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«by Hannah Knox Damian O’Doherty Theo Vurdubakis Chris Westrup EBK Working Paper 2005/20 Enacting Airports: Space, Movement and Modes of Ordering ...»

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Hannah Knox

Damian O’Doherty

Theo Vurdubakis

Chris Westrup

EBK Working Paper 2005/20

Enacting Airports: Space, Movement and Modes of


Hannah Knox*

Damian O’Doherty**

Theo Vurdubakis***


Chris Westrup**

*Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, 178 Waterloo Place, The University

of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL **Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester, Booth Street West, Manchester M15 6PB ***Centre for the study of Technology and Organization, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4XY


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the (UK) Economic and Social Research Council’s Evolution of Business Knowledge research programme (Grant no RES-334We would like to thank all those who we interviewed for their assistance.

We would also like to thank Alf Rehn and the participants to the 21st EGOS Colloquium, Freie Universitat, Berlin, June 30th-July 2nd2005 for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

For further details please contact Dr Hannah Knox, CRESC, 178 Waterloo Place, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL. 00-44-(0)161-275-8989, hannah.knox@manchester.ac.uk, fax: 00Enacting Airports: Space, Movement and Modes of Ordering Enacting Airports: Space, Movement and Modes of Ordering Introduction Airports are said to epitomise much of what is held to be distinctive about the ways we currently organize our world. Castells (1996:412) argues that airports constitute nodes in ‘a new spatial form characteristic of social practices that dominate and shape the network society’, a form that he calls the ‘space of flows’. By the space of flows, Castells draws attention to ‘the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows’; and by flows he understands those ‘purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors’ (ibid). Modern societies, he argues are constructed around flows: flows of people, flows of capital, flows of information, flows of social and organizational interactions, and flows of symbols and images. Flows, for Castells, are not just one element among the many that comprise and enact contemporary social organization. Rather, they are the expression of the very processes that dominate modern life, the material ‘foundations’ of a new culture.

Flow and the dissolution of form is one of the major preoccupations of J.G. Ballard’s writing who describes the world’s major airports as being, in effect, the suburbs of a Calvinoesque ‘invisible world’, ‘a virtual metropolis whose faubourgs are named Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles De Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever circles its notional centre’ (Ballard, 1997). Augé (1995) sees airports as exemplary of what he calls the ‘non-places’ of supermodernity. Identifying airports as the epitome of epochal societal changes, these narratives hint at both the distinctiveness and ubiquity of airports as new organizational forms. Such imaginative and fatidical cultural narratives evoke and engender the hopes and fears associated with new technological orderings of organization and society. In this paper we explore the multiple ‘modes of ordering’ (Law, 1994; Mol, 2002) that airports mobilise in their efforts to construct and maintain this smooth space of flow.

The architecture and design of airports could be thought of as one modality of ordering. For visionaries such as Corbusier and Saarinen the dream had been to remove all material reminders of earth-bound inertia and resistance so as to give flight to the ‘naked airport’. In recent years architecture has become a popular medium through which to explore previously hidden and overlooked dimensions of organization where order is assembled and reproduced (Gagliardi, 1990; Burrell and Dale, 2004; Kornberger and Clegg, 2005). We briefly trace a history of airport design in order to contextualise and situate our empirical research in ‘Fulchester International Airport’1, a history which shows that modalities of ordering are situated in tension, always-already between forces of discord and (an idealised) euphonic harmony. To understand the dynamics of this organized reconciliation between entropy and the modernist ideal of flow our paper examines the various modes of ordering that Fulchester airport has sought to install through a deployment of various digital and information, communications technology.

