Inevitably, airport design must change

Secure structures will filter out all but 'clean' passengers


April 21, 2002|By Michael Sorkin | By Michael Sorkin,NEW YORK TIMES

Mass transportation has introduced radically new spaces to the world -- not just the coach or cabin of the vehicle, but that less definable place in between, the space of the rapidly passing view, of suspension and uncertainty. These new means of transport required dramatically new architectures, from the great ocean liners' thousand-foot piers, to the subways' tubular stations, to the railroads' bustling grand terminals, to the airlines' sleek modular terminals.

Not just technologically innovative, railway stations, with their remarkable complexity, scale and transparency, introduced a new kind of civic environment -- one of crowds temporarily assembled at vast temples of distribution. It was not so strange that -- grasping for an apt architecture -- New York's great terminals were classically inspired: by the Baths of Caracalla in the case of Pennsylvania Station, by dispersed historical references at Grand Central Terminal. Classicism was the default for an ambitious secular public architecture.

The crystal palace of the train station has now evolved into the airport, the mass transit node of the multinational era. Like their predecessors, these buildings were inspired by a paradigm of loftiness, seeking to create a similar symbol of ambition and accomplishment often by combining crystalline form with airfoil shape. However, anyone who has been to an airport post-Sept. 11 is unlikely to have had an uplifting civic experience.

One reason for this predates Sept. 11: the transformation of the airport's real business into shopping. As variations on malls, airports are increasingly multiple points of purchase and shoplifter scrutiny.


This micro-choreography of surveillance and security is also embodied in the new measures imposed to screen for terrorists. Such procedures favor architectural layouts based on the channeling of passenger-suspects through nets of choke-points, extracting different information each time.

The airport becomes all-seeing, logging passengers in when they check luggage, tracking them as they use the cash machine, get a boarding card, buy scotch in the duty-free.

However grand the larger structures that accommodate all this, the experience of travel will increasingly devolve into small sites of intimate engagement with the human and technical instruments of surveillance. Short-term effects of this new security regime are already clear in the mismatch between the dimensions of check-in areas and the need to screen passengers and luggage before they reach the counter. As a result, passengers wait in snaking queues, often outdoors, just to get into the building.

New airports are already being designed to accommodate such preliminary inspection stations and older airports reconfigured for this re-proportioning of activity -- alleviating crowding not through the grandeur of the train station, sized to bustle, but through new orders of regimentation and squeeze. This architecture will have far stronger affinities with an ATM anteroom than the Gare du Nord.

Airports will act as giant filtration machines, designed to deliver "clean" passengers and luggage to the aircraft. For some this lock-step rationality will be reassuring; for others it will only magnify the fear.

Perhaps, Disneyland-style, buskers will entertain those waiting in this series of endless lines, and clocks -- in that ultimate psychological ruse -- will let passengers know they have a half-hour to wait from a given point, creating delight when they discover the actual time served was, say, only 25 minutes.

Privacy and privilege

As airlines try to provide better service for regular customers, several carriers have suggested that special identification be offered to frequent fliers, pre-certifying them for quick passage. An Israeli firm is trying to sell airlines a biometric screening device that it says is used to "expedite" the movement of 80,000 Palestinian workers across the Israeli border every day.

At the airport, use of iris scanners, handprint readers and huge databases might well be required to marshal the movement of passengers through the new universe of virtual borders. In fact, the surrender of privacy will be the currency of privilege in the new system. With a biometric profile, platinum card and perhaps a company-issue GPS, frequent fliers' locations (and that of their luggage) will be known within feet at all times. For their own security, of course.

The desire for security induces us to give up our rights, beginning with our right to privacy: Jokes about traveling nude turn out to be close to the heart of the matter.

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