“There are (…) probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like countersites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found in the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of that kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.” (Foucault, 1986)

Apollo Culture

In the 1960’s the belief in mastering the world through technology and machinery gained renewed importance around the globe after the age of industrialization. Next to the mere desire to benefit mankind through the achievements of technology, technological progress was also a tool and mechanism to affirm ideological supremacy over competing political systems. The resulting technology-driven competition between the Soviet Union and the United States found its megalomaniac apotheosis in the space race and the successful placing of man on the moon in 1969. The late 1960s were thus characterized by a wide range of new technological developments on unprecedented and competing levels of scale, since an increase in scale––as a function of this competition––was often used to represent technological progress. In the architecture of the United States this mindset of “thinking big” became evident in high-rise developments like the Sears Tower and the World Trade Center––projects never subsequently matched in their scale and mass. If Nasa’s Apollo program and its moon rocket, the Saturn V, were the astronautical incarnation of the nation’s aspiration for growth and ensign for the putative success of its political system, Boeing’s introduction of the widebody jet in 1969, served the aeronautical desires for a status symbol in U.S. aviation.

The moon rocket as a politically stimulated instrument of ideological competition

The first widebody jet, the Boeing 747 or Jumbo Jet, embodied a significant leap in terms of scale, which represented a major challenge for aviation industry, since never before had a civil airplane as complex and immense been conceived and constructed. Up to this day, the rejuvenated versions of the 747 remain the world’s largest civil aircrafts, despite Airbus’s launch for its A-380 program, the belated European answer to the Jumbo Jet, which is scheduled to surpass its North American predecessor in 2006. – Whereas the Apollo space flights remained elitists in nature, the 747 had an enormous impact on the travel behavior of the masses. The introducing of a new, much more spacious cabin layout that increased the cabin width by eight feet compared to the competitors and the unprecedented two level seating arrangement of the Jumbo Jet for up to 600 passengers made possible the transport of more passengers and goods over longer non-stop distances at reduced travel times and lower overall costs. This shift in scale and the long range qualities of the 747 eventually led to a new valuation of and relationship to distance for both business- and leisure-oriented travel in the 1970s, and gave airlines a new tool for developing their route planning.

A function of scale and a result of technological competition in the 1960s: The Jumbo Jet on its maiden flight on February 9th, 1969


While the Boeing 747 serves as the manifestation of jet-propelled travel per se, it was the introduction of the De Havilland Comet as the world’s first jetliner in 1952 that acted as its technological agent and typological predecessor. By doubling the average speed of air travel, the concept of the jetliner revolutionized overall travel times and achieved a totally altered, unparalleled time and space continuum in the world, which was later perfected by the more seamless travel regime that the extended range and capability of the 747 could provide. On the physical level, the introduction of jet engine-propelled aircrafts also had an enormous effect on airport design and a major impact on its architectural infrastructure. Whereas the jetliners of the late 1950s and early 1960s triggered the initial enlargement of the apron and the elongation and widening of runways and taxiways, subsequently leading to the extension of the whole airport grounds, the new type of aeronautical engineering for the Boeing 747 aggravated these expansions. It accounted for numerous and far reaching changes in the organizational mapping of airport facilities, since its sheer size and increased passenger capacity needed to be accommodated by a new or enlarged generation of dispatch and ticketing facilities, waiting rooms, gangways, parking areas, and complementary services. In combination with the steady, unprecedented increase of traffic patterns as a result of the “mass-mobilization” in aviation throughout the 1960s––air travel almost tripled between 1960 and 1970––the logic of jet propulsion not only stimulated the redevelopment of existing but also the construction of totally new airports.


Although the introduction of the new scale of the Jumbo Jet was a catalyst for these progresses and triggered or necessitated the wish for expansion, the aircraft was initially meant to densify air travel and relieve congestion at airports. In this logic, “the advent of wide-body jets (…) reduced the need to expand airport capacity by cutting down sharply on the number of flights needed to move passengers” (Bruegmann, p.203) When the world economy was hit by the oil crisis in the early 1970s and air travel was faced with decreasing growth rates which could not hold pace with those of the 1960s, the 747 fostered a process of inner growth where the capacity and usage of the airport could be extended without a further external expansion of its territory. Hence the logic of the Jumbo Jet––growth through internal densification––became an instrument to overcome or at least smooth these economic difficulties.


The impact of jet aviation technology on the city and its inhabitants did not become fully visible until a couple of years after its initial implementation. As expansion plans of airport authorities intensified and the problem of increased sound pollution and impairment of the ecosystem became a considerable concern, public resentment grew and eventually prompted protests, organized civil disobedience, and riots in the adjacent neighborhoods of airports around the world. In this confrontation of the interests of the airport on the one hand and communal welfare on the other hand, the constitutive juxtaposition between both entities became publicly noticeable for the first time.

