Being in an airport is as close to weightlessness as you can get while keeping two feet on the ground. As you check in and pass through the barriers and systems that verify your identity, your earthly falls away. Everything you are is compressed into your passport’s biometric chip, something you can tuck into an inside pocket while you drift past all those blinding arrays of backlit sunglasses. It’s so boring that it becomes sublime: a yawn is the only possible response to the overwhelming wonder of the modern world.
Airport space is what you get when you intersect border controls, security procedures, international logistics and tax-free shopping. It’s also what you get when you inflate the size of a building to a landscape. Airports have got so big that they don’t behave like normal buildings anymore. Architectures ordinary spatial logic collapses as corridors ramps and travelators lead you on till you’ve no idea which way is up, down, left or right, where you came in or where you’re going to.
Amongst this giant, slippery, post-architectural, infrastructural environment you’ll find something signposted by a pictogram of a kneeling man. It suggests the blankly symbolic ‘Toilet Man’ is possessed of some inner spiritual core, rather merely indicating an intolerable build-up of urea, salts and organic compounds. Here he is. Toilet Man. On his knees, head bowed, but not to indicate that it’s OK to vomit if we aim it into the bowl; rather to tell us that he’s praying, contemplating the divine. And more particularly that he can because there’s an airport chapel nearby. As if he, like the mass of humanity he represents, is riddled with guilt, doubt and ultimately fear.
An airport chapel – or what’s often awkwardly described as a Multi Faith Room – is a strange place where the banalities of suspended ceiling tiles and contract furniture are set into a supernatural state. The modern generic airport suddenly intersects with thousands of years of spiritual ritual.
Sometimes, it’s pathetic. Let’s say you find yourself in times of trouble at Heathrow Terminal 4 or maybe Detroit Metro Airport. At your moment of need, you’ll find yourself in a windowless room off an obscure corridor – what anywhere else would be the cleaners’ cupboard. Inside, the ritualistic requirements of varied faiths are present in their most reduced form. All you’ll find is a stack of prayer mats, a sign fixed to the ceiling pointing towards Mecca and a table with a bible. Its crappyness takes us from some of the pinnacles of human achievement – Chartres cathedral, the blue Mosque and so on – to this, an assemblage of generic building products and furniture ordered from a stationary catalogue.
Other times, they are a more elaborate affair. In Brussels, for example, there are three rooms – a Catholic, a Protestant and an Orthodox chapel. In the Catholic room, a piece of airplane wing has been refashioned into a techno-pulpit. A EU-blue Madonna is set against a rag-rolled curving screen. Over in the Orthodox room we’re struck by an elaborately carved wooden alter piece. It’s so big that it must have been carved out of a tree in-situ. This overwrought medieval handcraft, touched with gilding and draped in embroidery, floats in a field of generic modernity.
There’s a third type. Here, religious traditions smear into something less specific. The act of prayer becomes abstracted into the kind of meditation that means whatever you want it to mean. There’s a room like this at Schipol, it’s glass-walled like a corporate office but it’s also decorated so that when you look at it, it looks as though you are looking at a stained glass window while squinting. It’s coloured in a hazy way, all its narrative evacuated, just the sensation remaining.
Maybe in embryo form, we are witnessing the development of original airport rituals and acts of faith: Cargo Cults of the globally mobile where passing through a metal detector is a kind of electromagnetic baptism, the all clear from a body scanner articulates a state of purity, and the accumulation of air miles models the progression to higher echelons of faith. It’s a technological act of ascension. You are first purified body is purified through metal detectors and x-ray machines which look deep into the heart of your wash bag – whose personal intimacy is as close to a soul as some of us have – before you ascend (in the plane) into the heavenly cloudscape.
Maybe the rituals of airport-ness are religious acts for a post-religious world, acts of blank devotion to the systems and networks that sustain its very existence. Perhaps that’s the reason that airports, rather than any other of the spaces of hyper-modernity come equipped with spiritual functionality – why an airports programme has this strange kink.
Is it that the contemporary airports boring-sublime is as close to the transcendent spatiality of the most significant religious structures humanity has constructed? Or maybe these spaces are an adjunct of the ever-present possibility of disaster that ghosts behind an airports glossy calm alongside armed police, fire trucks, situation rooms and emergency procedures that wait for the next inevitable tragedy.