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.