Demonstration at the Runway West at Frankfurt Airport in the early 1980’s. While the decision for building the runway was made as early as 1965, the runway that was only used for takeoffs could not be constructed till 1981

The following civil uproar and its politically motivated compensations and reparations in form of land use limitations and imposed night-flight restrictions led to the relocating of the concept of the airport to areas in considerable remoteness from the city that were thus less likely subject to controversy. Mindful that many airports’ further expansion was hemmed by rising land prices and their location in dense urban fabrics, theoretical proposals were made for airports in the desert, in swamplands, and lakes or bays, in order to bypass the potential ranges of public concern.

The theorizing over idealized locations for airports includes this proposal by C.F. Murphy Associates for an airport in Lake Michigan near Chicago in 1969

While the international airports near D.C. (1958-1962) and Dallas-Fort Worth (1965-73) were precursors of this mentality, built examples for this undertaking can especially be found since the 1990s when the alarmed environmental conscious of the public made airport extensions in existing locations an even more difficult task. Eventually this process triggered the dislocation of many airports into the periphery of the city or even into its rural adjacencies. The new Tokyo International Airport in Narita (1978), Kansai in Japan (1994), Denver International Airport (1995), or Chep Lak Kok near Hong Kong (1998), serve as examples of airports relocated into a context without former urban significance. Picture: Instant history of Denver International Airport in the middle of Colorado’s prarie. This practice of inserting abstract technological entities and application of architectural programs onto virgin soil bare of any poignant features could be understood as an instant history making. Its products are new airports that encompass four to five square miles and thus are often larger than the downtowns of the cities with which they are associated. The striving for territorial autonomy eventually not only fostered the physical detachment of the airport from its associated mother-city, but incrementally also its independence from and sovereignty over it.


The released and loosened connection between both entities was further reinforced when European and Japanese airports were linked to high-speed railway lines. With the merger of both transport systems in an exurban environment, it is now possible to link these hybrid terminals between each other and relegate a distinctive part of the existing train connections between urban agglomerations to these new hybrids instead of relating them to the respective city-center, as had traditionally been done since the beginning of railroad transport. Since the city center is not necessarily given priority any more, the multimodal symbiosis of air and rail strengthens the position of the airport in comparison to its mother-city. In its itineraries from Lille to Bordeaux, the French high-speed train TGV thus loops around the city of Paris to only stop at the airports nodes of Orly and Charles de Gaulle (CDG).

The first example for the linkage of high-speed rail routes to an airport is The TGV-station at Lyon’s airport Saint-Exupéry as an expressionist prototype of this new typology of transportation buildings. The connection of high-speed trains to airports, which is actually sought after by both transport systems as a means to densify travel patterns and relieve the airport, is also implemented at the airports of Frankfurt, Cologne, Amsterdam, and Zurich

In spite of the slow implementation of this new kind of alliance in Europe, the connection of both transportation modes has benefits for both systems and will become more crucial in the future due to the increased environmental awareness regarding air travel. It is also a major consideration in assuring smooth travel chains in the transition between the different modes of transportation.


The airport––initially conceived as a machine serving another machine––grew from a mere tool for aviation to a global instrument that has lost most of its initial qualities as a simple mobility apparatus. At the same time as the airport has become a real location just by reaching a critical mass, each one belongs to a bigger autonomous entity, a technical Über-organism, which presents itself as a global polycentric network of interconnected hubs and nodes. This holistic system could be seen as the closest physical manifestation to the web-like structure of our digital and virtual realms.

The dense airport distribution in the US was initially triggered by “the Air Commerce Act”, which fostered a nationwide national transportation network in 1928

Through its sheer size and the increasing levels of services and amenities, the modern airport has gained urban characteristics, not only in quantitative but also in qualitative terms. Although this emulation remains––despite all other testimonies––fake and incomplete today and cannot be seen as a surrogate for city life itself, its simulation by the introduction or broadening of city specific, and previously airport extrinsic, programs is able to generate a new form of transient urbanity. This urbanity in an otherwise exurban environment is a resulting function of the global life and travel behaviors of contemporary society’s desire for extended mobility and movement.


In its quest for identity and distinction, marketing and a specific self-proclaimed image have become important for the airport, especially since its typology inherently bears only generic, similar features reiterated all over the world. As well as the Jumbo Jet and each new member of the aircraft family turned into an advertised status symbol for airlines since the late 1960s, the former unnoticed field of airport design was lifted into the limelight of architectural interest and the search for prestigious architects became the status quo for the conception of new terminals. As a result of this striving, the airport, which was formerly under public ownership, tended to become an independent enterprise, which was obliged to yield profit. Since today no more than 20 percent of an airport’s income is still derived from takeoff and landing fees, its functioning as a service center with shops, hotels, offices, and recreational facilities has become increasingly important. Distinguished architecture is used as a tool for creating character in an often featureless environment that is supposed to distinguish it from its global competitors in the international aviation network.

