Monday, October 12, 2009

Airports (1): Dubai International

So I come finally to my principal point here, that this latest mutation in space - postmodern hyperspace - has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and to map cognitively its position in a mappable external world.

(Fredric Jameson)

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport”.

(Douglas Adams)

Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai. Increasingly for the modern traveller these aren’t final destinations, but rather stopovers en route to Japan, Europe or North America, Australia or New Zealand. And if it’s not where you’re going, what does it matter where they actually are, except in a vague place in-between? It does not, and accordingly none of these aggressively modern and hyperfunctional airports make much effort to remind you that you are in China as opposed to Thailand 1, or the United Arab Emirates as opposed to pretty much anywhere else on the planet. They are non-places, designed to make you forget who you are and where you are, reducing you to an amorphous and largely anonymous person in transit who has some time to eat and shop before boarding the next plane.

This last trip marked my first time at Dubai International, the largest such hub, and I was duly befuddled and impressed. The place is vast, stunningly so, stretching on an east-west axis for a couple of miles - Terminal 3 is in fact the largest building in the world by floor space. Not that I knew that at the time, obviously. Seeing as you rarely get to sit in the cockpit, it’s hard to get a sense of the layout of an airport before you land, and by the time you’ve hit the tarmac, you’re too close to see the thing whole. The glimpse from the window is enough to suggest that the inspiration for the design of this terminal in the middle of the desert must have been the sandworms from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Alternatively, once inside, one gets the feeling that what is being recreated is the belly of a whale, with steel ribs supporting the translucent flanks of the beached leviathan. The terminal's elongated shape ought to make orienting oneself very easy, but on such a large scale even walking down a perfectly straight corridor can give the disorienting sensation of not moving at all.

As difficult as it is to locate oneself spatially within the terminal, figuring out the place of the terminal in the world is even harder: pretend you can't see the Emirates Airlines planes lined up outside, and look for a sign - any sign - of which country it is that lies beyond the glary mist. The bilingual signage suggests it's likely to be somewhere in the Arab world, but that's about as specific as it gets. The architecture is pure transnational postmodern hyperspace, designed to be as culturally un-specific as possible. And sure, inside there is the odd homage to the indigenous architecture,

but it's on a par with, say, the Irish element

and both are subsumed and ultimately dwarfed by the display of the power of global capital via large electronic screens stuck on some sort of hypnotic screensaver

or the predictable water mega-feature

or the equally as inevitable, nature-defying indoor forest.

The privileging of the commodified, anonymous global dimension over the sociohistorical local mirrors in turn the state of the subject who passes through the terminal. On the occasion of his arch-famous visit at John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Fredric Jameson was in full possession of his considerable critical faculties and, one assumes, not at all jetlagged. Now, imagine if he had been dropped into one of those elevators halfway through a thirty-hour flight, clutching his passport like a person who might just need to remind himself of his vital statistics. How much sharper would the effects he describes have been? And would he have managed to observe, recall and articulate them as eloquently as he did?

The bamboozled world traveller, a figure of privilege that one might not feel inclined to be unduly sympathetic towards, is nonetheless a vulnerable person, and if you make them walk from one end of the terminal to the other to catch their next flight, you might just be able to squeeze enough money out of them to sustain your giant indoor palm habit. So naturally at the heart of Terminal 3 is a vast duty free mall, selling everything from cosmetics and booze to jewellery and high-end electronics, all strictly from delocalised brands of global renown. It's not quite a full-scale sensory assault, but don't forget that the subjects are already weakened by a punishing travel schedule, their compliance all but guaranteed.

The intercontinental aviation industry is a machinery designed to defy geography, an intent which is mapped directly onto the duty free mall: a non-place inside of another non-place, the world as it is dreamt of by advertisers and marketers, whose denizens are barely conscious automata. No longer citizens, yet perfect consumers: it really is the apotheosis of globalised late-stage capitalism. And with its projected annual capacity of 62 million travellers, Dubai International may just give us a glimpse of what the industry is actually about: not getting people where they want to go, but rather getting them halfway there, to the hubs, and force them to walk through the duty free malls. 62 million customers who are dazed, stateless, forgetful, unsure about the rates of exchange and how much things actually cost, yet can be relied upon to sign their names at the bottom of credit card receipts, for that is a reflex.

