One of the saddest stories of the 20th century is the fate of air travel. In 1900 it was a dream, feverishly speculated upon, subject to all manner of Jules Verne imaginings; by 1999 it was a chore, a tedious, uncomfortable ritual undertaken in order to get from A to B. A large portion of the blame for this depressing non-event can be laid at the airport, that warren-like combination of the shopping mall and the high-security prison, which is the focus in Britain for a tortured air-angst every summer.
In 2008, what Evening Standard headline writers might pithily call "Heathrow chaos" was centred on the botched opening of the new Terminal Five. Designed by Mike Davies at Rogers Stirk Harbour, it was only the second aesthetically distinguished structure at Heathrow - which ranges grimly from the ridiculously inappropriate red-brick mannerisms of the control tower and the original terminals to the claustrophobic hell of Terminal Four. Finally - around 50 years after Owen Williams's brutalist BOAC hangar - a decent building.
Inside, Terminal Five is majestic: a thrillingly Constructivist space, with huge spans of glass and steel, open to the expanse of the surrounding airfield. Yet within weeks of opening, 28,000 bags were lost, and 500 flights cancelled. And to ensure that people milling around in limbo keep themselves busy spending money, the terminal only has 700 public seats. Today, amid the airline bankruptcies, an advert declares "Terminal Five is working", as if we should be impressed.
This tragicomic distinction between the airport as (sometimes) designed: as metaphor for speed, transience and progress; and airport as used: as mall, panopticon and fiercely guarded border, runs through Alastair Gordon's brilliant Naked Airport. This is an impressively illustrated, comprehensive "cultural history" of airports as buildings, from the earliest days of makeshift sheds and hangars to the vast, glassy terminals designed by architectural multinationals such as Foster + Partners. The book's narrative begins two decades after the Wright brothers, and after the widespread deployment of fighter-planes in the First World War. The airport became a focus for speculation about design and modernity between the 1910s and the 1930s, appropriately at a time when architects were full of futurist fantasies about cities in which flight and movement determined form.
Unsurprisingly, the earliest of these speculative schemes were those of the Italian Futurists. The draughtsman Antonio Sant'Elia's still stunning cities of ruthless modernity tended to feature airports in very inappropriate places. Gordon notes that few architects had serious knowledge of the mundane practicalities of landing and take-off. Le Corbusier, whose insistence that "an airport should be naked" provides the book's title, proposed that an airport be at the heart of a city, much like a rail terminus. In his 1922 design project, "Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants", the airport is at the centre of a Cartesian grid of skyscrapers, with the planes flying dangerously close to the glass walls. Meanwhile, actual flights and actual terminals at this point were a strange combination of shabby and aristocratic. Lindbergh's transatlantic flight ended with his landing on a mud track, while early flyers were almost always members of the upper-crust, usually either Americans taking advantage of the Monroe Doctrine to laze in the Caribbean, or British and French travellers sunning themselves in the colonies. One decidedly racist 1920s poster for PanAm depicts a grinning black porter taking the bags of stylised, glamorous figures.
The Jazz Age's flappers and flyers travelled through shoddy airfields, via clumsily neoclassical terminals. Gordon argues that the first place truly to find an appropriate form for the airport was Europe. Glass and concrete created calm, rationalist spaces, without unnecessary reference to past forms. By the 1930s, Amsterdam or Hamburg were leading the world, making New York and Washington, for all their surface glitter, look staid. Gordon devotes a whole chapter to the Roosevelt administration's interventionist response. Massive public spending and nationalisation created a network of publicly owned fac ilities such as Washington's "People's Airport". These, although they still hedged their bets stylistically between reassuring classicism and vertiginous modernity, were at least vastly more efficient than their colonial-style precursors.
Gordon notes that, as ever, war was a motor for technological progress in airport design, particularly in the Axis countries. From 1936, Berlin-Tempelhof was the world's largest airport, in a modernised classical style that would be dubbed "Luftwaffe Modern", as nobody was in any doubt about why Germany needed such a huge facility; and in early 1940s Italy, Pier Luigi Nervi designed intricate, gravity-defying han gars that would greatly influence a generation of postwar architects.
