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Christopher Schaberg on "airportness"


Airports–the weirdest of all interior architecture. They are built to herd and direct gaggles of confused travelers through their winding halls; sooth and placate those afraid of flying; and communicate a sense of authority against the threat of terrorism. How does interior architecture achieve all of this, all the while preparing us to be packed onto cramped jets and shot through the sky? Christopher Schaberg writes for Real Life Magazine about what he calls “airportness.” Here he is in partial below, in full here.

Airportness is not just the built structures at the edges of airfields, though these are certainly part of it: the cavernous terminal halls, the swooping ceilings with exposed utility ducts, the cantilevered curbside overhangs and long concourses, the sequential numbers of departure gates trailing off in the distance. Airports like Minoru Yamasaki’s terminal at Lambert Field in St. Louis or Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK or Paul Andreu’s various airport projects around the globe, including Charles de Gaulle, outside Paris, cumulatively lent a feel to commercial flight that became standard, even as airports morphed and evolved with the ramping up of jet travel in the late 20th century.

But airportness transcends airports themselves. It has to do not so much with surface-level features such as sloping hallways and undulating rooflines but a host of more disparate effects that make air travel something humans can internalize and learn to live with. Airportness is how flight becomes natural to us, expected and accepted: contrails in the sky, layovers between flights.

Even without referencing physical buildings, airportness can be replicated. For instance, next time you hear a distant engine roar in the sky, ask Siri what airplanes are overhead. You will get standardized response, with information culled from open-access sources (unless the flight’s route is classified, in which case Siri may be stymied). In performing this banal action — consulting a phone for proximate flight information — you become an impromptu airport, enacting a basic sort of air-traffic control: monitoring flights, mapping routes of transit.

Airportness colludes with governmental apparatuses and relishes in the aestheticization of politics. Human flight, of course, cannot be divorced from military campaigns, intricate efforts of control and exertions of power from above. Air travel thus often merges with displays of patriotism. When I worked at the Bozeman airport in Montana, I recall how on one Fourth of July the Blue Angels visited to perform their famous stunt-flying for the town. All the daily operations of commercial flight on that day had to be choreographed around the exhilarating (and exorbitant) acrobatics of the signature FA-18s.

Yet at the same time, flight becomes absorbed in the mundane commute of certain business travelers. Long-distance travel becomes merely another loathed yet stomached part of plain old work. The airport is from this perspective a necessary evil, something that seems to conspire against human dignity at every turn. Search any social media platform for the word airport and you’ll see what I mean: a litany of gripes from exasperated passengers and insulted airline employees. Often, the indignity is represented as the fault of the airport itself.

Consider airport dining: the overpriced, crappy food from stripped-down chain restaurants and the dismal spaces in which passengers are expected to eat it, awkwardly positioned between standing and sitting. It’s treated as a sort of ritual sacrifice in the name of flight. The idea here is that airports interpellate passengers into the adventure of flight, only to subject them to banal and dehumanizing indignities, such as eating a hurried meal standing up. This too is airportness as a general language: The concrete example of these dismal feeding stations allows us to give voice to a common sentiment involving air travel.

But such details can also make airports seem endearing, familiar, even charming. Take the carpet in Portland’s airport, otherwise known as “PDX carpet,” which has become a subcultural phenomenon complete with an active hashtag, a cottage industry of similarly patterned products (socks, pillows, microbrew bottles, and so on), and a specific if loose social media custom wherein passengers share photos of themselves standing on the carpet with their shoes peeking into the frame.

*Image: Martha Rosler, “In the Place of the Public: Airport Series” (1983-present) Munich, March 1999. Image via