(1) Scratch Thailand, actually - keeniau explains why in the comments.


Christopher. said...

Coming back from London, stopping at Hong Kong, I too entered that dazed world of no-place, where Starbucks and other corporates flourish, sucking, as it did, some money from me for a frappacino.

keeniau said...

Great post. Thanks!

My only criticism is that it seems a bit tough on non-Western locations. It is interesting that Sydney and LAX weren't choosen...instead Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore were given as examples. Many New Zealanders transit through LAX and Sydney and they are amongst the dreariest airports around. I agree with the blog and it is interesting, but it is also important not to to expect Thai, Chinese or Arabs to have a higher standard or art, culture and community than we are prepared to demonstrate ourselves (i.e the West).

I also thought the example of bangkok was a little poor. Of all the major international airports that it the one that has most tried to incorporate local culture and mythology with 20 metre high statues of mythical creatures, hundreds of murals reflecting ancient and modern Thai culture (from scences from the Ramakian to giant artistic shots of Thai transgendered people), and a deliberate attempt to encourage Thai cuisine.

Of course, it its still a giant shoppoing mall, but these countries do that them in the cities as well :-)

A really interesting post though. Thanks.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I haven't been to the new Bangkok airport, just the old one, so thanks for that clarification. I look forward to flying with Thai again, actually, it's always a toss-up between them and Singapore and now Emirates. I pick the cheapest fare, so it's a luck of the draw type of thing. Cathay is a little dearer these days, at least for Italy.

I agree that Sydney is dreary, but it's a comparatively small airport (not in the world' top 30), not a hub at all, and very specificallly Australian. Los Angeles and Frankfurt (of the ones I've seen) fit the description better, and for sure their duty free malls are just as indistinguishable from any other as Dubai's is, but there I got the sense that they were actual destinations, not transit hubs, and more assertive, keener to remind you of where you were.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, I definitely need to check out the new Bangkok airport.

Paul said...

Would the experience have been any better had you left the airport and visited Dubai, the city? I think not.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't know, form the air it definitely looked like a rather intriguing place, the outskirts especially had a certain eerie beauty. And if David Fisher's dynamic tower ever gets built, I'm going to have to see it.

But as I say, I don't know. The time constraints on my trips home are such that I never have the leisure to leave these airports and do even the tinies bit of sightseeing, so I'm sure that compounds the feeling of being displaced I described in the post.

katy said...

I detest Sydney airport so I felt compelled to check how busy it is. It seems to be just outside the Top 30 and indeed for most passengers (apart from NZers) it is probably a destination rather than a stop en route. Which makes it even more surprising that it is so very awful; until the past few weeks there has been nowhere comfortable to sit and I have spent many hours in there, amazed at how awful it is. Surprising given that regional Australian airports such as Adelaide and Brisbane are ok.

Checking the list of busiest airports made it clear that most are, as you say, "destinations" in their own right or focussed on serving domestic travellers. This includes many of the US airports and Tokyo International (Haneda), the world's fourth busiest by passenger number, which is basically a domestic airport (Narita is the international airport for Tokyo). I am always amazed at how relaxed and unhurried Haneda is for a place that handles such a volume of people. It has plenty of shops and a mall-like atmosphere, but so does Japan; it would be more shocking if you couldn't buy stuff.

Giovanni Tiso said...

it is probably a destination rather than a stop en route. Which makes it even more surprising that it is so very awful; until the past few weeks there has been nowhere comfortable to sit and I have spent many hours in there, amazed at how awful it is.

On the other hand if an airport is your final destination, you're less likely to have substantial time to kill there. Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore are clearly geared at people who might need to spend hours there in between flights, so they offer plenty of services and are all *very* comfortable.

