Let’s Build New Airports
Airports used to be symbols of the future; flying over the horizon to somewhere new, somewhere different. But not anymore. If you flew from Heathrow T5 to Xian Xianyang International Airport in Shaanix Province, China, you might think you’d flown in a big circle. Multi-storey, with wide, airy concourses; arrivals arrive at ground level, while above, a graceful Jetsons’ ramp feeds taxis and buses of passengers into the departure halls. If it feels as if there’s no visible difference between T5 and Xian, it’s because there isn’t. Each building follows exactly the same design.
We are told airports represent ‘good design’, just as we are repeatedly told by BAA and Boris Johnson that we need more of them. But as they wrap the word ‘environmental’ and that non-word, ‘sustainable’, into queasy arguments, we blindly accept the glass, and the brushed stainless steel.
Airports look similar because they have to be. Around the world the default language for air traffic control is English, the type face used on the taxiways is Siemens sans serif. In many terminals, Frutiger is used for signage. The flow is the same; we are simply told where to go and how to get there. These structures process people from the door to the gate and vice versa. There is none of that ‘romance of travel’ nonsense, only adverts that strive to point out how global difference can be conquered by the over-arching unilateral view of global banking.
The minimal design of airports is reminiscent of the aesthetics of dystopian Hollywood movies. The Minority Report look. Even the characters in their anonymous figure-hugging gun metal outfits appear to have bought their clothes from an airport Hugo Boss. Often they’re running around and everyone has a purpose and a place to be. Just like Stansted, Gatwick etc. You’re reduced to a traveller, a greeter or a worker. The point is, just as these films strive to emphasise an unnatural and de-humanising vision of the future, our airports do the same thing.
I’m sure that the architects and planners believe they are designing ‘happy’ places; buildings that deliver you swiftly, safe and sound with plenty of opportunity to shop along the way. But this belief in happiness is wrong. What is happiness anyway and why is it important?
No religion pushes happiness. Islam asks us to love and serve God. Judaism to follow His law, Christianity to follow Christ and atone for our sins. Buddhism is not about happiness, it’s about the ending of ignorance through knowledge.
So are airports nihilistic? They stand for nothing, they have no intrinsic value. They’re just places where a bunch of processes happen. No, airports are atheist buildings. Their homogenous quality refuses to accept the minutia of life, the dirt, the difference, our creed, our beliefs – it is we, who must conform to the rigid design.
Just as some atheists argue for reclaiming religion as an act of defiance against theism and advocate atheological debate, it’s time to reject the hollow philosophy of global design and start celebrating difference again. Airports should be exciting, they should be thrilling; we’re going somewhere new, we’re meeting a loved one.
There are plenty of places that do this. Railway stations often seem peculiarly reflective of their place: Grand Central Station is to Gotham what Didcot is to Didcot. There are even airports that play up their locality. Jakarta is a rare example of an airport to incorporate local design – with carvings, verandas and tumbling vegetation. As a building, it’s as a thrilling as the smell of cigarette smoke in Terminal 5.