Airports as public spaces

22 December 2011 Ideas

I’ve travelled a lot in my short life, and airports have been a constant companion on my trips. There to see me off and welcome me to new lands, the airport is a gateway to the unknown.

Right now I’ve got two hours until my plane leaves from Pearson, so I have some time to kill and I’m thinking about how airports function as public spaces. More importantly, I’m thinking about how they can be better cultural standard-bearers and more welcoming places.

I said airports are a gateway to the unknown, but most of them are, in fact, depressingly predictable. Whether you find yourself in Karachi, Geneva, or Newark, you can be sure to find duty-free alcohol, book and magazine stores, jewelry, cologne, and tacky souvenirs. In other words, you can buy stuff you probably don’t need at prices you probably can’t afford.

If you’re lucky there might be some artwork up on the walls (and Pearson’s Terminal 1 has a beautiful echo chamber art installation), but it is rarely the focal point. It seems that public art in airports is mostly used to fill in the uncomfortable gaps between Starbucks and the duty-free shop. They are not attractions - a distraction, more like, from the steel-blue uniformity of the departure lounge.

Airport departure lounges are the perfect places for public amenities. I’m talking about museums, indoor gardens, recreation facilities. Flight delayed? Why not shoot some hoops to pass the time? Or why not have a proper museum with some Group of Seven paintings where I can get lost for half an hour? Because right now, my main options are either to buy some cheap rum or overpriced coffee, and neither looks very appealing.

If we transformed our airports into more than just malls, maybe travellers would feel like more than just cattle.

Sam Nabi

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