For more than a decade, a burgeoning body of scholarship has focused on how the advent of powered flight in the early twentieth century inspired what could be called an “epistemological” shift arising from aerial perspectives and their effects on the ground. Unpacking the cultural and visual politics behind one of the most transformative technologies of the last century, these scholarly inquiries have raised a wide of range of questions concerning spectatorship, aesthetics, mobility, globalization, urbanization, and design. It is rather surprising that this research field has gained a collective momentum only fairly recently, even though aviation and modern art, architecture, and urbanism were contemporaneous developments in the twentieth century. From Kazimir Malevich to Robert Delaunay, modernist artists incorporated different metaphors of flight into their avant-gardist imaginations of the world of tomorrow. In the wake of Charles Lindbergh's maiden transatlantic flight in 1927, Le Corbusier embraced a theme of ascension and utilized the aviator's ability to see the world from the sky to articulate a morally charged program as the basis for redeveloping cities.
Social and cultural histories of aviation, however, have long been undertaken. As early as 1946, William Fielding Ogburn, who served as the first president of the Society for the History of Technology, authored The Social Effects of Aviation.1 Later Joseph J. Corn's The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950 (1983) and Robert Wohl's two-part cultural history of aviation, A Passion for Wings (1994) and The Spectacle of Flight (2005), among others, expanded the scope of aviation histories.2 What is fascinating about the current scholarship on “aerial epistemology” is how the notion of human flight prompts both philosophical and tactical inquiries that are, in turn, operationalized to reimagine and reshape the built environment. These studies reveal the ways in which aviation not only enabled new types of visual practices but also perpetuated neoliberal globalization and reordered political geographies through new types of movements, networks, and variegated economies.
Sonja Dümpelmann's Flights of Imagination: Aviation, Landscape, Design and Max Hirsh's Airport Urbanism: Infrastructure and Mobility in Asia are two examples of this emerging genre of scholarship. Even though the two books are significantly different in their historical and methodological approaches, they share a theme: that humanity's aerial movement has had deep consequences on the ground.
In Flights of Imagination Dümpelmann examines how architects, landscape architects, and urban planners in Europe and the United States were greatly stimulated by the aerial perspective enabled by airplanes in the early twentieth century. She argues that this specular ability influenced, in various ways, their imagination of human-made landscapes, particularly that of the emerging hub of aerial transportation: the airport. Yet it was hardly a case of cause and effect; rather, the experience of aerial viewing was often a complex phenomenon, a kind of chemical chain reaction conflating the “disembodied and embodied, abstract and experiential, rational and imaginary, factual and aesthetic, microscopic and macroscopic, detailed and contextual, harmful and essential” (2). Furthermore, the phenomenon of flight has produced a conflicted narrative of verticality and horizontality, sky and earth, upward aspiration and existential rootedness. For Malevich, Dümpelmann observes, this dichotomy ends in an ontological resolution: “Humankind must always return to the ground and to horizontality” (14). Dümpelmann brings these discursive readings to a wide range of critical inquiries into early airport design, the influence of aerial photography on urban and landscape design, wartime camouflage as a science of manipulated landscapes, and environmental planning from above.
The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 examines early airport design as a tripartite challenge of space, time, and landscape, and how a vigorous tension between modern mobility and vernacular conformism framed this conceptual challenge. Chapter 2 probes how “aerial vision became a modern way of seeing and knowing the land for designers of the built environment” (9). According to the author, this type of visual engagement constituted a “new epistemology,” one in which the earth disclosed to the aerial spectator both the scale of the city and the geography of the region. Chapter 3 focuses on oblique and vertical aerial photography as “critical-analytical tools” that were used to criticize the alleged dysfunctionalities of early twentieth-century industrial cities and to foster “regional and national identities” (10) through the development of new geographic knowledge. The wartime use of camouflaged gardens and symbolic landscapes as a strategy to deceive the aerial enemy is the theme of chapter 4. During times of military conflict, many design professionals undertook projects that sought to create an “anti-aerial view” (12), a scenographic manipulation of the land to construct illusive landscapes for military purposes. Airmen were also trained to differentiate between what military strategists curiously coded as “cubist country” and “futurist country.”3 Chapter 5 elaborates on a host of ways the aerial view led to a renewed environmental consciousness and assessment of the city as organism, an interconnected and interdependent network of urban ecologies. Finally, chapter 6 examines the contentious situations in which decommissioned airports are transformed into urban retreats.
