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Snapshots from the intersection of land and air

The airport is a constant experiment. Each terminal building founds a new city, a prototype as ambitious as it is obsolescent. Airports and cities both have hard operational logics and ever-changing populations; the airport simply lives these conditions on fast-forward. The vignettes that follow are episodic extracts of this hypermodern conjunction of humanity, technology, and commerce: the postwar city in flight.



The boards are majestic. Hugh Ferriss, tempted out of the perpetual night of Manhattan, rendered New York’s second airport as bursting out of the light. Wallace Harrison’s design boasts six-story inclines of glass set within a sharp concrete frame, an elegantly angled control tower, and rounded canopies thrusting out to meet cars gliding in from the expressway. The site had been a remote golf course called Idlewild.

From their cars, passengers would take an escalator to a soaring central lobby, then promenade to a Peripheral Building, two miles of sinuous curves providing stands for 86 aircraft. The tripartite arrival sequence echoed Penn Station, where a Doric temple front led to a Roman-bath waiting room, then an iron and glass train hall. This Idlewild was unambiguously modern but, like the train station, unambiguously a place.

Harrison presented the plan to Mayor William O’Dwyer, who responded by handing over the airport to the Port Authority. The new clients had no taste for unified buildings and grand entry sequences. Their interests were in getting cars as close to the gate as possible. A Terminal City, each building designed by a different hand, would rise along what is now 30 miles of looping roadway served by two expressway spurs. As a gateway to the airport, Edward Durell Stone designed a Gulf gas station as a flat-roofed temple faced in white breezeblock. 

Harrison’s rearguard action was landscaping. A parterre in the manner of Versailles was planted in the center of a roadway loop, its axis terminated by the multicolored pipework of the central heating plant. Though the fountains, pools, and formal layout would have pleased the Sun King, the garden was named Liberty Plaza—a tip to the Cold War frisson of the early 1960s.

Harrison’s hope for a central place to unify the airport had a physical end in the mid-’60s—when Liberty Plaza was paved over for parking—and by then, Eero Saarinen’s twa terminal, a voluptuous manta ray opened in 1962, had usurped it as a visual symbol of the airport. Liberty Plaza’s conceptual end was the new wave of post-Saarinen airports that, in the main, treated passenger space as a functional problem that architects bent on statement could only worsen. Planners feared centralization would impede flow from car to plane. Places created hierarchies that would be undone by the next expansion.

Deliberate placelessness found its expression in the interiors of Amsterdam’s Schiphol, designed by Kho Liang Ie and opened in 1967. The lounge seating and light fixtures were flat and compliant. Colors were muted beiges and greys to soothe harried travelers and give pride of place to the green-and-yellow signage system. Kho called the airport a station, declaring, “bourgeois coziness has no place.” He complained about having plants forced on him, since they grew toward the light, not where he wished. Dutch newspapers were not quite ready for Kho’s strident functionalism. One described an airport restaurant as “a waiting room for suicides.”


Gatwick’s prewar terminal, a squat, curvaceous “beehive,” was a white island of Art Deco in the West Sussex countryside. Its replacement was an interchange. The main block straddled a relocated highway: to one side, a bridge to the platforms of the rail station; to the other, a thin pier probing into the airfield with an observation promenade for a roof. The parti was so clear that passengers coming in to land grasped it with a glance out the window: parallel zones for trains, autos, and planes, crossed by a passenger axis from the past to the future.

In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II descended from a de Havilland Heron to open the airport. When she returned in 1988, Gatwick had accreted so many car parks, road interchanges, runways, hotels, and service buildings that it was almost unrecognizable, were it not for the still-embedded diagram of cross-axial movement. Even the second terminal building Her Majesty dedicated obeyed the alignment and right-angle geometries of the original.

Gatwick’s piers were built from steel portal frames spaced at 40 feet. Between them, lattice trusses carried the floors and formed their handrails, with floor-to-ceiling windows beyond. The structural exhibitionism might have made Gatwick an early draft of High Tech, 20 years before the term was applied to architecture. Or its unadorned steel and plate glass, extruded by modular dimensions into theoretical infinity, might have suggested a Crystal Palace for the 20th century.

A critic named G.E. Kidder-Smith had another description— “airport-ness” — and praised Gatwick as the best example in all of Europe. “One is architecturally, indeed physically, projected onto the field and made a part of its excitement, for no solid wall ever rises between the passenger and his aerial transportation.” He had discovered the true innovation of the airport’s systemic, industrially produced space: The event of flying could finally slip the bonds of architecture.


The advent of Boeing’s 707 began a new set of space/time relationships, inflected by propulsion: Jet-set fliers walked through a jetway, jetted to faraway places, and suffered jet lag, a new malady of the jet age. JetRail did not get a chance to join this lexicographic elite, however, having lived for just five years.

Braniff’s Terminal of the Future opened at Love Field, Dallas, in 1968. It had a lobby with circular mirrors set in the ceiling, automated departure boards, and a “corridor of color” that complemented the airline’s livery. “Your trip through the terminal should be an experience in itself . . . easy and even fun,” a brochure puffed.

