Reinventing airspace: spectatorship, fluidity, intimacy


Airports are relatively recent architectural conceptions. Early airports, that appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and in the United States, were merely open, spacious, grassy fields. They were built around their functional premise – letting aircrafts land and take off – and thus consisted, essentially, of a runway. Since then, the architecture of airports has gone a long way. In modern airports, functional design requirements are addressed alongside myriad technological, institutional, political and economical requirements that define the modern practice of air travel: airports nowadays “accommodate a growing number of facilities that have nothing to do with aviation”(Ibelings 1998).

In this paper, I introduce airports as socio-technical mobilities(Graham 1 April 2002) and analyze them in an anthropological context. Drawing from the notion of ‘space’ posited by Michel de Certeau(de Certeau 2002) and that of ‘non-place’ by Marc Augé(e 1995), I argue that the non-placeness of airports goes beyond spatial connotations: modern air travel has generated forms of crisis that have embedded themselves in the architecture and the modus operandi of contemporary airports. There is a large number of dynamics that fuel such crisis. Airports are necessarily located in a physical and tangible sense, yet their function is so tightly coupled with transience, mobility and spectatorship, that they bring anthropological accounts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ to unprecedented extremes. In this paper, I analyze three tensions that are inherently bound to the contemporary practice of air travel and that present themselves as symbiotic phenomena: intimacy/sameness (BODY), spectatorship/solitude (SPACE), fluidity/control (TECHNOLOGY).

The airport’s performance of spectatorship creates new ordeals of solitude, the need for continual fluidity is attained by oppressive control and mechanization and the attempt to make passengers feel at home, results in flatness, sameness and the aseptic uniformity of the airport atmosphere.

These crises are not isolated from each other. They coexist in the architecture and in the modus operandi of contemporary airports.

This article discusses the supermodern nature of airports with the relation to the three aforementioned tensional crises. Besides introducing the theoretical (necessarily anthropological) underpinnings of each critical tension, I explore their presence and interplay in the spatial fabric of a recently built airport: the Terminal 3 extension of Beijing’s International Airport designed by Norman Foster.