Academic journal article About Performance

Choreographing the Airport: Travels in Thirdspace

Academic journal article About Performance

Choreographing the Airport: Travels in Thirdspace

Article excerpt

In May of 2006 a short article appeared in the Dance section of The New York Times. It concerned the soon-to-begin renovation of Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), site of the iconic 1962 Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Centre designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen. Closed for business soon after TWA's demise in 1994, Saarinen's terminal had been heritage listed, but its future uncertain, for close to a decade. Now occupied by budget carrier JetBlue Airways, the terminal was to undergo a revival of sorts, aligning its super-cool retrofuturist styling with the new super-cool kid on the block. Saarinen's swooping, bird-like concrete structure is symbolic of the glamorous Jet Age of travel, and is well loved by architectural critics. The article caught my eye, however, because it interviewed two performance makers involved with the project: the theatre designer/ architect David Rockwell whose architectural firm Rockwell Group was contracted to work on the interior design, and the choreographer Jerry Mitchell whom Rockwell had worked with on several Broadway productions including 2002's Hairspray and a 2000 revival of The Rocky Horror Show.

That a choreographer should be employed on the design of an airport terminal really should not seem incongruous. What it says is that this place, built above all for movement, requires an expert on moving. Rockwell Group's emphasis is on applying a cross-disciplinary approach to creating "immersive environments" (Rockwell Group 2010), and in the Times article Rockwell explains, "we began with the idea of using movement to personalize the experience and deal with the emotions of travel" (in Green 2006). Rockwell and Mitchell's involvement in the design of the new Terminal 5 highlights that movement in this kind of space is more than a mathematical problem of getting from A to B; rather, the quality and shape, speed and contrapuntal rhythm of movements made by people and objects, individually and en masse, deserve attention.

Put this way, it makes the number of street redevelopments and urban squares without choreographers on their creative teams, or at least human movement specialists of some kind, seem conversely odd. But these observations go not much further than those of urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, who famously described the pedestrian movement on her Greenwich Village street as a "sidewalk ballet" ([1961] 1992,50),1 or the architect and urban designer Jan Gehl, who in Life between Buildings ([1971] 2006) argued for a humanised approach to architecture and who has since pioneered a methodology of studying cities by tracking how people move in the spaces between buildings. From Walter Benjamin (1999) to Henri Lefebvre (1991) and Michel de Certeau (1988), we have developed an understanding of social spaces such as city streets as being in dialogue with, constituting and constituted by, our movements through them. The airport terminal is another such public space, but it also participates in a global movement system. The airport has become emblematic of the extreme mobility-in amount and pace-of twenty-first century life. The network of airports spread across the globe can make it seem like nowhere (given economic and political access) is more than a day away.2 Visualisations such as Airtraffic Worldwide, an animated mapping of the planet's collective commercial flights over a twenty-four-hour period condensed into little over a minute, draw a picture of the Earth's surface as a teeming web of transportations.3

In a cultural-geographical sense, the international airport is one system implicated in both the fears of cultural degradation and the celebrations of new hybrid forms brought about through contemporary globalisation, as people and places are brought together through greater speed and frequency of encounter. The old routes of trade, colonisation and settlement have morphed into criss-crossing jet streams of multinational corporate capital, global leisure tourism, and largescale relocation of people due to political conflict and environmental devastation. …

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