a U.S. company, he changed the government. Gunboat
diplomacy morphed into airline diplomacy, and American companies, Pan Am
first among them, got their way.
In the first half of the 20th century, airport designers had to keep in mind
a sobering fact: People were (with good reason) afraid to fly. Architects
designed airports to be places of repose, or at least of security. Terminals
might provide a dramatic destination point, but they should also convey an
easy transition to a smooth flight. Some adventurous modernist architects
wanted more (sometimes, by building less). For them the airport was to be a
revolutionary structure unbound by architectural tradition and historical
context. Le Corbusier provided Gordon with his title when he said airports
should be naked, by which he meant that they should be all-but-invisible
thresholds to flight itself.
For the modernists, airports reinforced the idea that cities should be about
speed, about never being grounded or anchored to one place. On this topic of
architecture, velocity and media, Mitchell Schwarzer's recent "Zoomscape:
Architecture in Motion and Media" is an excellent, wide-ranging complement
to Gordon's focused story. Despite the modernists' best intentions, there
was no way that airports were going to stay naked. There was just too much
money to be made and political points to be scored in dressing them up.
Germany invested heavily in air travel, and for Hitler, a Berlin airport was
to be one of the most important symbols of Nazi power. The Tempelhof air
center was gigantic yet efficient, creating the conditions for mass
spectacle. (Sixty thousand spectators could fit on its observation deck.)
Throughout the 1930s, U.S. cities competed with one another for air routes
that served businessmen, vacationers and the great cash cow, the U.S. mail.
Newark Airport was the nation's busiest until Fiorello LaGuardia built the
airfield that still bears his name. After World War II, plans for major air
centers sprang up around the country, and they served a diversity of
architectural ideals. But they had one thing in common: They were out of
date by the time they opened. In what now looks like a full-employment
program for architects and contractors, airports had to be constantly
refitted for new plans, new shops and -- almost always -- more and more
For Gordon, the high point for airports was brief, between 1958 and 1963.
Air travel was cool but safe, still out of the ordinary but much more
accessible. Idlewild Airport (later renamed Kennedy) opened one fantastic
terminal after another, culminating in Eero Saarinen's TWA building, an
acrobatic jet age monument. Pilots were handsome, stewardesses were sexy,
and San Francisco even had a raucous nightclub at SFO. "Come fly with me,
let's fly, let's fly away," Sinatra sang in 1958. That was the time to take
the trip, because it's been all downhill since then.
Gordon tells the tale of the slide from hip architectural adventure to mass
mediocrity and worse. As millions flood the airports, we are treated more as
a homogenized mass, as units to be squeezed dry of cash and moved along. By
the 1970s, the airport became the stage for hijacking, terror and murder,
which in turn led designers to create the "fortress airport" to make us feel
less anxious. At that point the "naked airport" wasn't a modernist dream but
instead the nightmare of being strip-searched. Rather than fulfilling its
promise as a "revolutionary structure," the airport has become a "sterile
concourse," or a shopping mall connected by nasty architectural "fingers" to
cramped, no-frills flying. Architects who once dreamed of unanchored public
space now create maximum-security shopping. Tales of the sexually
adventurous "mile high club" have been replaced with tepid promises of free
television, if you're lucky.
Michael Roth is president of the California College of the Arts.
Do you have an opinion about this story?
Share it with other readers in our CAA Discussion Forums
Fair Use Notice
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
If you have any queries regarding this issue, please Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org