Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century

Airports are cities of tomorrow, designed for the next five minutes

Airports and airfields, gateways to infinite possibilities that only the sky can offer, have always held a special magic. In 1946, when I first came to England, a derelict shell of a country, I used to dream of the runways of Wake Island and Midway, stepping-stones that would carry me back to the China of my childhood. At school in Cambridge, and later as a medical student at King’s College, I would flee all that fossilized Gothic self-immersion and ride a borrowed motorcycle to the American air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath to stare happily at the bombers and transport planes. Airports then were places where America arrived to greet us, where the world of tomorrow touched down in Europe.

Sadly, Britain faltered on the way to its own future, halfheartedly erecting a shabby urban limbo of underserviced municipal towers and windswept shopping precincts. Together they provided the nostalgia worshippers with ammunition to launch their postmodernist counterattack. The pitched roof, a vernacular dialect unable to distinguish a town hall from the supermarket or fire station, seemed to rule the 1980s. Airports, designed around the needs of their collaborating technologies, seem to be the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.

For the past 35 years I have lived in Shepperton, a suburb not of London but of London’s Heathrow Airport. The Heathrow-tinged land extends for at least 10 miles south and west, a zone of motorways, science parks, and industrial estates, a landscape that most people affect to loathe but that I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British Isles, and a paradigm of the best that the future offers us.

I value the benevolent social and architectural influence that a huge transit facility like Heathrow casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas. I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities, and its unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposability, and the instant impulse. Here, under the flight paths, everything is designed for the next five minutes.

By comparison, London itself seems hopelessly antiquated. Its hundreds of miles of gentrified stucco are a hangover from the 19th century that should have been bulldozed decades ago. I have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, make it clear that London is a place where people know their place.

At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen. We are no longer citizens with civic obligations, but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system. Airports have become a new kind of discontinuous city whose vast populations are entirely transient, purposeful, and, for the most part, happy. An easy camaraderie rules the departure lounges, along with the virtual abolition of nationality—whether we are Scots or Japanese is far less important than where we are going. I’ve long suspected that people are truly happy and aware of a real purpose to their lives only when they hand over their tickets at the check-in.

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