Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Aerotropolis Now

I spent last weekend in Berlin, or, to be more precise, I spent a slow Friday night in Gatwick airport and then spent the next two days in the German capital trying to catch up on lost sleep. A five hour delay, due to a crocked Easyjet plane, meant that we didn't get our heads down till 4am on Saturday. This would have been fine if we'd been clubbing, but our itinerary was geared to early breakfasts and tramping the city streets. The delay meant an opportunity to experience the emerging airport city of Greater Crawley, courtesy of two £6 a head food vouchers from Easyjet. I did toy with the idea of blowing it all on a couple of oysters in the Caviar House & Prunier seafood bar, where I noticed John Moulton ensconced, but opted instead for steak and chips and a bottle of Cahors in Café Rouge. Naturally, the £6 barely covered the chips.

The aerotroplis trope - the city built around an airport - has been around for a while now, though outside of artificially sustained oases like Dubai there is scant evidence of the successful evolution of airports into destinations in their own right; all this despite the attempts to recreate the nineteenth century arcades experience (famously delineated by Berlin-born Walter Benjamin) as a step-up from the pile-em-high duty-free of the early jet age. Airports are necessary evils whose atmosphere blends befuddled anxiety and soul-sapping ennui. The logistics of air travel - i.e. the need for check-in, security clearance and the likelihood of long delays - means that the airport terminal is a form of purgatory far worse than a seaport or railway station, as Edward Snowden could probably attest.

The airport city is less about the physical centrality of the airport and more about the city's dependence on international flows of goods and people. An aerotroplis is not the result of the insertion of an airport into an existing city, otherwise London's gravitational centre might have shifted to Silvertown some years ago, but the creation of a brand-new urbs around a runway or four. As such, the idea is a combination of clean-slate futurism (with echoes of Futurism) and the yearning for a homogeneous, global environment suitable for the executive class, hence the emblematic importance of seafood bars and luxury brand outlets. There is a palpable nostalgia both for the bourgeois cosmopolitanism of La Belle Époque (the Art Nouveau styling of Café Rouge) and the hopeful glamour of the 1920s (the Art Deco styling of Caviar House & Prunier). The use of aeroplane iconography in the commercial areas of airport terminals is rare, though this may be partly to avoid travellers dwelling on the improbability of flight. You're more likely to see representations of the Orient Express or the SS Normandie than an Airbus A380.

These purpose-built hubs are best seen not as isolated initiatives but as a single "global network whose fast-moving packets are people and goods instead of data". The usually unstated assumption is that some travellers matter more than others: "Floating above it all, meanwhile, are the globe-trotting executives chasing emerging markets". This explains both the comforting evocation of earlier golden ages of travel (i.e. the reassurance of class boundaries and status) and the homogenised corporate advertising that attempts to simultaneously assure us that the world is both hugely various and fundamentally the same everywhere.

One thing I've always found slightly off-putting about airline advertising - specifically advertising by non-budget airlines and national carriers - is the hint of heaven: the stewardesses as angels or houris, the soft focus and sense of antiseptic calm, the (worrying) suggestion that a place in the clouds is your actual destination. It always makes me think of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death.

We ignore the obvious dissonance between this heavenly atmosphere and the noisy, cramped, fart-laden reality of coach class because we appreciate being transferred quickly from A to B (and because after 5 hours stuck in a "lounge" we'd happily stand knee-deep in pig-shit to get on the move); but surely nobody has ever voluntarily switched their bank account to HSBC because of one of their annoyingly self-satisfied posters? I wonder if the same-but-different schizophrenia of corporate advertising is solely intended to soothe the nagging anxiety of the ungrounded executive.

Apart from force of circumstances, I was musing on airports due to the recent reports that a second runway for Gatwick is looking more likely, which would put it on a par with Heathrow, and because Berlin has been heavily defined by its airports, real and imagined, over the last 100 years. We flew in to Schönefeld, which was the main airport of East Germany and is now the focus for budget airlines. It is due to be subsumed into the new two-runway Berlin-Brandenburg airport, currently being constructed alongside it. Once complete, this will lead to the closure of Tegel airport, which was originally built in 1948 for the Berlin Airlift. That had proved necessary because Tempelhof, the main airport during the Weimar and Nazi years, was too short for the larger transport planes required during the airlift and the commercial jets that came after (though it was fine for the rocket ships in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle).

An earlier Berlin airport at Staaken was used in the manufacture of zeppelins, and was re-purposed after WW1 as a film studio where part of Fritz Lang's Metropolis was shot. That film famously envisaged planes flying between skyscrapers in the city of the future, without the aid of traffic lights (and no obvious landing strips).

As a city, Berlin today has few really tall skyscrapers, despite the ongoing post-1989 building boom, with the 1969 Fernsehturm TV tower at Alexanderplatz still dominating the skyline. This shows that Lang's vision of the future was no more accurate than Hitler and Speer's bonkers Germania. Despite the weight of the past, Berlin does not feel like a city of ghosts. As you watch the kids playing hide-and-seek in the Holocaust Memorial, or wander through the typical living room in the DDR Museum (which looks little different to a British living room of the 1970s), you notice how lightly history is worn. Some of this effect is the result of the destruction of the city's fabric in WW2, and some the conscious efforts of both East and West to build a positive image during the Cold War years in what was, in West Berlin at least, an aerotropolis avant la lettre.

What I take away from this trip, apart from a gut-full of pork products, is a renewed respect for London's fragmented airport system. It obviously has its problems, but the solutions are incremental: an extra runway, better rail links, onsite cinemas etc. Folies de grandeur like Boris Island may appeal to the Hitler in us all, but the result is likely to disappoint. For the record, Berlin-Brandenburg airport is expected to be delivered at least 4 years late and vastly over budget.

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