The history of the postwar airport is neatly enveloped by the last two Steven Spielberg films. Catch Me If You Can caught the jet age in its lustrous ascendancy, whishing through the sleek tubes and foamy contours of Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at Idlewild, vamping along with bevies of crisply befrocked stewardesses, showcasing the raw sexual currency accorded to the emergent airline pilot. A few years (and a few decades) later, The Terminal found the jet age locked in a holding pattern. In place of the sprightly Leo dashing off to yet another exotic locale, The Terminal, adapting the story of the perma-transient "Sir Alfred" of Charles de Gaulle Airport, featured the everyman Tom Hanks as schlumpy sandwich-board carrier for the human condition: in motion, between states, lost in translation. Once seductive departure point, the airport had become a kind of permanent destination. As J.G. Ballard described it in The [London] Observer, "the terminal 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."
Alastair Gordon knows there must have been a golden age of the airport and of jet travel, for he's seen the Emilio Pucciñdesigned outfits of the "Braniff Babes," read the licentious potboilers like Coffee, Tea or Me?, heard the legends about the New York society dames who flew to Paris and back to be coiffed for that evening's cotillion, and even visited Saarinen's TWA masterwork in 1964 and found it more vertiginously evocative of the future than General Motors' hackneyed Futurama at the anticlimactic World's Fair in nearby Flushing Meadow. But after surveying almost a century's worth of designs for the "world's most revolutionary structure," he reaches a rather sobering conclusion about that golden age: "If such a period ever really existed, it was over in a nanosecond, and the subsequent fall from grace was swift and merciless."
Why did the future that Gordon glimpsed at Idlewild so abruptly descend into the mundane present (with Saarinen's terminal eventually to house a budget airline)? Part of the reason was the technological imperative of the airport itself. As docking station for airplanes that were continually evolving and transit hub for an exponentially growing number of passengers, the airport was always being outflanked by history: Gordon notes that the manager of Atlanta's early-'60s jetport told the city's mayor on the facility's opening day that it was already outdated. By the late '60s, New York's airport planner said that in a four-year period, the city had already handled more traffic than had been predicted for the next fifteen years. As early as the '50s, airports were uninspiring Organization Man redoubts, Gordon says: "If architecture reflects something of the human condition, then these narrow sheep runs embodied the prosaic linearity of modern life. . . . They were not designed to memorialize heroic deeds, but rather as antimonuments to the likes of Willie Loman and Sammy Glick."
Perhaps this was inevitable. As Gordon recounts, architects had always struggled to come up with a compelling symbolism for the airport. In the late '20s, he writes, "most architects had never flown and didn't know what to make of this new mode of transportation." The neoclassical pomp of downtown railway stations was somehow inappropriate; the airport, after all, was home for a deviceóthe airplaneóthat had in some minds shattered the very meaning of architecture. "The roof is becoming the façade of the house," wrote an American architect in 1930. "We can look down upon the world to which gravity has fastened us for so many ages," Walter Gropius similarly opined. The most that architects could seem to agree on is that the airport should be modern ("an airport should be naked," declared Le Corbusier), but how could one get more modern than the airplane itselfówhich unlike the wistfully fanciful Art Deco architecture was actually designed to move through space? Mere logistics seemed to trump all else; as airport efficiency experts had it, airports were meant to be not buildings at all but passenger-processing "units," machines for moving.
What's striking is how quickly air travel itself turned from barnstorming escapade into rote transportation. By the '60s, there were growing ranks of the disenchanted. There is "now the possibility of moving all over the world without ever, in a sense, leaving home," wrote the designer George Nelson. Gordon quotes a 1920s account by journalist Lowell Thomas that opens with the author breathlessly describing a "new visionary world"; but by the end of the story, passengers are already "blasé at this ultra-modern way of traveling," as all the destinations begin to blur. There's a touch of that sensation to Naked Airport itself, which racks up elite-status frequent-flier miles as it ranges across airports on every continent, rarely stopping long enough for the lingering impression. A fatigue sets in, which is less about Gordon's presentation or editorial verve (his architectural criticism is, typically, succinct and spot-on) than the creeping realization that one is reading about places one would rather forgetóplaces associated with anxiety, chronic delay, and heightened security procedures, places that are coming to have more in common with bus stations than those would-be utopian portals to the space age. Gordon recognizes the dilemma: "The airport is at once a place, a system, a cultural artifact that brings us face-to-face with the advantages as well as the frustrations of modernity." Or perhaps the frustration stems from a more vaporous cultural anxiety: that we have reached our final destination, that we may never inhabit so modern a place again.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).