We draw upon a two-year ethnographic study of ‘Fulchester’ to discover that the enactment of the airport as a ‘space of flows’ is supplemented by complex regimes of signification, segmentation and emplacement. The on-going work of boundary construction and its maintenance, and the ceaseless effort to repair what Mary Douglas (1966) calls ‘matter out of place’ – whether people or objects – distributes, allocates, and assigns the phenomena of organization into various ‘waiting areas’ and ‘holding pens’. We find that airports and their management are poised in-between the fear of disorder and the ideal of flow giving rise to all kinds of mediation, compromise and reconciliation. The forensic break down of organization into specialisation, division and responsibility which is then later reassembled into heterogeneous assemblages of subject-object, human-machine, and the virtual-real, helps form a complex marquetry of disjunctive fragmentation. At the confluence of competing modes of ordering, various objects, artefacts, spaces and people become ‘charged’ with tension and fissility in ways that bestow a portentous quality to organization and its social relations. Technologies and practices for the effective management of flows seek correct placement, but the ge-stell (Heidegger, 1977) of this emplacement also gives rise to new conditions of disorder and unpredictability.

Digital information and communications technology creates a spectral and uncanny double that feeds back into the here-and-now of mundane, organizational reality. This emergent hybridity between the virtual and real opens up an intensive space that seems to extend the becoming of a ‘post-human’ ontology but in so doing also provokes the return of a recalcitrant and unpredictable mass – what we might call a ‘digital reserve’ – that proliferates in delitescence and potentia behind the surface of everyday life. Here we will encounter strange phenomena and alien forces, where buildings attempt to take flight and mimic the form of aeroplanes, and passengers begin to resemble luggage. In the space of the airport the observer meets ‘flow controllers’, confront ‘snowstorms’, converses with virtual avatars and interacts with ‘artificial intelligences’. All of this seems to conspire to give the airport a mutant, self-acting, and uncanny machinic-like quality – where orderly flows are always under threat of usurpation by flux, stoppage, interruption.

The ‘naked airport’: Transparency and Flow Since its earliest days, air-flight has conjured up images associated with the excitement and thrill of adventure, transgression and travel into the unknown.

Boundaries were to be broken down, distances eradicated and the world brought closer, giving rise to a new global citizenship and community. Planes were given names like ‘Hercules’ and ‘Goliath’, and their engines called ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Pegasus’ (Gordon, 2004:55). The pioneer aviator and celebrated French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1995:13) describes the exhilaration of passing ‘beyond the borders of the real world’, and of flying blind in cloud and fog with unreliable instrumentation ‘a world void of all light and of all a substance’, where a mountain peak can suddenly ‘change into a bomb and fill the entire night with its menace (ibid.:14-17). However, writes Exupery, we ‘must throw bridges out into the darkness’. The line of flight, we might say, is irresistible, expressing an urge to innovate and extend that breaks through the enclosures of the familiar and the known. Flight restores the sense of fragility to human life as it opens up the possibility of invention and the new; from on high a ‘liberated’ vision allow us to see that we do not live on a ‘moist and tender planet’, but rather on an immense desert, ‘the essential bedrock, the stratum and sand and salt where life, like a patch of moss deep in hollow ruins, flowers here and there where it dares’ (ibid.: 33-4)’. St. Exupery’s flight reminds us that we live on insecure foundations and uncertain genealogies, a ‘wandering planet’ that ‘from time to time, thanks to the aeroplane … reveals to us its origin: a lake connected with the moon unveils hidden kinships’ (p.36).

In response to the introduction of jet airliners and the vast expansion of international air-travel between 1957 and 1970 airport design begins to reflect this spirit of adventure and travel, of a journey into the alien and unfamiliar. In 1957 Newsweek magazine declared it was a ‘Jet-Winged World’ as airport architecture took inspiration from the streamlined flow of the sleek fuselage and sweeping wing. Corbusier famously announces in Vers une Architecture that the plane and its aerodynamical struts will revolutionise the way we think and build. Everything from fountain pens to hairstyle and fashion begins to mimic the look of the jet airliner. In L’Esprit Nouveau (1920) he writes that we ‘may affirm that the airplane mobilized invention, intelligence and daring: imagination and cold reason. It is the same spirit that built the Parthenon’ (cited in Pearman, 2004:81). For airports the only kind of architecture and spatial design adequate to the new demands of jet-travel, Corbusier writes, is ‘that of the magnificent airplanes which have brought you or will take you away’ (Corbusier, 1946; cited in Vidler, 2000:179). The logic was such that airports must be designed to be ‘naked, entirely open to the sky’ (Corbusier, ibid.), a conception that replaces earlier avant-garde and futurist fantasies, from Antonio Sant’Elia to speculations by Lloyd Wright who anticipates airport skyscrapers in Los Angeles, and designs by Kenneth Lindy, Winton Lewis, and Charles Glover for elevated airports in London that sit upon the roofs of existing buildings. As Vidler (2000:180) writes, ‘the ultimate fate of airport buildings designed with such efficiencies of flow in mind was their eventual disappearance’.

