Where Worlds Collide

Are airports our most important public spaces?

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Twenty-five years ago, air travel was a special and liberating activity for those who could afford to dress up like they were at a cocktail party. Today, most Americans are familiar, if not downright at home, with the peculiar there's-no-there-there geography of airports: the Host Coffee Shop, the banks of pay phones, the newsstand that hawks everything from a dose of Dramamine to a stuffed Garfield, and the moving sidewalk that takes you closer to the experience of even more generic spacelessness that is flying in a commercial jet.

Given this blandness, it's a pretty depressing statement on our times that British architecture critic Deyan Sudjic has deemed airports the modern day heirs to the public squares that are quickly dying out in our suburbanized landscapes. Indeed, describing Los Angeles International Airport, writer Pico Iyer notes in Harper's that the place is 'a perfect metaphor for L.A., a flat, spaced-out desert kind of place, highly automotive, not deeply hospitable, with little reading matter and no organizing principle.'

But as Iyer also points out, these duty-free zones are also some of the only places where 'Americans' cross traffic with people of other nationalities and cultures. Calling them 'the new epicenters and paradigms of our dawning post-national age,' Iyer sees airports as 'cross cultural spaces that are a gathering of tribes and races and variegated tongues...like miniature cities [with] self-sufficient communities, with their own chapels and museums and gymnasiums.'

So, given all of the public space discussions that are occurring among intellectuals, it should come as no surprise that architects are beginning to see new possibilities for airport design. A case in point is the infamous Denver International Airport which, despite a bloated price tag ($4.9 billion) and a fancy luggage system that has been known to shred suitcases, is viewed by Metropolis (July/Aug. 1995) as an architectural triumph. Working against the dreary, centipede-style layout of places like Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport architect Curtis Fentress has created an awe-inspiring structure whose white-tented roof evokes both the mountains behind it and a feeling of sailing on an open sea. Given the years of sprawling concrete blocks decorated with red carpet and a few monitors, we'd say it's about time.

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Original to Utne Reader Online