The airport could be seen as a gateway to liberty, for, love it or hate it, air travel has given us the wings so many humans must dream of whenever they contemplate the freedom in the flight of a bird. However, the sensation when one is in an airport is not precisely that of being free. Technology has given us the power to fly, but not gratuitously. The freedom to fly comes at a cost: an economic one; a long flight is uncomfortable and expensive, and practicality and profitability demand the design of claustrophobic spaces for travellers. Jet-travel is cramped and stressful, and embedded in the experience is the implicit fact that it if the mechanism you are locked into fails, the metal tube you sit in will hurtle down and crash in a way that will annihilate everyone on board.
Statistically, we’re told, it’s the safest form of travel. Of course, we have to trust the airlines, and hope that their needs to ensure profits will not affect the safety and maintenance standards of the aircraft we are flying in. Nevertheless, each passenger airline is a potential bomb, a potential that was taken full advantage of by terrorists in 2011.
After 9/11 things became more claustrophobic for everyone … or everyone except Power with a capital P. Terror is a liberating force for Power and the latter took full advantage of the terrorists taking advantage of air-travel, to create an authentic space of absolute control in the airports. Rather than feeling that one is passing through a gateway to freedom, airports today seems like an ugly, if thankfully brief, passage through a concentration-camp.
For Power, airports are an ideal laboratory wherein to explore the extents of control that the citizens of the so-called democratic societies are willing to endure, because whenever you travel by plane you are being asked an implicit question: what price (loss-of-freedom-price) are you prepared to pay in order to enjoy the freedom (time-winning-gain) of flying to your destination?
Power knows that the inconveniences, both the excessive controls as well as the possible threats of a hijacking or the likeliness of an accident, gradually become absorbed by society as ‘the way things are’ – an expression which is just as progress-numbing as terms like ‘destiny’ or ‘God’s will’. And this is exactly how things have played out.
To make air-travel less stressful and liberate airports from the concentration-camp models that we have today we need to rethink the whole militaristic conception of air-travel architecture. But, is that possible? Can we make more enjoyable airports? Could flying be a less-claustrophobic and more beautiful experience? Or, does the paradox between the freedom of flying and the measures required to ensure the safety of that experience imply that the airports we have today are the only kinds of airports possible?
The resolution of the paradox is a deep, essential problem, for the paradox is not just a conundrum of airports, but a paradox concerning the human-condition. As with air-travel, so it is with life itself. As with airports, so it is with our cities. The question is the same: Does the conflict between the desire for freedom and the needs of safety imply that the architecture structuring our lives today is the only feasible kind of structure that can deal with that conflict?
Freedom becomes popular when it is safe and safety implies regulation which diminishes freedom. In order to gain anything, how much must be sacrificed? It is a question as old at least as the first magical rituals. But the question we want to raise now is: is there only one solution to the paradox? Might there not be a better architecture than the one we currently have? Why are all the airports the same? How can the best model be so imperfect? Can we design our airports (and hence the entire structure of our societies) in a more comfortable, pleasant, and human way?