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Plane truths

A critic surveys the epic history of air travel and the architecture -- good, innovative and disastrous -- that is has generated

Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure

By Alastair Gordon

Metropolitan, 305 pp., illustrated, $27.50

The last time I took an international flight, security stopped me because the box of pastels I was carrying on looked suspicious on the scanner. Maybe the array of identical cylinders looked like explosives. I had to open the box to convince it held only sticks of colored pigments. Afterward, a woman dressed in black said to me, ''That's why we're all conceptual artists."

The story Alastair Gordon tells of the evolution of airport design is also a social history of air travel, and at the end of it you may think we should all become conceptual travelers. Air travel was the growth industry of its time, but with bankruptcies of many famous airlines, and others on the brink, the industry has passed from growth to stagnation, and the glamour of flight is as gone as the Titanic. One high point was the final scene of the movie ''Casablanca," filmed in a pseudo-Moorish airport in Van Nuys, Calif. ''The lyrical mood of aviation's early period gave way to . . . displays of architectural bombast," Gordon comments. Later, couturiers such as Courrges and Pucci designed futuristic flight attendant uniforms. That future is behind us, replaced by routine and fear. Yet the story is exciting, a reminder of how the entrepreneurial spirit, self-interested as it inevitably is, can change the world.

Gordon's book begins with Charles Lindbergh's arrival in Paris. The lights at the airstrip confused him; he had to circle for a second pass to be sure it was an airport. The concept of an airport was hardly developed, so there was no iconic shape below him, no air-traffic control, and he had no instruments that would automatically guide him to the ground in case of fog. Lindbergh really was lucky.

The phrase ''naked airport" was coined by the French modernist architect le Corbusier, known for brutalist stressed-concrete apartment blocks all over the world. An airport was to be a new kind of structure without reference to the buildings of the past, a truth it took airport designers a long time to learn, if they ever got it right. In the 1930s, the new age of flight seemed to the entrepreneurs of the airlines, the designers of airports, and the promoter-mayors of many American cities to be a truly new age, and Corbusier wanted an airport architecture that did not dream of train stations, ocean liners, or Roman baths.

Early airport buildings were designed to look like temples, ships, planes, fortresses, even trains. London's Croydon, in the 1930s the largest in the world, looked like a grand railway station inside, a grand rusticated country house outside. Tempelhof, Hitler's Berlin airport, was a supreme totalitarian power gesture, huge and blank. Architects were stumped for many years about what airport terminals were supposed to look like, and tried everything. The surprise is how little good architecture emerged from the frenzy of construction. Again and again, the builders returned to the same curving hangar roofs, a modification of the barrel vault that may suggest clouds. The apogee of airport beauty was Eero Saarinen's famed terminal for TWA at Kennedy Airport, in New York. Inspired by the soaring, swanlike shells of the Sydney Opera House, it has a birdlike abstract form. Its stressed concrete shell swoops everywhere, with few rectangular corners inside or out. When it was built it was futuristic and suggested to the traveler that a voyage into a new dimension was beginning.

But over the years changing patterns of business, and increasingly the need for security, changed the interior atmosphere and made what had once been almost transcendent into something ominous and oppressive. With few exceptions, such as the tentlike structures of the King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, later airports were dominated by systems thinking, built up out of rationally repeating pods connected by purgatorial tunnels and corridors that instead of easing the transition between earth and air, a noble aim, only add to the difficulty of getting on a plane. The most recent airports look exactly like prisons, and it is no surprise to learn that their architects have designed prisons as well. Control towers look like prison observation towers, even when designed by I. M. Pei. No more friendly skies. That is the main lesson of Gordon's book, which tells an epic story that ends badly as a result of hijackings and 9/11. International air travel is now under the shadow of al Qaeda, a name that sounds suspiciously like that of a Middle Eastern airline.

Air travel was at first an ordeal but still an adventure. It had a brief moment of real glamour in the jet-set era, then became boring as planes got bigger and leg room shrank; now it is an ordeal again, but the adventure is past. The early figures in the air-travel industry were pioneers, buccaneers in some cases, like Juan Trippe, the mastermind of Pan Am, who opened up and monopolized air travel into the Caribbean and South America, and might have made a good South American dictator. Henry Ford built planes as well as cars, and then built airports for them. The industry grew at a terrific rate, like all new technologies that rush into empty market niches; it was helped along by regulation, and on the whole deregulation has been catastrophic in an industry unused to competition.

The lesson is that corporations have a hard time changing. The raft of bankruptcies has less to do with terrorism than with mismanagement, but the whole concept of air travel has changed as well. It was fun while it lasted. An enormous number of Americans got all over the world, and that can only be a good thing.

David Rollow is a writer and a painter who lives in Somerville.

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