Built in 1928 the Fuhlsbuttel airport in Hamburg designed by Dyrssen and Averhoff was one of the first airports to embody this notion of flow with split level design, the basement used exclusively for baggage handling, the ground floor reserved for ticketed passengers, and an upper level designed with restaurants and observation terraces for spectators. Tramlines and dual carriageway transport links brought the terminal to within a few minutes of Hamburg city centre as everything was subordinated to speed, movement, and transition. Lambert Field at St. Louis was designed to bring the sky into the terminal building through a massive cross-vaulted roof filled with huge panels of curved heat-resistant glass. The terminal induced ‘a feeling of being suspended’, one critic wrote, and its vaults appeared to float ‘like bulbous clouds’, another noted (cited in Gordon, 2004:177). Inspired by St. Louis, Eero Saarinen’s famous TWA terminal at Idlewild (JFK) in New York went further still and removed the solid, foundational plinth that typically anchors buildings to the earth. ‘We wanted an uplift’ Saarinen explained, and the terminal to be a ‘place of movement and transition’ in which everything from flight information board, clocks, lights, heating ducts, bridges, tunnels, lounges, staircase, and railings was integrated to form a continuous flowing surface invoking the ‘upward soaring quality of line’ (Gordon, ibid.:199). Sculpted like a bird, about to take off, the impression is of light and transparency, a building without terrestrial body or form, a shining orb of incandescent light somehow miraculously suspended in the medium of air. Swooping passage-ways and curved walls that become ceiling and floor add to the impression, while the gentle convex incline of the umbilical-like departure tubes, fitted with recessed lighting, emphasise and dramatise departure and flow, the seamless transition from all that is solid dissolving into otherworldly space and the infinite, extraterrestrial.

Fulchester International Seductive as this architectural dream might be, not all airports find themselves so able to enact the ideals of flow and transition in their physical form. Fulchester, one of the premier UK international airports, is a relatively more modest affair than the TWA terminal at JFK or Hamburg’s Fuhlsbuttel airport, having evolved over time in a discontinuous and piecemeal architectural fashion. It is bound by a legacy of local government transport management and regional economic development, rooted in an era of retrenchment, economy, and an unremitting functionalism that in more recent years has been overlaid with an ersatz corporate aesthetic makeover. A bricolage of inconsistency and competing ‘anti’ aesthetics, Fulchester has expanded to contrive and give form to an uneven, heteroclite assemblage, a shanty-town of partially integrated fragments and disconnected-connections, a fractured-whole that continues its tentacular spread into the surrounding environment.

Entering the main terminal at Fulchester one is asked to navigate a complex and confusing geography. Part shopping mall, night-club and hotel lobby, part executive business conference suite and bus station, the modern airport has a strong claim to represent the logical evolution of Benjamin’s Paris Arcades or the carnivalesque phantasmagoria of its ‘dialectical fairyland’ (Benjamin, 1999; see Burrell and Dale, 2004). Open planned spaces swarm with jostling crowds, surrounded by digital publicity hoardings that flicker, dissolve and reform; shopping-channel TV stations compete with the VDU broadcast of constantly updating departure information; and screens displaying digital animation and high speed graphics clamour for attention against the backdrop of games consoles and gambling machines.

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