In this process, the airport unconsciously created its own master player, the French architect Paul Andreu, who was commissioned to build the first stage of Paris’ third airport in Roissy at only 29 years of age: Andreu’s Charles de Gaulle 1 (1974) was the first newly built airport in Europe that was conceived for and fully embodied the logic of the Jumbo Jet. Having built numerous infrastructure projects around the world by now, including high-speed railway stations, this global architectural nomad and his designs are a function and a logical result of the 747. His main creation––the whole agglomeration of successively built extensions for Charles de Gaulle––represents the physical manifestation of the airport’s policy of searching for identity by individualized designs and characteristic programmatic extensions.

The Jumbo Jet’s logic executed by Paul Andreu: Charles de Gaulle 1


As shown, the logic of the Jumbo Jet and its change in form can be understood as a major underlying dynamism for airport expansions in the last decades that propelled this transportation system from a utility to a global organism. By recognizing this logic as the trigger for the presented chain reaction of progresses in airport design (from the freeing of the airport from its city context to its current state of exurban autonomy), the jetliner and its epitome, the 747, represent the airborne equivalent to the technology of the automobile, which was able to transform the notion and definition of the city in the second half of the 20th century. Although the question of this logic’s potential to transform the morphology and definition of the traditional city must remained unanswered at this stage, the jetliner could also be used as a catalyst and a model for theorizing a hypothetical future for the airport itself. The futile attempts of airport developers to endow the airport with a pseudo-reality that is closely related to its paradigm, the city, has mostly to do with the singularity and lack of interlocking different functions and usages, in spite of all efforts to augment the airport’s functional apparatus.

Fake simulation of city form and function in Charles de Gaulles’s business center


As the airport is thus characterized by phenomena of explosion and dispersion and normally regarded as a project of a rather low-density today, a retroactive implosion and densification are necessary for its future. This intensification of usage must not only be more complex and multifunctional, desiring a physical density broadened by new functions next to the existing economical, cultural, and recreational activities.  Its foremost imperative has to be the introduction of programs that are not primarily related to the key functions of the airport. All these different functions then have to be able to interact and blend with each other and overlap in time in a 24/7/365 mode of operation. The logic of the Jumbo Jet and its appreciation as a complex “densificator” of diverse functions in a single hull can serve as a theoretical role model for an intensification of future airport functions that are currently mostly oriented on the consumer patterns of its users.

Just as each exemplar of a Boeing 747 per se represents a multifunctional apparatus, equipped with a full range of densely packed, interdependent devices, its interaction with pilots, crew and passengers creates an organized, hyperactive Gestalt. Next to this multifunctional notion of the 747, its disposition as an intercontinental aircraft captures the 24/7/365 usage cycles the airport is supposed to attain: the intercontinental routing exploits the hours of operation by a schedule that maximizes airtime and only allows for brief intervals on the ground which are used for the reconstitution and reprogramming of the airplane, namely refueling, setup of navigation and the handling of passengers and baggage. Abstracting this example, a reprogramming of the airport has to use the same approach.

The multitude of individualized time zones represented by the gross of travelers supports the idea of an even usage of airport facilities


In this concept for densification and reprogramming, airport hubs attain a special dynamic. Hubs are major transfer airports, where the majority of travelers convene and change planes, only to be distributed further on their itinerary. The use of an airport as an exclusive stopover on a longer route confines or even eliminates the appreciation and perception of its respective mother-city, especially when the hub is located remote from the urban context. In the global system of hubs this remoteness is appropriate, since for the mere transfer of passengers no connection to a city is needed. With a total disassociation and secludedness from urban entities, hubs could become the breeding grounds for the emergence of a totally new generation and typology of transportation buildings, and witness an evolution as entirely independent organisms. Given the processes of necessary densification and implosion of functions following the logic of the Jumbo Jet, they could constitute a novel form of stylized metropolitan life and enhance the new model of transient urbanity. Mindful of the strong networking qualities of hubs, this would eventually force a rethinking of urbanity and trigger the development of stronger, more global urban design strategies.

This understanding of hubs as stylized and idealized versions of urban life triggers a futuristic and utopian notion of city. Next to Munich’s new airport, Hong Kong’s airport Chep Lap Kok might serve as one of the first prototypes on the wayside of this mentality. Located far from the city centers, these autonomous, coherently planned airports and their extended city-like facilities constitute an urbanistic organism that contains an efficiently perfected, controlled society based on a transient and ephemeral mobility. In the end, the airport, once expelled from its urban context, could paradoxically become the ultimate seed and centerpiece for the reconstitution of the city.

Chep lap Kok’s airport city Tung Chung (here the airport depicted), located at the base of the artificial island will soon be the driving force for the airport’s self sustainable system with a targeted community of 200,000 inhabitants

Maybe the required impetus for these urban fantasies could be the future influence of the Airbus A-380. Understanding it as the Jumbo Jet of the 21st century, the world of aviation could stand on a new threshold of scale, which will mark another leap in airplane construction a good thirty years after the Boeing 747, and be a propelling force for airport design and the notion of city and urban mobility.

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