A decade earlier, Love had seen the first installation of a moving walkway. JetRail went above and beyond: It whisked passengers from a remote parking lot for 900 cars straight into the terminal building. The orange and white gondolas hung from a steel guideway and were as automatic as an elevator. Unlike the clear plastic “rain dome” helmets issued to Braniff flight attendants, JetRail was more than a visual trope of the jet age. It actually worked.

The future ended in 1974, when Braniff moved with other airlines to the new Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. A new airline named Southwest stayed behind, sharing Love with an ice rink. The JetRail station became a disco, and the orange track was dismantled.

Gyo Obata’s plan for dfw laid out an axial roadway flanked by 13 identical terminals, each sheltering a parking lot within its semicircle: maximum gate area combined with minimum walking distance. The aviation version of the Lineal City was tied together by an automated people-mover that drew on JetRail’s success but not its panache. The rubber-tired boxes of AirTrans crept along a concrete guideway and shuttled bags of garbage in the off-hours.


In the golden age of legacy hub-and-spoke networks, Pittsburgh International reversed the terminalsatellite hierarchy. Landside was an appendage for the relative trickle of destination passengers. Airside became the spot marked for the drama of crowds in motion: in plan, a giant “X” for the efficient interchange of US Airways passengers among 87 gates. At the crossing, arched trusses and tall clerestories marked the center of Airmall, a hundred stores uniting the two iconic types of postwar consumerism: airport and shopping center.

A dozen years on, US Airways pulled back. By 2010 a flight roster once boasting more than 500 daily departures had shrunk to 39. Thirteen gates closed permanently. The commuter concourse became parking. On the airport’s 20th anniversary, a high school band marched past vacant ticket counters.

The airport’s architect, Tasso Katselas, took to the pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He could not understand how the company once called Allegheny Airlines had forsaken Pittsburgh’s superior operational capacity for the “primitive” airfields of Philadelphia and Charlotte. The high landing fees that riled US Airways came from the airport’s $1 billion budget, he wrote, and the budget came from the airline’s brief for the world’s most advanced hub airport. Besides, the X saved the airline money in the long run; computer simulations had proved so: “There is no waiting time. There is no wasted fuel.”

Pittsburgh’s contribution to airport design was not the X hub, it was Airmall. Despite shedding one-third of its stores, Airmall claims the highest per-passenger spend in the country. The post-9/11 flier heads straight to the TSA checkpoint, grimaces, then emerges airside with a hankering for distraction. Long before retailers christened this schedule void the “golden hour,” before Coach bags shimmered from LAX’s Luxury Island or PDX food carts dished up kimchi quesadillas, Airmall was there. 

In 2004, Pittsburgh lost its hub status and got cold consolation: lsg Sky Chefs’ sole Western Hemisphere deep-freezing facility, a 20,000-square-foot, single-story industrial building called PIT 1375. After 9/11, Sky Chefs’ profits evaporated. Its traditional flight kitchens cut workers and salaries and introduced stopwatch timing to speed up production. Airlines spend less than $3 per passenger on in-flight meals, yet demand broad options for ever-pickier fliers. So Sky Chefs’ “600 different frozen dishes with over 100 ethnic variations,” prepared in Pittsburgh; Qingdao, China; or Alzey, Germany, can fill up to a million airborne tummies a day.

Food on early flights took the form of stewardesses handing out cold chicken and sandwiches from the airport café, which passengers balanced atop pillows on their laps. In 1937, United Airlines created the airport-based “flight kitchen” to cook meals ready to be served from an onboard galley. A United manager mocked up the first in-flight meal tray, sized for the new seatback trays with three separate depressions for each dish, and in 1946 Pan Am served the first frozen three-course meal, reheated in the air in a convection oven. By 1960, when United’s flight kitchen opened at a newly expanded O’Hare in Chicago, it was run by a Swiss hotel chef and turned out 2,500 meals per day. A production chef called a reporter’s attention to a hundred bowls of salad lined up on a table: “See those tomatoes? They’re all peeled. United never sends out an unpeeled tomato!”

Today, Sky Chefs serves 214 airports in 51 countries with more than 32,000 employees. But the only glimpse you might catch of this vast workforce is in the few minutes it takes the meal trolleys to roll on board from the high loader. The truck and its driver disappear to the airport’s back-of-house lots. Here again, the airport is urban simulacra: Like a smart, metropolitan downtown, it relies on remote unplaces, where the moving, fixing, washing, and storing gets done.

At the modern airport, the gap between the spaces and things passengers consume and the lean, global chain that supplies them widens with each subtle upgrade and invisible efficiency. The airport, like the city, is a scrum of operations and desires that never sits still. It is a perpetual draft, a collection of glimpses into a world that, for better and for worse, never quite arrives. ■


Paul Andreu, "Airports in the Last Fifty Years," in conversation with Alastair Gordon at the GSD