The filmic representation of airports and its relation to real life architectural developments

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Abstract

Since 1950 airports as urban phenomena have undergone a vast transformation: from meadows being used for flying to airfields to high-tech airports. Aviation was part of a larger change of perspective concerning mobility and has had an enormous impact on our contemporary way of living. Each stage of development has its own characteristics and associated meanings, which are not only seen and lived first-hand, but are also reflected in film. The cinematic airport has developed itself just like its real life counterpart, but this development might not have been analogous. Three phases can be distinguished in the cinematic representation of airports, namely a ‘glamour phase’ (1930’s – 1950’s), ‘development of mass transportation phase and danger in the sky’ (1960’s – 1980’s) and lastly a current image of the airport as ‘non-place’ (Augé 1995). I will illustrate the three mentioned phases with film examples and compare the cinematic architecture of these to the most important changes within actual airport architecture. It is interesting to see to what extend film and real life architecture differ, because film as part of our culture often reflects our desires and fears and also assigns mythological meanings to our environment (Biró 1982: 3, 73 -75). These meanings could point to changing attitudes people towards airports, because films can reflect attitudes of their time (Hughes 1976: 52, 65, 67 - 69; Muzzio & Halper 2002: 545; Rollins 1983: 249). After comparing the cinematic architecture with the actual developments in airport architecture it can be said that there are no big discrepancies. Whenever airports went through architectural developments, it is most likely to be reflected in films. Interestingly enough, the difference between cinematic and real airports lies not in the way the architecture is presented, but more so in the meanings that were given to the location. The airport has shifted in meaning from an exciting place to be to a tedious and sometimes scary environment. (this paper was written for the 'City in Film: architecture, urban space and the moving image' conference held at the University of Liverpool, 26th – 28th March 2008.)

Conclusion

An airport is a place of transit and a transient place, in film as well as in real life. Airports will always be transient structures because its architecture and planning are subjected to innovation within aviation and to social and economic changes. This makes it a most challenging building type for architects but also an exciting location for a film.

After comparing the cinematic architecture with the actual developments in airport architecture it can be said that there are no big discrepancies. Whenever airports went through architectural developments, it is most likely to be reflected in films. The architecture of cinematic airports seems often the architecture of real airports, because a lot of films look like they were shot on location. This is probably the most important reason as to why there were no real inconsistenties between the cinematic and real airport.

The difference between cinematic and real airports lies not in the way the architecture is presented, but more so in the meanings that were given to the location. During the fifties, glamorous connotations were attached to flying, although the glamour itself was mostly generated by fashion, and the amount of service on board, than through extravagant architecture. Depending on the story line, a filmic airport can mean a safe haven, a tedious environment or a place of terror. An airport can also be a pleasant place of gathering, like in THE HIGH AND MIGHTY or a non-place where the only time people are not anonymous is at the customs desk. Looking at meanings that have been attached to airports in film, it does point us to the belief that different attitudes towards airports are reflected in films. It would be therefore very worthwhile to make a more extensive analysis of the cinematic airport.

 

Bibliography

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  • Architect Jeffers shows his utopian air city design
  • Explaining the air city design to a rich investor
  • Tiny airplane lands on model of air city
  • Closer view of air city model
  • ontwerp King's Cross

When it comes to memorable cinematic airport architecture, Preston Sturges’ THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) is an interesting example. At the beginning of the film we are shown a scale model of a new type of inner city airport. The architect/engineer explains the practicality of his design to a rich investor. A steel mesh made of stretched cables hung above a city functions as a runway. According to architect Tom Jeffers [Joel McCrea], his design is a safe solution for having an airport in the centre of the city. This idea might look highly ridiculous, yet it really wasn’t. Architects and planners have always used utopian designs for instance to test possible solutions for complex questions, or to convey shared values (Reiner, 1984: 136). At the beginning of the twentieth century the airport was a new building type and it was uncertain how aviation would develop. Architects therefore experimented with ideas in designs to explore the possibilities of airports. This is exactly what happens in the movie as Jeffers was trying to find a solution for the increasing demand in air travel in combination with its proximity to urban areas. Well known real life examples of experimental designs that place aviation in the inner city are: ‘La Nuova Citta’ (1914) by Antonio Sant’Elia; ‘Plan Voisin’ (1922-25) by LeCorbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Broadacre City’ (1930s – 1959). While these plans may not be called realistic, they are however important in the way visual representations generated new meanings for new developments, like the combination of aviation and daily life. (source: paper 'Transient Glamour' for the Liverpool conference 'City in Film'. Iris Burgers)

  • Dropping passengers off past customs
  • Dropping passengers off - customs
  • Seeing passengers off past gate
  • Dropping passengers off past customs
  • A goodbye on the tarmac

