Where Worlds Collide

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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