jumbo architecture

spacious ageMy contribution to the new Histories of Postwar Architecture issue involves a longstanding interest in how technology gets expressed–usually inadvertently–in spaces relating to aviation.  “Jumbo Architecture” argues that designs for aviation have always been influenced by the scale and character of the aircraft themselves, and by the ways in which technology–building or aeronautical–conditions the experiences of flying, inside and out.  This applies to terminal design, sure, but also the interiors of aircraft themselves and the protoplasm of freeways, cleared landscapes under glide slopes, and tarmacs that turn airport themselves into urban precincts.  It’s a topic at the other end of building technology from where I usually sit, but one that’s provided tons of provocative examples since I started reading up for my grad thesis project back in the early 90s.

There was a particularly interesting moment in the late 1960s when the 747 first came into service, and the sheer size of the new planes themselves–and the number of passengers they discharged into terminals and cities designed for much smaller 707s and DC-8s–stressed airports almost to the point of breaking.  JFK in New York suffered agonizing traffic jams airside and landslide throughout the early 1970s because the scale of  the Jumbo Jets produced exponentially more complicated handling, and the numbers led to qualitative differences in how passengers had to be processed.  No longer could travelers simply drive up to the terminals and walk on–systems of passenger and baggage handling grew to massive proportions, and wedging these into existing sites led to architectural and vehicular contortions that proved to be utterly disorienting.

WorldportThe most striking example of this was the transformation of the glassy, parasoled canopy of JFK’s Pan Am Terminal into the “Worldport” in 1970–possibly the century’s most confusing and alienating piece of terminal architecture.  Pulling the guts of passenger, baggage, and automotive circulation out into the tarmac led to logic-defying twists of waiting areas, corridors, and elevators.  It was possible to deplane, circulate fully one lap of the terminal via elevator cores, immigration, and baggage claim, and find oneself hailing a taxi directly underneath the plane one had just disembarked.

pan am time selectorBut Worldport was just one piece of a continuum of spatial and temporal experiences that, for the first time, got beyond easy human comprehension.  The asensory nature of the aircraft cabins themselves, helped along by generous doses of sedating alcohol and movies, insulated passengers from any visceral sense that they were actually flying.  And the trans-oceanic nature of Jumbo travel meant that time itself was no longer a fixed, comprehensible element of the flying experience.  Pan Am’s “Time Selector” attests to the confusion involved in crossing so many time zones in one jump, and to the desire to somehow transcend the jet-lagged fogginess that came on arrival.

DFWAt the other end of the spectrum, building for the Jumbo Jets changed previously accepted truths about urbanism.  What to make, for example, of the Manhattan-sized Dallas-Fort Worth airport, designed not around monumental terminals, but instead around a looping, counterintuitive set of freeway offramps and thin, membrane like terminals?  Or terminals like Tampa’s, where monorails took the place of promenades?  The 747 eviscerated not only conventional architectural norms, it also quickly made the jet-age elegance of terminals like the original Pan Am building at JFK obsolete.

A380Poignant stuff, I think, especially with the news this week that Delta is retiring the last 747 to see commercial passenger service in the U.S.  The trend has been to smaller, twin-engined planes that are more agile and fuel efficient, thought the ultra-jumbo Airbus A380 has taken the place of the 747 on long haul flights.  And, needless to say, the disorienting and disquieting effects of air travel have hardly diminished as a result.

Glad to have HPA as a new venue for architectural publishing, and to have this diversion into the experiences of technology in the inaugural issue…