How airports can change how we think of places

Heathrow Terminal 2 before opening in 2014. Image: Getty.

I remember a time I became part of a mass of impatient flyers, as the technology collapsed in front of me at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Airports have become sites of big data and code – and when this vital lifeblood collapses, so does the airport. It becomes like a chaotic doctors’ waiting room.

Despite the inconvenience and chagrin, it is in moments like this where we can stop, stand still, and think about the space in which we find ourselves. Perhaps we should reflect more deeply on the place of the airport, a space that we so often neglect when we treat is merely as a waiting room from A to B. 

Airports are not just hubs of dizzying heights of technology, where the barcodes on the luggage tags allow the sorting of luggage according to flights. They are more abstract places of beauty, imbued with meaning, emotion, and identity.

Marc Augé wrote how airports, just like hotels and shopping malls, fall into the generic category of ‘non-place’ – devoid of any identity, a mere ‘space’, not even a ‘place’, through which one travels out of necessity.

Of course, the practical function of airports must not be overlooked – but what about the feelings of disorientation triggered by the confusing signs pointing us to a myriad of places as we pass through Heathrow Terminal 5? Or what about the architectural beauty of Denver International Airport with its marque-like exterior? Airports are too often synonymous with feelings of angst and hassle, and it is time to appreciate them as places in their own right, each one unique compared to the other.  

For British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, the life of pilots is besotted not just by jetlag but also ‘place lag’: is the non-biological sensation of disorientation and change when you start your day in daylight in London Heathrow, spend a few hours in the air, and arrive in San Francisco on the BA287 when the San Franciscan population is eating their dinner. It is the sense of wonder and adapting to change that is part of the process of air travel. The smells of New York espresso bars become replaced by the aroma of spices in the souks in Marrakech.

Yet such change does not happen instantly, nor in the space of a few hours at 42,000 feet. It all starts at the airport.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport (IATA Code: PVG) may look like something out of the 21st century on the outside, but on the inside, it feels like a trip back in time to Maoist China. The smells of Shanghainese food traverse across the poorly ventilated departures area, and on a short trip from Shanghai to Seoul, it was in PVG where the place lag hit me. The contrast between PVG and Seoul Incheon – with its robots cleaning the floors – could not have been greater.

What’s more, the Chinese outward migration stamp is far from subtle: a huge red circle with the letters ‘EXIT’ printed in bold. Each time I have gone past border control upon exiting a country, I am left baffled. Geopolitical questions of the form “What country am I in?” fill my mind.


And what does it mean to be airside? Being airside in Pudong may mean one is physically on Chinese soil – but in terms of your sensory experiences, the airport has this wonderful way of gripping hold of you, making you feel part of its magic, as if in a state-less limbo. Neither here nor there, as you wait in trepidation for your flight.

Yet place lag does not just have to happen in the largest of airports, where exiting a country is met with a colourful passport stamp. L.F. Wade International Airport in Bermuda, with just 11 departures a day, is not the first airport that springs to mind when we think of ‘international’ airports.

But departing from Bermuda was an experience in itself – not just the walking onto the runway to board the aircraft, as if I were the US president boarding Air Force One, but the departures loung which made a doctor’s waiting room seem like a mansion. The scarcity of people, the lack of hustle and bustle, and sleepy pace of operations was a stark contrast to the chaotic airport of London Gatwick where my flight would take me.

In Bermuda, I also experienced place lag, but of a different sort. There was no border control upon exit, no rubber mark in my passport to show I had ‘left’ – but I knew I had left when I had managed to browse all of the duty free stores in five minutes, and stepped onto the runway to board my British Airways flight to London Gatwick. The multicoloured houses, the blue seas, and the adagio tempo of life in this airport, would all become a distant memory. As flight BA2232 descended into the grey expanse of Gatwick, the island airport that would greet me, accompanied by the noises of people waiting for delayed luggage, and the frustration of travellers unable to use the e-Passport gates, would cultivate a whole new sense of place.

Airports make us think about place not just as a fixed dot on a map, but as relational: a fusion of experiences and processes. It is a shame that it’s only when time stands still – when forced to, by a technological malfunction – that we devote time to think about the things that make the airport the place it is. This could be be the data sets, the sights, sounds, and smells, or the more emotional ways that airports alter how we think about place.

Airports are not mere spaces of nothingness: they are places of beauty, whether architecturally or emotionally. And it is important we do not ignore them in our contemporary, cosmopolitan obsession with travelling from one place to another.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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