Detour: No Man’s Land

In 2009, Heathrow airport in London instated a “writer in residence”. Alain de Botton, a writer of philosophically-flavored texts on the everyday including “The Art of Travel” (2002), was allowed total access to all crannies of the airport, and encouraged to speak to anyone he encountered. It is an incredible luxury to be able to dwell in a space of change long enough to see its trends and flaws; a constant in a construction for movement. 

Conceptual fascination with airports is rarely expressed while being patted down by security. Usually the procedural impasses associated with transit from A to B become harried and frustrating, blindsiding the travelers to the absolute absurdity occurring around them: A baby throws up on itself next to a Chili’s, a man surreptitiously eyes the nudie magazines at the duty free shop and fleets of garish pencil-skirted attendants clack their way along the linoleum in insanely high heels. The airport may be the holding ground for passengers heading to international cities, but it is an urban cross-section in itself, uninhibited by ethnicity or nature.

Recently, I traveled from San Francisco to Copenhagen, with layovers in London airports Heathrow and Stansted. Departing at San Francisco International Airport, I was gently deposited from BART into the tram to various terminals. Ascending the staircase to the tram platform, the passengers are surrounded by a flowing wall of shimmering metal scales that change color with the reflecting light and are sculpted by the wind passing through. “Wind Portal”, designed by Sebastopol artist Ned Kahn in 2003, surrounds the passageway between the outside world and that of the airport, signaling entrance into an alternate zone of perpetual fluctuation. The piece links two alternate urbanities, one of BART and the natural world, and the other of climate-controlled lounges and prayer rooms. Los Angeles International Airport has its giant glass pylons, lit with a sequence of colored LEDs and growing from 20 to 65 feet towards the airport, nodding to the gradual rise of a plane during take-off. Ushered by these giant columns, the passengers follow signs to the departure terminal and arrive within the borders of the airport.

What becomes immediately apparent in the airport-city is its likeness to a mall. Granted, this city has its suburbs of check-in stations at the periphery and special zones for toddlers or smokers at play, but the bulk of the area is a meticulously planned downtown devoted to commerce. Having to accommodate for any given person transitioning from any given time zone, international airports offer sundries to a remarkable variety of economic subjects – one gets breakfast at the Burger King, another indulges in a Coach handbag, a third relaxes with a Garra Fish pedicure. Effectively catering to a trapped clientele, the shops appear to both aggravate and offer relief to stressed out travelers, exasperating but appeasing them with four dollar bottles of water.

Public art and commercial retail aside, the interior passageways of airports become giant freeway interchanges. Absurd volumes of people pass through each day, and without the crutch of common language, must be directed to their destination. A combination of insistent airport symbology and a type of interior-landscape design sift people through the right sieves, fanning them out to the correct gate or providing a resting place. Of course such transit is never wholly independent; at every point the passenger is being guided forcefully through a one-way passageway. Security often forbids doubling back.

Without chewing on the gravel of airport security procedures, especially in the United States, authority in airports displays a tenacious legal and cultural identity. By mode of comparison, Stanford University conducted a controversial psychological experiment in 1971, in which participants became either guards or prisoners in a simulated prison. The study yielded a glimpse at the transformative properties of authority: those who played the role of “guard” began to institute arbitrary forms of assumed power, including random punishments and abuse. Firstly, I am incredibly grateful and respectful of TSA authorities for doing a job that would suffocate me. However, at points it felt as if the security personnel saw me as a walking meat sack stuffed with explosives, prevented from harming civilians by the careful application of a plastic sandwich baggie.

The cultural form of authority is much less serious, and takes the form of in-flight entertainment. During my flight from San Francisco to London, Virgin Atlantic offered a variety of movies, television shows and games, mediated by the individual passenger. This in itself is not entirely remarkable of the cheapest transatlantic flight with a commercial airline, but what Virgin Atlantic offered was not only variety but a style. The animated emergency landing video boasted a hip, cheeky swagger and shine with crest-of-the-wave graphics, including a passenger resembling Kanye West demonstrating the use of a life preserver. If overwhelmed by video options, the airline offers a set of endorsed choices for your voyage, and suddenly a transportation device is a tastemaker.

Arriving in Copenhagen a full 48 hours after I left Berkeley, the time spent in airports already resembled a meager stay in a foreign country. Without exiting a humidified interior, I passed through cultural and commercial outposts, where the common language may be exchanged at a currency booth.