The author also finds intriguing material on the camouflaging of American airports, against the Japanese or German attack that never came - disguising them as residential exurbs, which in turn gave way to actual exurbs growing round the naked airports themselves after the war. The most fascinating chapters are those that deal with the postwar years, where within a decade the airport went from the most optimistic space in America to the site of hijackings, security and surveillance.
Naked Airport has much on Eero Saarinen's breathtaking TWA Terminal at JFK, a swooping expressionistic fantasy - not only does a brief autobiographical description of it open the book, but a chapter on the "Jet Age" features incredible illustrations of this improbable building. Designed as a gigantic concrete bird, it provided the most emblematic structure of a semi-fictional world of allegedly willing air hostesses, fetishistic synthetic uniforms, and wildly futuristic designs. Today, it serves as the unacknowledged blueprint for the career of the currently fashionable Spanish engineer-auteur Santiago Calatrava. Yet between 1969 and 1978, there were 400 plane hijackings, quickly leading to a massive upgrade in security, and a new paradigm in airport design. Gordon claims that the manager of Dallas/Fort Worth took as a model an advert depicting a passenger moving seamlessly from car to port to plane, without any contact with the outside world.
After the shock of terrorism, and Jimmy Carter's deregulation of US airlines, airports became stealthy, paranoid structures, centred on shopping and surveillance. The book outlines how easily the 9/11 hijackers passed through security, so another level of increasingly tedious and invasive frisking and scanning arrived in the aftermath. Meanwhile, the seemingly more optimistic models - the glass hangars of the 1990s and into the 21st century, by Rogers, Foster, Calatrava et al - have their own sinister underside. Gordon notes that Chek Lap Kok, Foster's huge Hong Kong sky-city, was constructed by helots, whose standard of workmanship was unimpressive - within a year, the building was a laughing stock. The constant expansion of the airport is as spatially rapacious as it is ecologically disastrous, to the point where it becomes difficult to pinpoint exactly where it begins and ends, as anyone disturbed by the in-train films and muzak on the Heathrow Express train will have noticed.
The extremely bleak prognosis that ends Naked Airport is shared by Politics at the Airport, a collection of academic papers edited by Mark B Salter. From the start, the editor (unfairly) classes Naked Airport as a work of technocratic boosterism, and the book sniffily dismisses Marc Augé and J G Ballard's ambiguous eulogies to airports as seamless, transient, clean and serene "non-places" as the perspective of the privileged. Instead, Salter and his contributors - mostly specialists in the study of surveillance and security - concentrate on the spatial politics of the airport after 9/11. Politics at the Airport stresses that, in Deleuze and Guattari's terms, the airport both "deterritorialises" and "reterritorialises".
It might appear to the frequent traveller as a smooth international zone under a steel and glass canopy, but to the asylum-seeker or the terrorist suspect, the airport is an effective high- security border with attached prison. Colin J Bennett's essay notes that the US government's lists prohibiting flight have included Bolivia's socialist president Evo Morales, children, and anyone with the name David Nelson. Gallya Lahav writes on how an intricate system of private-public partnerships means an all-pervasive retail obsession coexists with the armed might of the state in the same space. Others profile the recent use of a "biometrics" that makes the body itself the locus of security, with passengers being identified by scans of the iris - it seems airports are taking their inspiration from Philip K Dick's stories of non-people condemned in non-places.
Politics at the Airport's blizzard of acronyms and academic name-checks belies its importance as a reminder that the airport is a deeply sinister space, no matter how much architectural "transparency" might try to restore some of its tarnished glamour. The final essay, Gillian Fuller's "Welcome to Windows 2.1" takes a critical look at the Foster/Rogers rhetoric of transparency, which "alternates between an illuminating display of what was previously hidden to the dark suspicions of 'what have you got to hide?'''. With that, we're back at Terminal Five, glassily housing a source of environmental catastrophe, central to a society of shopping and surveillance.
Naked Airport: a Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure
Alastair Gordon University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £9
Politics at the Airport
Edited by Mark B Salter University of Minnesota Press, 240pp, £12.50