The strength of Flights of Imagination resides in its ability to broaden the disciplinary scope of landscape design. Dümpelmann develops a nuanced phenomenological perception of landscape ecology, one in which the hybrid of the disembodied aerial eye and the experiential body presents a fresh way of understanding landscape. Marshaling an impressive array of materials, she explains how this ecological perception is informed by both Le Corbusier's airplane, anthropomorphized as a human/eagle eye that “penetrates the misery of towns,” and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's advocacy of a return to the “there is” primacy of the soil. But how this duality was embodied in design interventions, particularly in airport design, raises a poignant philosophical question. As Dümpelmann shows, Scottish-born landscape architect and city planner Ian McHarg addresses this question in many ways in his 1969 book Design with Nature, in which he demonstrates how designers could use aerial photographs to simultaneously analyze and remedy “the plight” of urban forms and anomalous land-use patterns. Perhaps another curious example of the meeting of the sky and the ground would be the airport in El Paso, Texas, built in the 1930s, “where a small cactus garden on the otherwise barren ground greeted air travelers” (56). Whether this is a case of the aerial figure ultimately descending into the familiar milieu of the vernacular or the hackneyed binary of technology and tradition resurfacing in the emerging building typology of airports remains an open-ended question.
As one reads the book another question lingers: Did the aerial perspective have any bearing on the actual design (of airports, for instance), or was it mostly the modernist “metaphysics” surrounding the view from above that empowered the flying spectator to imagine a heroic new world of modernism? While the former may seem crudely deterministic and the latter more plausible within conventional art historical parameters, the question is not an easy one to answer. The tantalizing oscillation between operative knowledge and rhetoric adds to the book's central intellectual dilemma. Dümpelmann offers a thoughtful reflection on this issue: “While it remains difficult to reconstruct the designers’ aerial imagination, it is certain that at the beginning of the jet age in the 1950s and 1960s, the aerial view offered design critics a new perspective for interpretation” (146). Intellectually rigorous yet accessible, Flights of Imagination should be a good resource for architects, landscape architects, planners, human geographers, and art and architectural historians.
Max Hirsh's Airport Urbanism presents a topical reading of the effects of aviation, particularly airports. Contemporary airports are among the most telling of heterotopic places, a neoliberal cocktail of real and “imagined” spaces. Sites of human ascent and descent or arrival and departure, airports act as theaters of contradictory social narratives as much as they serve as transportation hubs. Even though the airport has become an essential trope of aerial mobility, globalization, popular tourism, and an increasingly mobile middle class, airports continue to exude the elitism, glamour, and class status that defined early commercial flights. Robust security barriers add to airports’ social exclusivity and alienation from city life. Countries in both developed and developing regions compete to create shiny, high-tech airports as symbols of their national identities and futurist aspirations. The flamboyant modernity of Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and the rhythmic monumentality of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport exemplify this trend. In short, airports are ubiquitous symbols of global modernity, or, as John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay suggest with uber-optimism, the metropolis has now become the “aerotropolis.”4
What has not been studied is how divergent patterns of air travel and their social contexts have complicated the very notion of globalization. Airports may be self-contained, secure zones on the edges of cities or beyond city boundaries, but they often play contradictory roles in facilitating transnational mobility and relate to the cities they serve in many unexpected ways. In Airport Urbanism Hirsh explores not the exuberant promises of the mainstream airport architecture that typically graces the covers of government promotional brochures or coffee-table magazines but the types of informal infrastructures that develop spontaneously around and beyond airports, transforming the urban landscape. He offers an insightful examination of how modern airports foster globalization from below, enabling the underclass and other travelers with limited financial means to participate in neoliberal market economies. If modern airports signify aerial mobility, transience, and glamour, this book is about a counternarrative—that is, the unglamorous and unspectacular urban influences of airports.
Focusing on five East and Southeast Asian cities—Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore—Hirsh examines what he calls “airport urbanism,” the urban networks of informal transportation infrastructures that cater to a new breed of transnational protagonists who often traverse the “invisible” world of shadow economies and alternative routes. Hirsh calls them nouveaux globalisés—“new members of Asia's flying public, such as migrant workers, students, retirees, pilgrims, budget tourists, and traders from the Global South—who rely on a variety of low-cost and informal transportation networks in order to move cheaply and efficiently across national frontiers” (5).
