I HAVE a memory, or perhaps it is a memory of a memory when I was three, flying with my mother from Melbourne to Adelaide on a cold night in a noisy plane that had two big propellors. We were joining my father to board a ship sailing from Outer Harbour, bound for England. He was a young aeronautical engineer who had spent three years working at the Government Aircraft Factory at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne, and now he was off to England for two years of research at Farnborough Airport. My recollections of the slow six-week voyage are unreliable, except for looking through the cabin porthole at the lights of boats flickering across the water.
On a desk in his parent’s house stood a framed photograph of his older brother who at the age of nineteen volunteered to fight in the Second World War. When enlisting he joined the shortest queue he could find, which happened to be for the air force. The photograph showed him in uniform, a highly decorated pilot who happened to fly on the night of the famous dam busting raid. My father and his brother died some time ago, and I never thought to ask why my father chose aeronautical engineering.
As it happens, Adelaide has claim to part of the history of flying, thanks to local brothers Ross and Keith Smith. In 1919 with the help of two colleagues and a Vickers Vimy biplane, they were the first to fly from London to Darwin in less than thirty days, so winning the prize of £10,000 offered by Billy Hughes, the Prime Minister of the time. Their plane has since been resting in a small but purposeful museum at Adelaide airport, where you are welcome to walk around this little craft and marvel at its achievement.
In Adelaide the airport exerted its presence. It was close to the city so planes flying overhead were a part of daily life. My mum always said that Adelaide was really a country town; it did have an innocent simplicity in those days. The airport, like the old wharves of Port Adelaide that you could stroll along, was a regular place to visit and while away some time. The smooth white terminal building was small and simple, where the entertaining comings and goings of people and their bags were on display for all to see. Upstairs there was an open air observation deck where you could look over the apron and admire the planes and their manoeuvres. It even boasted a licensed bar, which was the only one in town open on Sunday afternoons.
In those days flying was for the rich and famous while most relied on the train and the bus to escape the bonds of their neighbourhood. But, how things have changed since then! Catching a plane is as cheap as going by bus; air travel is accessible to millions of people who now assume it to be just a part of life, so the skies are full of planes taking people anywhere they would like. Except of course in the event of an international terrorist attack, a major global financial disaster, or a deadly worldwide virus, when we might think twice about the things we take for granted.
Airports have taken on the guise of shopping malls flanked by giant carparks and filled with international retail brands which ensure that the traveller’s experience will be the same the world over. Like gamblers in a casino, travellers are gently coerced into a continuous desire to spend their money, and the time spent flying from airport to airport becomes an inconvenient disruption. An airport is now a symbol of status for cities and nations in their desire to build their reputations or to feed their tourism addictions. New York is known for being home to the John F Kennedy (or JFK to the more experienced traveller) airport. The same can be said for “London and Heathrow”, and “Paris and Charles du Gaulle”. Singapore, Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, and Beijing are a few contemporary contenders that come to mind.
When the British handed Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China, they included a new international airport built on Chek Lap Kok Island. The English architect Norman Foster turned a very rational plan for the airport terminal into a very beautiful building. It is as simple as my memory of the now demolished Adelaide terminal, but immensely bigger, a wonderful light-filled space which guides passengers as they need, and all the while allowing the sky above and the planes gathered around to create an absorbing diorama of delights. Over time retailers have found their way into this wonderful hall, and they have built something like an IKEA store inside Joseph Paxton’s lost Crystal Palace.
The gift of flight is an old and wonderful fantasy; in some of my dreams I lift effortlessly above the ground and glide gently following my gaze. Ever since Icarus flew too close to the sun, there is little that can match the grace of an albatross surfing the wind of the ocean’s waves or an updraft filling the wings of a soaring eagle. In 1962 Trans World Airlines opened its headquarters terminal in JFK airport, designed by the architect Eero Saarinen. It had the appearance of an eagle with its wings spread in full flight. After forty years it could not match the ever-changing demands of aviation and lay idle for another fifteen before being incorporated into an airport hotel, its final awakening from the romantic dream of flight.
Travelling through Sydney airport’s TAA passenger terminal in the seventies, it had a sweet curve which followed the departures roadway. It was built of white painted delicate steel columns and beams, it was filled with light and had views of the sky, and it was home to a variety of large indoor plants. It seemed very Australian, and I always enjoyed its company. When invited to join a competition in the late 1980s for the design of its replacement, to my surprise I learnt that this gem was always a temporary measure. My design won the competition, the TAA gem was demolished, and its Qantas replacement was built knowing that it would enjoy a temporary life.
After a hundred years, the airport continues to evolve while its planes and buildings are bound by their peculiar relationship. Just like the Vickers Vimy in Adelaide, the planes on the ground and in the sky remain seductive objects of technical wonder, while the buildings have become a consumable convenience that can be dressed in anything from Christian Dior to Levi Strauss. Despite their glamour and nation building ambitions, passenger terminals are but tents through which the circus of excited and weary travellers pass. The real wonder lies in the strength of Atlas that is required to lift the millions of planes, their passengers and their baggage above the earth and keep them safely suspended before they gently descend only to lift off again, and again, and again, as they fly further and further away.