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Generic airports and junk space

Alejandro Martin

Alejandro Martin

AERTEC / Airport Planning & Design, Architecture

There is a general trend in the way of solving contemporary airports. This trend, demanded by most of those responsible for building and operating airports, has a direct impact on their sustainability and, in a very high percentage of cases, has much more to do with mass consumption as a concept than with the own transport infrastructure.

This trend generates “junk space”. And “junk space” is unsustainable.

Lack of identity, planning or excessive technology are characteristic of many of today’s airports, making them essentially unsustainable.

Generic airports

A few years after Stanted’s airport terminal, designed by Norman Foster, came into service, another great architect, Dutch urban planner Rem Koolhaas coined the term “junkspace” to define the direction that architectural design was taking in our cities. It is surprising how Koolhaas wondered at that time: “are contemporary cities the same as current airports?” Indeed, almost 30 years ago it was taken for granted that airports, save some honorable exceptions such as Stanted, were becoming something “generic”. No matter where they were, they are all the same. When identity is absent, what remains is generic.

So, what are generic airports? What characteristics -usually- define the airports that we normally visit for leisure or work? In my opinion, they are the result of combining these three concepts:

  • Lack of identity
  • Lack of planning
  • Excess technology (to make up for the lack of identity)

In this post, I intend to slightly outline these ideas:

Lack of identity

Airports lack identity – any building really – when they are not bound to the place hosting it. This is the reason why, when we travel, we see identical solutions in completely different places. And since the greatest symptom of sustainability is “locality”, airports without identity are unsustainable.

Yes, that is sustainability. Act locally, with global awareness.

Moreover, this lack of identity is exacerbated by excess consumption. Shopping is the only activity that seems important, driven by a perpetual search for “character” that obliterates identities.

Lack of planning

Generic airports are also the result of a lack of planning. This is paradoxical, since a huge effort is made to draft master plans that “mark” airport growth. But drafting a plan is neither sufficient nor efficient – in the full sense of the word – if we are subsequently unable to adapt that plan to emerging needs. Finding a balance between present needs and future demands is key to successful planning.

However, what is customary is “mercilessly” building one layer on top of another, without respecting the pre-existence that legitimizes all previous efforts. It is a perpetual, multiple-choice process of adjustment that systematically abandons and demolishes what no longer works. It is a problem of lack of global awareness and generational selfishness.

Excess technology

Excess technology is a consequence of the two abovementioned concepts and one that has a direct impact on the way architecture of generic airports is conceived. Projecting an airport design without considering the unique features of the site, its culture and especially its climate leads to the resolution of problems through technology. We could say it leads to a provincialism of that which is merely mechanical, abandoning the gray matter under the certainty that everything can be solved through technological gadgets. That is why generic airports are always air-conditioned. They always have air conditioning. In fact, this is usually one of the biggest issues in terms of energy and economics. On many occasions, complex cold generation plants are projected that feed numerous and enormous air conditioners, to imitate inside the building the climatic conditions occurring simultaneously outside.

Junk space

Obviously, examples founded on an intelligent approach exist that fly high above this generalized scenario. But unfortunately, it seems the former are not very common. In fact, this generation to which we belong is the one that has built the most in history. And for the most part, what has been built is simply “junk space”, a space that we can conclude is characterized by:

  • Replacing hierarchy with accumulation, and composition with addition. More and more; more is more. The approach seems to be designed for saturation and congestion, so that accumulation and the ambition for “more” reign above all else.
  • Being endless, never close. Historically, renovation and restoration occurred after very long periods of time. Now we are witnesses to and participants in that process; such is the volatility of what we build.
  • Giving consumption a leading role capable of altering our habits and the way we perceive the world. Shopping malls, for example, manage to blur the boundaries between the traditional categories of landscape, urbanism or architecture.

In the past, infrastructures were much more severe, they had an almost monumental purity, which was the original objective of modern architecture. Now, however, they enthusiastically embrace junkspace. Stations and airports open up like steel butterflies, becoming true paradigms of this concept.

Following this pattern, “ever-unfinishedairports, instead of reusing and giving some use to their old terminals, deform them until they become unrecognizable, demolish them to rebuild them in the same place or shamelessly take up more space, abandoning them altogether.

Plasterboard boxes that cloak precious coffered ceilings. Mechanical belts arranged on a floor made up of “floor” remnants. What was once straight is now twisted into ever more complex elements. Twists, turns, ascents and descents that try to avoid former layouts are those that include typical paths from the entrance on the landside to the boarding gate of a typical contemporary airport. And since we never question the absurdity of these forced detours, we tamely follow these itineraries which, in reality, seek only a single purpose: have us all pass before countless product counters.

In the words of Koolhaas himself, if we don’t avoid it, “junk space” will finish us because, while half of humanity pollutes to produce, the other half pollutes to consume.

 

Junk space in airports

 

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