What Do Shopping Malls and Airports Have in Common?

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

For many, the year-end holidays are a time for celebration, introspection, and (invariably) travel, perhaps to be with one’s family or to steer clear of it. For many of the many, this travel requires the services of a commercial airline.

In the opening narration to Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen famously deadpans: “Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. …The horrible are…terminal cases…blind people, [the] crippled. … The miserable is everyone else.” Post-9/11 air travel seems somewhere in between.

Leaving aside the indignities of ubiquitous overbooked, under-serviced airships, much of one’s interstitial travel time is spent in perhaps the most impoverished building types of the last millennium: the airport. What began as a relatively humble affair during the inter-war years, transformed during the late 1950s and early 1960s into an architecture that, at its best, celebrated the experience of flight and the still novel event of air travel.

The original (and historically protected) bits of what once was National Airport (1941), situated in the Commonwealth of Virginia immediately across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C, and Denver’s Stapleton International Airport (1929) close to that city’s downtown, are both excellent examples of the former. When one thinks of the latter, such icons as Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK), and Dulles International, in Fairfax County, Virginia, both completed in 1962, come to mind.

There was something fundamentally original and exciting even about the early utilitarian buildings. For example, often one could trundle up a steel stair attached to the side of one of these simple buildings to a viewing platform, or walk out onto the tarmac, stand behind a fence, feel the force of the propellers, enthralled by the spectacle of flight.

In Saarinen’s terminals, flight itself was evinced through the form, space, and structure of the building. Unlike the utilitarian Stapleton and National, TWA and Dulles were less concerned with utility than with expression—TWA in particular. In the early 1970s, as modern architecture and the International Style were being reevaluated for the first time, the critic and historian Charles Jencks said of TWA that one of the reasons it failed was that it was little more than architecture-as-sculpture, “and bad sculpture at that.” Yet, today, when architecture-as-sculpture has become almost commonplace, TWA is revered as one of the greatest mid-century-modern buildings on the continent, co-starring in the final season of AMC’s Mad Men and in the Leonardo DiCaprio’s light-hearted, Catch Me if You Can (2002). Things change.

Perhaps the greatest change is in the very nature of the experience of the airport—the Transportation Safety Administration of the post 9/11 world notwithstanding. When Denver’s new International Airport finally opened in 1995 after long delays owing to infamous problems with its state-of-the-art automated luggage system, as well as César Pelli’s huge expansion of what is now known as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 1997, they were both part of a new era in airport programming. Airports were no longer simply a place to catch a plane and, perhaps, buy a chachka at a modest souvenir shop in the process. They were now quasi-destinations for shopping.

This phenomenon is not limited, sadly, to airports. Art museums, university student centers, even historic sites at which one’s entrance is now interrupted by something called a “visitor’s center,” are among the many publicly-funded building programs in this country that looked to the formulaic model of the shopping mall for financial stability. Federal and state funds that once supported many of these public typologies were steadily withdrawn beginning in the early 1980s, about the same time President Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers.

One of the unintended consequences of this new funding model is that, today, as one moves through airports in Atlanta, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and particularly throughout Asia where great quantities of infrastructure were built during the past two decades, one walks through shopping malls with airplanes attached. Pleasure pavilions such as TWA and Dulles, designed to heighten one’s experience, are simply no longer possible as an airport’s vertical surfaces now are “branding opportunities” and any horizontal surface not needed for the utility of air travel is potential rentable space.

Those of us flying out of McGhee Tyson Airport know several of these European airports well as they are often required points of connection in one’s itinerary east. In some of the worst-case scenarios, such as Paris’ Charles De Gaulle International (1975), if one is making a connection to a city in Europe, one confronts a shopping mall without planes. Security-screened ticket-holders are funneled higgledy-piggledy into a shuttle bus lumbering one to some remote location on a tarmac that, if it ends at all, must be just south of Calais.

In Amsterdam’s Schiphol, signs are posted overhead informing weary travelers of the walking time between their current location and various terminals and gates in a maze-like mall; these numbers are as soberingly large as they are grossly optimistic. Recently, a smartphone app was released to help one navigate through this labyrinth of shops selling the unnecessary to the unwitting.

This foregrounds the essential conflict between these two building types. The commercial success of shopping is largely dependent on precisely the opposite organizational strategy upon which transportation hubs depend. Shopping spaces are organized for extreme inefficiency—to deflect the shopper and extend one’s time in the zone of commerce. Hence, those airports that are the most profitable shopping malls will be, in the main, the lousiest places to catch a plane or make a connecting flight.

The McGhee Tyson Airport that services Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and East Tennessee is largely free of this dilemma. Although it has been marred on the exterior since 9/11, with what seems to be many thousands cubic yards’ worth of concrete barriers, the interior has adapted well to the histrionics of the endless war on terror. The use of local materials and a simple design strategy along with generous honorific spaces helped its managers adapt its interior non-obtrusively to new security requirements. And while one wishes that the first experience a visitor to our area encountered was not the overwhelming scent of chlorinated water from a far-too-busy fountain, things could be far worse.

In the end, while many of us kvetch that we do not live in a “hub city,” requiring us to almost always make connecting flights, there is great merit in the modest-sized regional airport. But few of the small airports I’ve frequented in Baton Rouge, La, Jackson, Miss., Spokane, Wash., Eugene, Ore., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Allentown, Pa., or Harrisburg, Pa., are as pleasant to use as McGhee Tyson. Even the TSA screening is more kid gloves than gauntlet. 

It may be too small to accommodate the new Boeing 787 on its runways, but it is also not large enough to be mega-malled. By Woody Allen’s standards, while Charles De Gaulle and Schiphol airports fall on the “horrible” side of life’s equation, McGhee Tyson is among the “miserable.” Yet, although I will never comprehend the presence of all of those wooden rocking chairs that are to its interior what Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs would be to a Cracker Barrel, much like the chlorinated fountain with its faux rocks and sculpted bears, it could be worse, and it’s a far cry from miserable.

What does a shopping mall have in common with an airport? Not much. In that regard we are, in fact, quite fortunate. Tis the season to count one’s blessings.

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

Share this Post