Thursday, October 30, 2008

Identity in Airports - Creating a Sense of Place

The writer Douglas Coupland once described the experience at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as "what happens to you just after you die and before you get shipped off to wherever you're going." While Coupland's comparison of the airport experience to post-death limbo is hyperbolic, it's a sentiment similarly shared by a number of travelers who view the process of traversing through the airport as an experiential vacuum, and the airport as a generic, oppressive non-place in the middle of their journey from one place to another. Some airports on the other hand, like Austin Bergstrom International Airport have recently resisted this trend by actively incorporating conscious design strategies to create a public place that actively engages its users and reflects the civic identity of its city of origin. These airports further challenge our ideas about how we interact and adapt to ever-changing definitions of public space.

In his 1995 book Non Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Marc Augé wrote about the town center as an active place where businesses are concentrated and people gather at markets, and "where individual itineraries can intersect and mingle." For Augé, this place was a symbol of shared identity and provided a "principle of meaning for the people who live in it." In the modern world of bypasses, motorways, high-speed trains, Augé wrote that it had become unnecessary for us to linger in the town centers, and that the new present spaces were simply allusions to former times and places. In this regard, airports were merely modern transportation apparatuses located on the outskirts of the city. Through signage and visual representation of historical and cultural icons, the airport created an indirect link to the city and its denizens, but neglected to create its own sense of identity, establishing itself as a prime example of Augé's unsubstantiated "non-place" designation. Urban theorist Miodrag Mitrasinovic credits the initial idea of ‘placelessness’ to Edward Relph, who in 1974 commented on the ongoing erosion of distinctive places in America through the creation of “standardized landscapes that result from an insensitivity to the significance of place.” Relph felt that this social engineering and planning led to ‘other-directed architecture’ like tourist resorts and commercial strips that resulted in functional efficiency and consumer-oriented activity, and conversely, a limitation of phenomenological experiences. Melvin Webber, another pioneer in urban theory, also noted this shift towards large-scale, urban developments. In his seminal 1964 work Urban Place and the Non-place Urban Realm, Webber observed, “it is now becoming apparent that it is the accessibility rather than the propinquity aspect of ‘place’ that is the necessary condition. As accessibility becomes further freed from propinquity, cohabitation of a territorial place, whether it be a neighborhood, a suburb, a metropolis, a region, or a nation, is becoming less important to the maintenance of social communities.” Rather than striking a tone of condemnation toward new developments in technology, interactivity and space, Webber challenged us to re-evaluate our new modes of operation. Through this de-emphasis of propinquity and settled communities, Webber encouraged us to cohabitate these new places in substantiative ways, and to measure our cultural wealth and progress in them “not as buildings, not as land use patterns, not as large, dense, and heterogeneous population aggregations, but as quality and as a diversity of life.” If the opportunity to establish these quality environments existed, why have so many airport designers refused to accept the gauntlet that Webber threw down a generation ago?

In his work entitled Deterritorialisation and the Airport, urban sociologist Mark Gottdeiner wrote that the “airport is the ultimate symbol of the new American reality since we are all just passing through from one location to another… We are less the stalwarts of stable communities than temporary residents in a transitory social communion of fellow travelers.” To this notion, the writer Richard Sennett remarked, “When public space becomes a derivative of movement, it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless… [They are] catatonic space.” In airports all across the United States and the world, design manifestations of this genuflection towards movement and technology are ubiquitous. Sidewalk escalators propel people through long, claustrophobic corridors. Monorails transport us from terminal to terminal over vast expanses of concrete and utility vehicles. We are processed from the minute we walk into the airport from electronic kiosk through security to boarding, all under the duress of time. We are bombarded with messages aimed towards getting us onto the plane in a safe and expedient manner, from the visual (wayfinding icons, ever-changing arrival/departure screens) to the audio (omnipotent recordings continually reminding us to mind our baggage). For those of us who can steal a moment of immobility, retail outlets vie for the attention of their captive audiences, offering overpriced tchotchkes and unhealthy fare. We see these homogenous scenes repeated at airports over and over in our travels to the point where we’re not sure if we’re in Dallas or Frankfurt or Denver – we’re just at the airport. The artist Martha Rosler assembled a book of her experiences in airports entitled In the Place of the Public: Observations of a Frequent Flyer. In this critical work, Rosler offers stinging indictments on the anonymity and alienation of airports both graphically and through commentary – “For a long time now, people in our society have complained of a humdrum of sameness in many areas of life, a homogeneity bringing a loss of a sense of place, a deterritorialization. News, information, and entertainment, in a decades-long process of consolidation, offer a ‘product’ with a frustrating uniformity.” For Rosler, the sameness in airports is just another extension of the homogenizing forces in our daily lives.

