Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

January 16th, 2012 | Category: Essays, Reviews, Videos

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.

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Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:

References:

Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).

Further Posting:

3 Comments »

  • Lily Brewer said:

    Good stuff! Did the books talk about the physical, architectural space within them? Cos that would’ve been a kewl added dimension that toys with the traveller. I like to think of airports as a connect-the-dots-of physical space. (Then I can color-by-numbers while I’m waiting with you for the next flight!)

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Yeah, both books talk about the actual structure of airports, but I’d say that Naked Airports is more focused on the structure as such.

    You know you’re sitting about twenty feet from both books…

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