Book Review: Politics at the Airport

Politics at the Airport edited by Mark B. Salter
University of Minnesota Press, 2008

The impact of security since September 11, 2001 is most evident and prevalent at airports. As sites that exist primarily for mobility, for transporting people and goods from point A to point B, airports, and those who control them, now strive to restrict and limit that same mobility in the name of security. Combined with airports' reliance on consumption for their continued well-being, these places have become "sites...symbolic of both the opportunities and vulnerabilities of contemporary globalization." The essays here examine airports in relationship to politics, society, and economics, via studies of architecture, surveillance, biometrics, border control, and the means for restricting travel, the infamous "no-fly" lists.

Even though the academic contributors range from political scientists and geographers to architects and urban planners, a number of consistent strands can be found, particularly when it comes to references. These includes Marc Augé's description of airports and other modern places of transience as "non-places," Michael Foucault's history of the panopticon prison, and Manuel Castells's analysis of The Network Society. These ideas situate airports as generic, interchangeable spaces, as spaces of surveillance and control, and as globally connected spaces, respectively. These and other ideas further frame the analyses of the various essays, though of course 9/11 is what influences the essays the most, as the events of that day have transformed the experience of being at the airport, if not the airport itself, more than anything in recent history.

While each essay deals with a topic that influences the shape of airports and their spaces, Gillian Fuller's essay on the design of recent airports is the one most directly related to architecture. The professor of media looks at the trend of transparency in the architecture of airports, how it creates a particular sense of space, a connection to the tarmac and the planes that will whisk people to their destinations, a virtual space that is an extension of the television and computer screen. The scale and multi-faceted nature of airports (mall, transportation hub, etc.) necessitates an architecture of transparency, so Fuller argues, as a surface for information exchange. This view appears to incorporate Augé's, Foucault's, and Castells's ideas mentioned above, finding that by incorporating information technology airports are becoming a seamless space of mobility, consumption, and security.