A consequence of moving to Australia from Britain over twenty years ago has been that I’ve passed through a lot more airports than I probably would have if I’d stayed in London. Not just the Australian ones but others in the Pacific and south east Asian region. Despite their predominant generic quality, most airports make an attempt at individuality. In Zurich, for instance, the train that takes you from the gate to the main terminal passes through a short section where the carriage fills with the sound of cowbells. Bangkok has a golden pagoda overlooking the departure gates, Singapore’s terminals are filled with orchids, and Dubai’s has silver palm trees. It may be window-dressing but it’s enough to give a sense of place, and I like that.
Airports have always felt remarkable to me, not least because I encountered them so rarely as a child. Growing up, it felt as though we were the only family in Britain who drove to Europe for our summer holidays while others flew. Sometimes we stopped at Glasgow Airport for lunch on our way home from a visit to my grandparents in Scotland and I would marvel at the terminal’s glassy space and the boards displaying faraway places like Copenhagen and Dublin.
I was living in south Wales when my junior school had a day out to Heathrow Airport. Apart from the excitement of being nearly-but-not-quite in London, I remember standing on the viewing deck of the orange-brick terminal (designed by Frederick Gibberd in the 1950s) and being transfixed by the rows of BEA Tridents and the sight of brand new 747s, which seemed huge. The sky was filled with the roar of jet engines and the acid tang of jet fuel. For a ten year old it was beyond enthralling. (Afterwards we went to Runnymede to see where the Magna Carta was signed but frankly no one was interested, and, being boys, we spent most of the time sniggering at the word ‘regina’ written below a statue of Queen Victoria, thinking it meant something else entirely.)
The first time I took to the air was as a fourteen year old, in a small propeller plane that belonged to the company my father worked for. These were patrician times, and I was flown up to Yorkshire for the day so that I could sit a kind of entrance exam for my new school, as the company was moving my father’s department from Wales to its Yorkshire headquarters. The airports we flew to and from hardly registered but the flight itself was exhilarating. The plane crashed a year or so later, killing everyone on board including the jolly pilot I’d sat next to, but it didn’t put me off wanting to fly more often.
Gradually planes became part of my normal life, even if that usually meant cheap holiday charters taking off from Gatwick at unreasonable hours of the night. Being in the airport zone, with all the shops and bars and spreading spaces and all the flurry of activity was endlessly fascinating. Airports were places filled with potential. Time was irrelevant – it may have been the middle of the night but the shops were open and the bars were doing a roaring trade. Everyone was on the move, or about to be, once French air traffic controllers had finished striking. One moment I was sitting in Gatwick, the next I was among sizzling, sun-blistered Brits on a beach in Ibiza. Fabulous.
Recently I read ‘Naked airport’ by Alastair Gordon, which is a jaunty account of the evolution of the airport. It’s fascinating to hear what people thought the first airports should look like. Some ended up looking like country clubs with lavish gardens and palm-lined driveways; others evoked classical temples; and many tried to emulate the aeroplanes themselves, with wing-inspired plans and control towers braced for speed. Gradually they turned into the vast spaces we recognise today. As Gordon points out, there was no real golden age, although the jet set of the 1960s might beg to differ. Flying went from being a rich man’s form of transport, where air crashes were not uncommon, to something that tried for glamour but which quickly became simply a matter of shoving the greatest number of people in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Different airlines went out of their way to provide a memorable service, as many still do today, if only for Business and First Class passengers, but the bottom line was, as now, in shifting people.
Le Corbusier adored air travel, flying to Moscow from Paris in the 1920s, and taking the Graf Zeppelin to Brazil in the 1930s. He loved how cities looked like architectural models when viewed from above. His early urban designs for modern cities in the 1920s had an airport at their centre, which seemed logical at the time, but when larger planes needed longer runways, and there were more passengers to deal with and more airline companies to process them then of course the airport moved to the city fringe. They sometimes felt too far away. In the 1930s, the mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, refused to get off his flight from Chicago when it landed in Newark. He had bought a ticket to New York, he told the steward, not New Jersey. When the new and more convenient airport that he campaigned for opened, they named it LaGuardia in his honour.
Airport architecture is often banal but there have been some real beauties, like Saarinen’s curvaceous terminals for Dulles airport in Washington DC and for TWA at Kennedy airport in New York, both completed in 1962, a year after his death. I’m not sure the exterior of the airport terminal matters so much now. Sure, I love the lush plantings around Singapore Airport and the white-lattice curves of Shenzhen’s airport but most airports of today feel more like giant shopping malls than temples to flight.
When Norman Foster designed the new airport at Stansted in 1991 it seemed radical because it was so light, so barely-there, and meant the services inside could be easily changed or re arranged as required. As ‘Naked Airport’ often points out, passenger numbers and changes in aircraft design make many airports out of date almost the moment they open. Stansted’s airy quality has been stifled by the surge of crowds it now contains. No wonder airports are so often seen as de-humanising, with passengers processed like goods on a conveyor belt.
Despite everything, I still rather love airports. I enjoy submitting to them, seeing how I will be manipulated, even when pushed through cavernous Duty-Free areas to be seduced by products I had no previous desire to buy. Some do it better than most. Singapore’s is practically perfect. Not only does it have endless distractions, like a cactus garden and a butterfly aviary, but it retains a lavish sense of space. It’s practical, too, with free tours around Singapore if you have a five hour layover there. I once booked a night in its hotel that was only a few steps from where my plane had pulled up. Fifteen minutes after leaving my cramped seat after a seven hour flight, I was freshly showered and lolling on my bed reading a book. Brilliantly processed.
Another airport that occupies a particular place in my heart is Paris’s Charles de Gaulle at Roissy. The original Terminal One, which opened in 1974, is cramped and outdated but its sense of style makes its faults forgivable. I am always charmed by the narrow, bouncy underground travelators that carry me from the arrival satellite into the glowering concrete drum, its hollow atrium zigzagged by perspex tubes carrying escalators. It’s futuristic, in a gloriously retro way.
Of course, I may be a touch biased because being there means I’ve arrived in my favourite country, but it’s still a stunner. Architect Paul Andreu made a career out of airport design thereafter, creating larger and more open and curvaceous buildings as the decades passed and technology evolved, like the vast airport at Shanghai which is reached by the fastest train in the world, that uses magnetic levitation to whisk you from the city centre to the terminal in a matter of minutes.
Paris is an airport I have flown into regularly for decades, even from London where you’ve barely reached altitude before you’re descending again. And so, in the end, despite travelling the world more widely than I ever dreamed I would, perhaps it’s what remains familiar that matters most.
Do you have a favourite airport?