I wonder though to what extent it might be a relatively new idea, and about its history. Until a few years ago Los Angeles for instance was just the opposite of the situation I describe in the post, as anybody who's ever been in any of their Kafkaesque transit lounges knows all too well. During an emergency trip in 1999 I came very close to being detained there in fact. Now I always try to go through Asia, there really is no comparison.

Daleaway said...

In the 1970s, long-haul journeys often comprised short hops. On one trip back from the UK in 1973, for example, we stopped to refuel in Rome, Abu Dhabi, Bombay, Bangkok, and Fiji (for 10 hours!). Everybody out!

A philosophical debate ensues: you may have rested at that location, maybe eaten something, used the loos, even bought some local handcrafts from a souvenir stand or shop - but if you haven't set foot outside the airport, can you claim to have ever been to that country?

Anonymous said...

"The bamboozled world traveller, a figure of privilege that one might not feel inclined to be unduly sympathetic towards"

But this figure is changing too, isn't s/he?

One of the explicitly stated strategic goals of Ryanair, for instance, has been to end the association of air travel with luxury and the expectations luxury or 'special' travel brings with it.

Part of the way the big airlines have set up budget airlines is direct class warfare against cabin staff, to be sure, (and which led, if I remember rightly, to industrial action in NZ this year?) but I think there are also issues for place and memory that touch more directly on this blog's concerns.

At least part of the massive increase in air travel seems tied, to me, not to luxury or affluent lifestyles but to strains connected with neoliberalism. When holiday entitlements have been attacked it's often quicker and cheaper to go to a set overseas destination than it is to travel to more traditional leisure spots within the country.

Certainly here in Tokyo there are regularly deals advertised giving you 3 or 4 days in Bali or NY for less than what it would cost to take a longer holiday travelling by train to Nagasaki. All sorts of social and environmental awful consequences come from where that heads, but they seem to me more signs of social constriction than opulence.


GZ said...

Those prominent glass arches are a strong homage to Islamic architecture, and elements of arabesque are evident in the design. These are subtle cues that might not seem obvious, but are there nonetheless.

But generally, your point holds true. These spaces are designed to be innocuous and unthreatening to the international traveller, and somewhat familiar.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Daleaway: but if you haven't set foot outside the airport, can you claim to have ever been to that country?

I certainly don't claim to have been to any of the places I mentioned in the post. I might have had my passport stamped in Thailand at one point, but that doesn't mean much either.

@dougal: But this figure is changing too, isn't s/he?

I think it is. In relation to what you write, though, on "my" route I'm discovering something quite different: certainly compared to twelve years ago, when I immigrated to New Zealand, the prices have remained more or less the same (once you factor in inflation, they might have decreased slightly) but the experience has shifted towards what used to be the luxury end, meaning that these days you (almost) get in coach the kind of service that you used to get in business class: personal entertainment system, more leg room, better food, laptop and data ports, the possibility of texting and emailing during the flight. And on these Asian routes, airports with fairly affordable lounges and short-stay hotels rates, better seating, a greater stress on personal comfort, notebook and laptop stations for recharging your sensors. That last aspect, the techno-baggage of the modern traveller, also has a significant impact on the psychology of travel, on what you are predisposed and able to remember - I might talk about that at some stage. But on the whole, while I'm sure what you says applies in a variety of different areas and on other routes (from NZ to the rest of the Pacific, for instance), I haven't been able to observe it directly.

@George: These are subtle cues that might not seem obvious, but are there nonetheless.

They were far too subtle for me! And I'm still unconvinced about the glass arches to be honest. But just to be clear, I'm not expecting Italian airports to have leaning control towers either, or for the folkloristic detail or the more or less subtle architectural cues to matter: it's the whether and in what manner a terminal is connected to the city, the country in which it is located, in what ways you are reminded of this connection. I don't even recall local souvenirs at Dubai airport - I'm sure they must have had them, I just didn't notice them. Wellington airport by contrast is most certainly a New Zealand airport, it's not downplayed at all. Dreary Sydney too greets you with artworks designed to highlight where it is that you are, and is comfortable with its belonging, if that makes any sense.

katy said...

