The Gulf: As Pretty as an Airport

The sterile nature of airports only exacerbate the misery of flying. Darryl Campbell reports from Dubai International, where decor apparently means “giant plastic UFOs.”

No one seems to like the actual act of traveling. George Orwell, for example, compared it to “an interregnum, a kind of temporary death,” and The New York Times used to have a blog entirely dedicated to “the unfriendly skies” (which ended, along with Bill Kristol’s column, just after the Dow Jones fell below 9,000 points). But if the journey itself is unpleasant, its endpoints are even bleaker.

After fourteen hours on an airplane, few things faze you. It didn’t even strike me as odd, for instance, that the first thing I saw upon stepping into Dubai International Airport was a silver flying saucer the size of a pickup truck hanging from the ceiling.

But airports are hardly the place to be dazzled by interior design, and if you’ve seen one airport terminal—even if it’s in one of the world’s richest countries—you’ve seen them all (or at least you’ve seen enough to develop a healthy prejudice against all airport terminals). Sprucing one up with a gigantic plastic model, no matter how many LEDs it has, isn’t going to impress jaded airline passengers. However unpleasant the flight may be, however ripe the cabin starts to smell after hour eight, the journey’s terminus is guaranteed to be even more soulless than the journey itself. For good reason, Douglas Adams wrote that “it can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, ‘as pretty as an airport.’”

If you pay attention, though, you can get a good survey of 20th-century architectural trends just from airports. Most American specimens, for example, feature the frumpy, no-nonsense aesthetic of the Modern style. Some even embrace it; the TVs in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson periodically run ads that praise the airport’s annual passenger count and “easy-to-clean surfaces.” Many overseas airports, meanwhile, have been built or extensively renovated in the last few decades, and these tend to epitomize the de rigueur whimsy of postmodern architecture—angular glass-and-steel façades, supersaturated color palates, and huge, airy spaces.

But all airports have one thing in common: none of them feel like a part of the cities in which they are located. They are symbiotes that feed on one another, but neither incorporates the other. Heathrow defines London no better than Narita defines Tokyo, and neither do those airports characterize their cities. No matter how hard cities try to imprint themselves on their airports—naming them after famous residents, such as Ronald Reagan International or Charles de Gaulle, or, conversely, adopting their airport codes as shorthand city identifiers, like PDX—every effort feels as superficial as the welcome announcements that precede the terror alert updates.

Efforts to “localize” an airport are doomed from the start. Their décor, their signage, and their annoyances are, more or less, the same the world over. It’s almost as if airports are required to be generic in both external form and internal decoration, to prevent world travelers from knowing where they are, apart from a matte-grey (or primary-colored), hermetically-sealed womb. Airports are, after all, the public face of globalization.

Still, although architecture and fixtures don’t usually connect an airport to its physical surroundings, they can at least evoke its local zeitgeist, and Dubai’s is a good example. It’s almost like a futurist’s dreamscape: besides the giant plastic UFOs and brushed-metal surfaces, there are twenty-foot “palm trees” with brown plastic fronds and argyle-carpeted trunks, three-story-high television screens broadcasting BBC International at all hours, and blazing fluorescent lights everywhere. And, of course, the culmination of the Dubai International experience is its duty free, where you can buy exorbitantly priced raffle tickets for cars, cash prizes, or hundreds of kilograms of gold.

In fact, it’s probably the only airport duty free in the world to have its own internet domain. Pretty it isn’t, but then a celebration of excesses—of space, light, and conspicuous consumption—doesn’t have to be; utter disorientation is enough. Dubai’s airport, like Dubai itself, does a pretty good job.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.