The 1954 Honolulu airport in THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (William A. Wellman, 1954) was a happy place. It has a stereotypical idea of Hawaii written all over it. It is very light, almost sunny with a bamboo interior and flowers everywhere. The facilities are minimal, a small bar and a quirky souvenir shop that sells gifts and Flower Leis. It’s also very small, with just one check-in counter. The small scale leads to the fact that passengers are treated as people, not as anonymous passengers. This airport does not imply danger neither does it feel as a non-place; it almost looks as a postcard for 1950s Hawaii. This image suited the developments of that time. During the fifties, aviation had become accessible to more people. Airlines advertised their services and promoted the luxury of flying. Airports were the gateways to the rest of the world. They were places where adventure began. This is well reflected in THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. (source: paper 'Transient Glamour' for the Liverpool conference 'City in Film'. Iris Burgers)

  • Boardroom
  • Terminal entrance
  • Entering the terminal
  • Establishing shot of terminal
  • Establishing shot terminal bird's eye

If one wants to have a reasonable understanding of the developments and problems within aviation during the seventies, watching AIRPORT (George Seaton, 1970) wouldn’t be a bad suggestion. Even though the film builds up to a hijacking by a suicide bomber, a lot of film time is set in the airport. Here the airport is a safe haven, led by airport manager Mel Bakersfield [Burt Lancaster], who spends most of the film convincing people not to close down his airport due to the heavy snowfall. In one scene Lancaster has a heated discussion about the recent problems his airport is facing, noise disturbance being his biggest concern. Bakersfield confronts one of the airport’s commissioners and tells him that he should start focussing on investing money in the development of the airport, while pointing at a scale model of the ideal airport. The problems Bakersfield was facing were very accurate of the developments within aviation and airports in that time.Changes in airport architecture have always been driven by innovation within aviation technology. The jet plane was an innovation that caused a major shift in airport planning. Planes became heavier and higher, thus being able to transport more people. This also meant they needed more space at the terminal. Unfortunately, they became louder as well, leading to a physical separation between aircraft and terminal to protect passengers against noise exposure (Bosma 1996: 53). Also leading to noise disturbance for people living under flight routes. The expansive growth of mass transportation during the fifties and sixties occurred on a scale that could not have been foreseen. (source: paper 'Transient Glamour' for the Liverpool conference 'City in Film'. Iris Burgers)

  • Establishing shot terminal bird's eye
  • Airport - in terminal
  • Airport (1975) - Terminal interieur (1/3)
  • Establishing shot of the terminal
  • Dulles International Airport - Die Hard 2

When an airport is introduced in a movie, it often starts with an establishing shot of the terminal or main hall, i.e. in THE V.I.P.S. (1963), AIRPORT (1970) and THE TERMINAL (2004). This hall is usually bustling with people, travellers, pilots and stewardesses, security people, etc. A couple of things are important for a cinematic airport, being the signage, the presence of the flight departure and arrival board, the check-in counters and finally the presence of airplanes, which often can be seen through a window. Interestingly enough this is quite similar to how train stations are represented in film (De Kuyper 1985). The difference between airports and train stations is that with train travel the actual departure starts within the station, while with airports the take off occurs in a separated area in which no passenger can enter freely. (source: paper 'Transient Glamour' for the Liverpool conference 'City in Film'. Iris Burgers)

  • Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
  • Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
  • Lockheed 1011
  • Opening sequence - Jackie Brown walking through airport

One very characteristic aspect of the inside of the L.A.X. terminal is a mosaic tiled wall. It appears in movies from the sixties through the nineties.

  • Arrival and departure signs
  • Establishing shot of empty terminal
  • Security and customs
  • Establishing shot - rush hour
  • Establishing shot - rush hour

It is safe to say that an airport doesn’t settle into a permanent shape just as it doesn’t allow its visitors to settle in for a long stay even when one is stranded there. In the 2004 film THE TERMINAL (Steven Spielberg 2004) Viktor Navorski [Tom Hanks] is trapped in the ‘International Transit Lounge’. He is lost, ‘fallen between the cracks’ of two countries. This makes him, according to the head of Homeland Security, ‘unacceptable’ as a non-person without an identity. With some difficulty Navorski eventually made a home within the terminal, found friends and even love. How is this possible in a location that is a non-place according to Marc Augé (1995)? The airport, mainly a representation of New York’s JFK, is state of the art; high security, high-tech architecture that exposes the structure of the building, huge light passageways, shops everywhere. But a home it’s not and that becomes very clear at the beginning of the film when an officer of Homeland Security puts Navorski in the lounge. Navorski asks him what he is supposed to do while he’s there. The reply is: ‘There’s only one thing you can do here, Mr. Navorski. Shop.’ (source: paper 'Transient Glamour' for the Liverpool conference 'City in Film'. Iris Burgers)