"On the other hand if an airport is your final destination, you're less likely to have substantial time to kill there."

You'd think so but I would still rather wait for a plane at Brisbane airport than Sydney! I think there must be more to why Sydney is so awful but I am not sure what it is. But yeah, I understand the distinction you are making.

"Wellington airport by contrast is most certainly a New Zealand airport, it's not downplayed at all."

I was pondering the difference between the different NZ airports. Wellington airport is much nicer than any of the others and aggressively local but I must confess to a bit of cultural cringe with the "Bach theme" that AirNZ has pursued in the Koru Club lounges; is there a nice middle ground between dreary international and painful local?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Nicely put. Is this a good time for me to admit that I rather miss ol' Gollum?

Daleaway said...

Sorry Giovanni!
I originally wrote "one" instead of "you" - then in trying to avoid sounding elitist, I wound up sounding accusatory! Not aimed at you at all, it was my question to myself....

Giovanni Tiso said...

No, no, that's how I understood that "you" as well, I just thought I'd chip in with my sense of it seeing as it spoke directly to the topic.

GZ said...

Having not been there, these are rather tentative assertions; but I see the columns as being deliberately evocative of those in mosques, particularly the gold bulges; the use of black against off white, not unique to this part of the world, but done in a particular way. As I said earlier, the windows convince me. Compare this image of Islamic arches from Malaysia, which is rapidly defining public space as Islamic space, and in which Islamic cues in architecture are becoming more defined.

To the question of "being there". I think countries become more real to you when you've been through their airport - the simple fact of dealing with people who are in their own land changes your perception of their country. I don't think that's equivalent to "being there". If you visit a country, and do only the tourist scene as very many people do can you also claim to have "been there"? If you've stayed in hotels, seen only designated attractions, spent your time in buses and only met other travelers and members of the tourist industry? I'd rather like to think that there is a continuum of immersion.

GZ said...

To clarify my point - arches are certainly not solely the domain of Islamic architecture. But what they do is to evoke the classical and a history of greatness and nobility, in the same way as Romanesque does in Europe.

Giovanni Tiso said...

They just don't look like arches to me - more like triangles bent by the curvature of the roof.

Paul said...

Let me through - I am an Architectural Historian.

The arcade in Giovanni's fourth photograph seems to be an attempt at a generic reference to Middle Eastern architecture. I don't know of any building with that particular arrangement of arches and I suspect you won't find one - arcades throughout the Islamic parts of the world have one row of arches. Perhaps this structure is not intended to be Arab or Islamic. Perhaps it is the back wall to Ye Olde Mediaeval Tea Rooms, or something like that.

It would be difficult to claim that it an homage to the indigenous architecture, because there is none. Dubai's oldest building is the Al Fahidi Fort, built at the end of the 18th Century. Otherwise, there are only a few old buildings, none of them of any significance. The town hardly existed until the 19th Century and the region was mostly desert until the 20th. The absence of an indigenous culture (Dubai's population is mostly expatriate) was behind my earlier comment about visiting the city being little different from being in the airport. Dubai has far too much contemporary architecture all of it hideous.

As to windows in the sixth photograph, I agree with Giovanni that they are just windows. They are far too pointed to be Islamic.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Let me through - I am an Architectural Historian.

Quite so. Rumour has it you're going to give a talk in Wellington in the coming weeks - permission to advertise it?

It would be difficult to claim that it an homage to the indigenous architecture, because there is none.

I expressed myself badly - I meant indigenous in the same way that greco-roman architecture, as featured on the Euro banknotes, is indigenous to the thing we call Europe.

GZ said...

Paul, you are the specialist.

Megan Clayton said...

A man, eaten by a worm
holds his credit card aloft
while hands that look well-meaning
pull him out, or in,
to the body of another worm.

To travel, you must be consumed,
the body's clock that eats itself, enamel cracked, politest teeth:
hot towel, sir? Your length of stay?
(the time that was, where once you were).