Monday, May 28, 2012

Airports (2): Changi International

It has a free cinema that never closes, a tropical butterfly enclosure, indoor gardens and a hotel that charges by the hour. You can visit it in virtual reality or check out its dedicated page on FourSquare. But to actually get there you’ll have to book an international flight. It is not a place for residents, other than the thousands of people who work there. It’s like a gated transnational citadel inhabited by a vast transient population of weary world travellers.

I am beginning to get quite familiar with Terminal 3 of Changi Airport. I mostly travel with Singapore Airlines these days, which is the cheapest carrier on my particular route but also an excellent airline in terms of comfort, and you learn to appreciate that. The airport too is above all that – comfortable. It is vast but not in supremacist fashion, and unlike, say, Dubai airport, it seldom makes overt attempts to dwarf the puny traveller. (With the possible exception of the large halls on the ground floor. This is the best picture I could take of the one adorned with Han Meilin’s giant sculpture entitled 'Mother and Child'.

Here, why don’t you go fill out your departure card next to those towering guardians.)

However generally the architecture, even in the larger spaces, is more welcoming than that. And for an airport catering primarily for the budget traveller, Changi has unusually good facilities – ranging from free to relatively cheap – to help you get some rest without having to crash on the floor in a corner somewhere. New this year: the Snooze Lounge.

Okay, it’s just a dozen or so chaise-longues placed behind a screen, but if you’re the kind of person who is able to sleep in public it might save you the cost of the airport hotel. (Regarding which, see this old post. We got another room just like that one this time, with an identical curtained wall.)

Changi is also fairly unusual in having actual non-commercial amenities: a small cinema with free entry showing the kind of films you might see on a long-haul flight, a series of pretty and peaceful gardens and a large butterfly enclosure that my son rather enjoyed. He took this picture of a butterfly eating sliced pineapple in the middle of the night – now how many people can say that? – although I worry that he might have blinded the creature in the process.

All in all, this is an airport that doesn’t give the impression of being in the sole business of shunting you around or extracting money from you, which is probably the reason why it gets so many awards, and as likely as not makes commercial sense as well. Because once you’ve done one or two of the free activities and you’ve had a little rest, chances are you will be fairly well-disposed to march through the mile-long strip of shops that Terminal 3 has to offer. On this count Changi doesn’t differ from any other large international airport I’ve been through: it is perfumes and ties and consumer electronics and high-end clothing and accessories, with the usual predominance of Western global brands.

The lifestyle imagery seems to have settled over the last few years into a gendered mix of nameless, slightly terrifying post-human women

New. CyberWhite Brilliant Cells.

and arch-famous men, brooding and soul-less.

Any of these pictures could have been taken at any time in the last four years. That is how long Terminal 3 has been operating and also coincidentally how long I’ve been acquainted with it. It’s an interesting time span, for you might expect to see change in such a place as a result of the great financial crisis. Above all you might expect those almost unbearably white images of ideal beauty and elegance to have less of a total hold, and for the shifting balance of economic power to start being reflected in how global capitalism itself is marketed to the international traveller. For there is another picture that I didn’t take during this last trip, and if I had it would hardly give a sense of the scale of the thing, but I have it very much in my mind as I write this post: it’s the aerial view of the port that we caught at one in the morning. Although it was the same shade of black as the land, we could tell that it was the sea beneath us. It had its own shape, and the lit up structures on it were not as thick as buildings on land and were scattered in a peculiar way. Those lights belonged to hundreds of tankers and container ships, stretching as far as the horizon.

The port of Singapore is the world’s largest in terms of shipping tonnage, and this is how busy it was at one in the morning. The spectacle of its activity spoke of a very different economy from the one apparent inside Terminal 3 at Changi Airport: no longer the highly symbolic, late postmodern economy that sells the image of the cybernetic woman in order to move tiny bottles of absurdly expensive perfume, or the image of the socially conscious playboy film star in order to hawk the world’s most prestigious watch, but an economy of things. A fifth of the world’s shipping containers. Half of the world’s supply of crude oil. An unfathomably vast quantity of stuff, some of which to be sure must have an emotional content, and be subject to intellectual property laws ensuring that the profits keep flowing to the old centres of Western power for a while longer. But in those quantities, when they ship by the containerful, even the products that currently most define our affective relationship with brands – the iPhone and the iPad – turn back into objects, mere slabs of glass, metal and plastic that couldn’t possibly be as different from other slabs stamped with different logos as we have been vehemently led to believe.

The sight of the port of Singapore at one in the morning convinced me of two things: firstly, that we don’t live in a post-industrial world; secondly, that the image of a global economy based on the exchange of symbols and the almost-as-flawless transmission of bodies produced in sites such as Terminal 3 of Changi Airport is nearing the end of its useful life. Perhaps postmodernity was an interlude, a confidence trick, and modernity is the Port, the place that things must go through, like so many other places throughout geography and history. We who look at it as we fly overhead are the unreal ones, the cyberwhite creatures they use to sell things.

Part one of this series was Dubai.