When the new Austin Bergstrom International Airport was being designed in 1995, Lawrence Speck and the architects at the firm Page Southerland Page were very conscious of the homogenization of airports and were politically active in addressing those design flaws. A commission of 24 citizens was appointed to help create an identity for the city’s new airport. In an interview, Speck commented, “Generic airports look like any other airport and you never know where you’re flying in. I think that’s a really reduced way of looking to live your life. It reduces your identity and pride in your city. One thing I just absolutely love about Austin is that people are so protective of our identity, and that we want to have character.” Matt Coldwell, the Art & Exhibit Coordinator at ABIA added, “When this airport was planned, the civic involvement was really high. Austin has traditionally had more involvement in city government, probably more so than other places like Ft. Worth and Houston. This was always considered to be something more on the cutting edge – using examples like Albuquerque, Vancouver, and Seattle as airports which had decided to incorporate significant components of the community – expressed through artwork, expressed through unique cultural identity, be it reflected in the architecture or reflected in things like identifiable businesses.” Walking through ABIA, one immediately notices an abundance of public art. Above the ticket counter, a mural entitled The Visit by Fidencio Duran depicts a laid back family gathering painted in a vernacular style. Beyond the nine permanent pieces, the airport also features rotating exhibits, a reflection of the devotion to artists that Austin culture engenders.

The Visit by Fidencio Duran, Austin Bergstrom

At the airport, passengers can also hear local music through the speakers, and through various live music stages throughout the terminal to remind travelers about Austin’s reputation as the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World.” Speck discussed the difficulty his firm faced in pushing for the stage during the design process, citing airlines’ objections that live music would interfere with the public address system. Speck added, “It’s this over-organized mentality that we have in the modern world where we organize things perfectly, but we don’t think about it experientially or in terms of actual user interface.” Jacob Jaeger, a singer for the Marshall Ford Swing Band, who recently played a set on the airport stage described the reception from the passengers as positive. “I enjoyed it,” said Jaeger. “We had a heck of a time, just like any other show.”

Cienfuegos performing at Austin Bergstrom

In discussing the planning of the airport, Speck noted, “The idea was to not make it this airport that’s just all about tunnels and pathways and movement and jostling, but a place where you can kind of relax and you can sit down and take a break – we tried to make the airport a little more relaxing.” To be able to sit for a moment to listen to a song allows the passenger to have an experience. As soon as the passenger realizes that he isn’t merely treated as a consumer, and that an active engagement with the space is allowed for, there can be genuine conversations with the artwork, interaction with the music, and dialogue with fellow passengers. Coldwell believes that this atmosphere helps people re-examine the idea of travel. “The airport environment is not a shopping mall… there are so many different levels of emotion that people are carrying here and they have to carry that emotion with them. I see people returning from war, people going on their family vacation, you can hear telephone conversations of businessmen flying out and you can overhear things you don’t want to hear because they’re getting mad at someone. I think it makes for a truer personality. I think that people become more of themselves as opposed to being in a familiar place like a shopping center. There’s such an unknown component. There’s fear, there’s joy… the element of travel makes it unique.”

Another strategy the ABIA designers actively pursued was to have local restaurants represent the concession area rather than national operators. Speck recalled that when they offered this proposal the “aviation department said ‘no way’,” that they had “contracts with the same people who do food at every other airport in the country,” and felt they were the only ones who knew how to work and handle the clientele. While the architects did persuade the aviation department to include local businesses, Coldwell added that many of the restaurants, such as the popular local BBQ restaurant The Salt Lick are actually run by the Delaware North Corporation, a national concessionaire. This is evident in restaurants like Lefty’s Bar & Grille on 6th Street, a place that references a popular local street, yet doesn’t exist in the actual city. Its façade, decorated with false windows and patio umbrellas over the tables in an indoor setting only accentuate the Delaware North Corporation’s poor attempt at recreating Austin. This simulacrum is represented not in attitude, but in name only. An area where the designers did succeed in simulating the Austin experience was in situating the dining tables of many of the restaurants in a communal, central space where diners and passers-by could interact and feel less isolated and alienated. Some airports have started offering high quality restaurants which improve the dining experience in and of itself, and others like Boston Logan International Airport use local seafood and shellfish, reminding travelers of where they’ve been through their stomachs. Still, the sword of Damocles hanging over all airports is cost which is why airports more often opt to maximize profits with low-cost concessionaire conglomerates. Regarding the tendency towards standardization, Coldwell commented, “You see a lot of similar chairs, you see similar rooflines, a similar gate boarding area. To break away from that normally means an increase in cost and everything right now is so cost-conscious oriented that to be able to do anything that is beyond the basic fundamental is increasingly more difficult.” As we spoke, a new low-cost terminal (essentially a square room with just a ticket counter) was being constructed on the outer rim of the ABIA airport. To pose the question, “Is it reasonable to expect airlines to provide satisfactory customer experiences when they are simply responding to high fuel costs and consumer demands?” requires another question, “What would our society look like if financial considerations trumped all other concerns?”