While the book's main focus is on airport infrastructures, Hirsh's broader goal is to unpack the social, cultural, and economic complexities that undergird cross-border movements by the flying public and the spatial transformation of “everyday” cities they inadvertently catalyze. By highlighting unspectacular transit corridors and low-cost urban transportation options that link airports with cities, Airport Urbanism addresses the unexpected ways in which globalization and urbanization have become deeply intertwined processes.
The book is organized into six sections, including an introduction and an extended conclusion. Against the backdrop of the author's own peripatetic upbringing on multiple continents and the booming economies of East and Southeast Asia, the introduction contextualizes the rise of a new flying public made up of people who are not members of the traditional “kinetic elite” (9). They are consumers of “parallel transport networks, largely undetected by outside observers, that do not adhere to the master narrative” of conventional airport infrastructures (9). Focusing on the Pearl River Delta—the area surrounding the Pearl River estuary in southeastern China—chapters 1, 2, and 3 examine how air passengers from Hong Kong seek out cheaper and improvised transit options to reach the Hong Kong International Airport and passengers from mainland China take advantage of a system of pre-check-in “upstream” to reach the same airport, avoiding Hong Kong's immigration and customs checkpoints. These chapters discuss the contemporary nature of political boundaries such as the one between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Shenzhen, a Chinese border town in Guangdong Province. As the economies of these two urban centers become increasingly interdependent, air travelers choose which airport to use based on their travel budgets and final destinations, as they also have to negotiate how to expeditiously cross the border. One of the key insights provided in these chapters is that airports also influence border infrastructures and have wide-ranging implications for cross-boundary airport bus services. Chapter 4 explores budget air travel options and how they necessitate lost-cost airport infrastructure in such Southeast Asian cities as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Singapore. Framed by theoretical debates on migration, mobility, urbanization, and on-the-ground economic realities, the book's conclusion raises broader policy questions about how informal travel infrastructures can be incorporated into future urban visions.
Airport Urbanism is an important book because it sheds light on the conditions in which transnational movements present robust local urban challenges, as well as on how these conditions are met by bottom-up travel infrastructures with multifaceted implications for urban economies and everyday life. The notion of “informality” as an alternative urban experience remains a contentious topic. Often seen through a Western lens, informality in a non-Western context takes on the cast of a shadow reality, one whose relationship to the formal sector of the prevalent urban order is both binary and dubious. This view of informality vastly oversimplifies the complex ways in which many developing cities function. In cities like Bangkok, Mumbai, Dhaka, Shenzhen, and Lagos, the categories of formal and informal have become inadequate to describe the intricate networks of interdependence that operate on the ground.
Hirsh contributes to this debate by debunking the entrenched urban mythologies of transportation megaprojects. He rightly emphasizes the need to “advance design strategies that are more appropriate for rapidly growing and unpredictably changing urban environments” (160). Today many cities in Asia and Africa are pursuing symbolic, image-building mega-infrastructure projects—such as multilane highways, highway overpasses, bridges, dams, and under-river tunnels—as a way to showcase their “rising nation” status. Whether these megaprojects actually serve the majority share of urban populations is a point raised in arguments against the nationalist mythologies of GDP-centric progress.
One place where Airport Urbanism stumbles somewhat is in its notion of “Asia.” Hirsh's generalization of his study in East and Southeast Asia as an Asian experience is problematic. The urban and airport experiences in Shenzhen or Hong Kong are very different from those in Dhaka, Karachi, or Dubai. In Dhaka's international airport, for instance, migrant workers and “regular” travelers use the same airport facilities and departure gates, but they experience two different social worlds under the same roof. Unskilled and poverty-stricken migrant workers are a pillar of Bangladesh's robust foreign-remittance economy, yet at the airport the members of this underclass remain socially invisible, often finding themselves at the mercy of airport guards and officials. Seldom prepared for their destination countries, they huddle together in the airport's few chairs, anxious and uncertain—an “unglamorous” spectacle typical of other airports in the subcontinent. Accounting for 60 percent of the world's total population, Asia is too big and shifting a geographic region—with one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world—to be generalized with a few examples. In other words, the myriad experiences of this continent cannot be summed up credibly by the experiences of five cities and their airports. “Infrastructure and Mobility in East and Southeast Asia” would have been a more appropriate subtitle for the book.
Overall, Flights of Imagination and Airport Urbanism are important scholarly contributions to a growing field that cuts across many disciplines. These books broaden our understanding of aviation's complex relationship to histories of visuality, architecture and landscape architecture, transnational mobility, globalization, and urbanization. Most important, they offer helpful insights into the nature of our modern world.