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Justin Mason jm@jmason.org
Tue, 08 Jan 2002 16:29:36 +1100


J.G. Ballard.  Repeating himself a bit at this stage, but still
fascinating; and to tie in with Rohit's last mail -- here's Ballard on the
subject, http://www.jgballard.com/airports.htm :

Going somewhere?
AIRPORTS
By J.G. Ballard
[The Observer 14/9/97]

Airports and airfields have always held a special magic, gateways to
the infinite possibilities that only the sky can offer. In 1946, when
I first came to England, a dark and derelict shell of a country, I
used to dream of the runways of Wake Island and Midway, stepping
stones that would carry me back across the Pacific to the China of my
childhood. At school in Cambridge, and later as a medical student at
King's college, I would flee all that fossilised Gothic self-immersion
and ride a borrowed motorcycle to the American airbases at Mildenhall
and Lakenheath, happy to stare through the wire at the lines of silver
bombers and transport planes. Airports then were places where America
arrived to greet us, where the world of tomorrow touched down in
Europe.

Sadly, Britain faltered on the way to its own future, half-heartedly
erecting a shabby urban limbo of under-serviced municipal towers and
wind-swept shopping precincts. Together they provided the nostalgia-
worshippers with all the ammunition needed to launch their
postmodernist counter-attack. The pitched roof seemed to rule the
Eighties, a vernacular dialect unable to distinguish a town hall from
a supermarket or fire station, too many temples to tweeness that
resemble offerings on the altar of Prince Charles's uneasy conscience.

Airports, thankfully. are designed around the needs of their
collaborating technologies, and seem to be almost the only form of
public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia.
As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or
pebble- dashed control towers.

For the past 35 years I have lived in the Thames Valley town of
Shepperton, a suburb not of London but of London Airport. The
catchment area of Heathrow extends for at least 10 miles to its south
and west, a zone of motorway intersections, dual carriageways, science
parks, marinas and industrial estates, watched by police CCTV
speed-check cameras, a landscape which most people affect to loathe
but which I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British
Isles, and paradigm of the best that the future offers us.

I welcome its transience, alienation and discontinuities, and its
unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposibility and the
instant impulse. Here, under the flight paths of Heathrow, everything
is designed for the next five minutes. Its centrepiece, and for me the
most inspiring in England today, is Michael Manser's superb Heathrow
Hilton, near Terminal Four. Its vast atrium resembles a planetarium in
the way that it salutes the skies above its roof.

By comparison with London Airport, London itself seems hopelessly
antiquated. Its hundreds of miles of gentrified stucco are an aching
hangover from the nineteenth century that should have been bulldozed
decades ago. London may well be the only world capital - with the
possible exception of Moscow - that has gone from the nineteenth
century to the twenty-first without experiencing all the possibilities
and excitements of the twentieth in any meaningful way. Visiting
London, I always have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of
political control, like the class system that preserves England from
revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless
columned porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of
Victorian clerks, together make clear that London is a place where
everyone knows his place.

By contrast, at an airport such as Heathrow the individual is defined,
not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40
years, but the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on an
annunciator screen. We are no longer citizens with civic obligations,
but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our
lightness of baggage mandated by the system. Airports have become a
new kind of discontinuous city, whose vast populations, measured by
annual passenger throughputs, are entirely transient, purposeful and,
for the most part, happy. An easy camaraderie rules the departure
lounges, along with the virtual abolition of nationality - whether we
are Scots or Japanese is far less important than where we are going.
I've long suspected that people are only truly happy and aware of a
real purpose to their lives when they hand over their tickets at the
check-in.

Above all, airports are places of good news. I miss the days when
celebrities were photographed as they stepped through airliner doors.
The headiest ozone of glamour and optimism crossed the Atlantic in the
Constellations and Stratocruisers of the Fifties as Hollywood stars,
Presidents and tycoons waved from the steps, bringing their confidence
and likeability to this northern European corner of the depressed
world.

I suspect that the airport will be the true city of the next century.
The great airports are already suburbs of an invisible world capital,
a virtual metropolis whose faubourgs are named Heathrow, Kennedy,
Charles de Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever
circles its notional centre, and will never need to gain access to its
dark heart. A mastery of the discontinuities of metropolitan life has
always been essential to the successful urban dweller - we live in a
street where we know none of our neighbours, and our close friends
live equally isolated lives within 50 square miles around us. We work
in a district five miles away, shop in another and see films and plays
in a third. A failure to master these discontinuities, whether social
or genetic in origin, leaves some ethnic groups at a disadvantage,
forced into enclaves that seem to reconstitute mental maps of
ancestral villages.

But the modern airport defuses these tensions, and offers its
passengers the pleasures and social reassurance of the boarding
lounge. Its instantly summoned village life span is long enough to
calm us, and short enough not to be a burden. The concourses are the
ramblas and agoras of the future city, time-freeze zones where all the
clocks of the world are displayed, an atlas of arrivals and
destinations forever updating itself, where briefly we become true
world citizens. Air travel may well be the most important civic duty
that we discharge today, erasing class and national distinctions and
subsuming them within the unitary global culture of the departure
lounge.

In addition to the airport itself, I value the benevolent social and
architectural influence that a huge transit facility such as Heathrow
casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learnt to like the
intricate network of perimeter roads, the car-rental offices, air
freight depots and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel
architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the
world.

Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than some
mythical domain of village greens, cathedral closes and manorial
vistas. Much as I admire, say, Syon House, now home to a huge garden
centre and a venue for business entertaining, I feel more at home
driving through an office park like the New Square complex at Bedfont,
its hi-tech corporate hangars only a javelin's throw from the Heathrow
perimeter road, and surely influenced by the proximity of all those
747 tailplanes that cruise the tarmac like the fins of amiable sharks.
Even the old terminal buildings - One, Two and Three - have a certain
period charm. Together, they and the main control tower represent the
last survival of the Festival of Britain. I look forward to their
replacement in due course, and to terminal Five, and beyond that to
terminals Six and Seven, and the transformation of Britain into the
ultimate departure lounge. After all, we have every reason to leave.

This article first appeared in September's Blueprint magazine and is
included in the book 'Airport', published to coincide with the
exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street,
London WC2 
[This article originally appeared on the webpage
www.terminal1.demon.co.uk/JGBallard.htm which has been subsequently
deleted]