Another reason for passengers attributing placelessness to airports is its inability to distinguish the locale and identity of the arrival city. This is most apparent in hubs like Chicago O’ Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where the goal is to process and transfer people to other gates, not provide intimacy and comfort. While Coldwell readily admits that is easier to establish identity for smaller destination airports like ABIA rather than massive hubs, Speck reasoned that, “Even if I was transferring in Atlanta, I still would like to know that I’m in Atlanta and not some generic no mans land.” This disorientation can also be blamed on a lack of distinctive architecture. Certain iconic designs, like Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK, Renzo Piano’s Kansai Airport Terminal, and Paul Andreu’s Charles de Gaulle Terminal One have achieved success in defining space through architecture. In a 1991 interview with Patrick Javault, Paul Andreu elaborated, “To me, architecture is not all about signs or meanings, but space and the sheer poetry associated with it, and the pleasure, the sensuality of moving through this space with one’s body, one’s vision or one’s thoughts.”

Kansai International Airport

At the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin, an Architectural Alliance was formed to “implement a ‘sense of place’ ethos based on the region.” Dane County’s interior has been treated in every area with local material by local craftsman (ABIA also employs a similar approach).

Dane County Regional Airport

Dane County also features local art and the architecture, inspired by its favorite son Frank Lloyd Wright, is defined by flat, vertical landscapes. A great example of marrying art and architecture is the Washington National Airport North Terminal, where the art is thoughtfully integrated with the architecture, not just applied to afterwards like most public art. The terminal’s architect Cesar Pelli explained, “The idea of having artists work in architecture was very much alive through the 1930s up until the Second World War. After that, there were changes in the self-perceptions of both artists and architects that made it very difficult to have paintings and sculptures integrated with buildings. This hiatus was created by an extreme glorification of the individual ego and individual freedom that came with post-Second World War Modernism.” In the Washington terminal, one can find works by a who’s who of contemporary artists, including Frank Stella, Sol Lewitt and an immense upper floor balustrade by Siah Armajani. In his book The Modern Terminal – New Approaches to Airport Architecture, Brian Edwards opines, “airports are great national gateways where cultural differences have to be expressed. The comparison between London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle shows how far national characteristics can infuse airport design. While the first is a collection of disjointed terminal buildings set within an apparently haphazard master plan the latter is grandly conceived, beautifully executed and infused with Gallic pomp.”

While many airports today still fail to exude a distinctive sense of place, unique airports like Austin Bergstrom demonstrate that with thoughtful design approaches and cooperative efforts by people willing to buck the trend, airports can redefine how we view and experience public spaces – even those that were originally meant to be simply passed through. Melvin Webber believed that urban profitability should be measured by one’s participation in the cultural life of creative specialists. If airport designers emphasized not just profit, but identity, and not just movement but user experience, a trip to the airport may become not just an inconvenient layover between one place to the next, but another meaningful experience in a continual journey.


1. Coupland, Douglas. “Hubs” HotWired (1995)
2. Augé, Marc and John Howe. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London, England: Verso, 1995.
3. Mitrosinovic, Miodrag. Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2006.
4. Webber, Melvin. The Urban Place and the Non-Place Urban Realm in Melvin Webber, et al., Explorations into Urban Structure. Philadelphia, Penn: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.
5. Gottdeiner, Mark. Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel. New York, NY: Rowman & Lttlefield, 2001.
6. Thackara, John. In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.
7. Rosler, Martha. In the Place of the Public: Observations of a Frequent Flyer. New York, NY, Ostfildern-Ruit : Cantz, 1998.
8. Speck, Lawrence. Personal interview. 7 October 2008.
9. Coldwell, Matt. Personal interview. 15 October 2008.
10. Jaeger, Jacob. Personal interview. 14 October 2008.
11. Thomas Emberson, Steve. Airport Interiors: Design for Business. West Sussex, England, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2007.
12. Andreu, Paul. Interview with Paul Andreu. 1991
13. Edwards, Brian. The Modern Airport Terminal: New Approaches to Airport Architecture. London, England; New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2005.