Airports as Music

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I was listening to “A Telephone and a Rubber Band” about Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, while driving west through England last week.

In the programme artist Emily Young recalled ‘hot dates’ with Jeffes when they would visit Heathrow in the middle of the night to listen to all kinds of noises going on in the airport: The hums and rumbles, air-conditioning units, tannoys and so on.

Brian Enos ‘Music for Airports’ is one thing. But airports as music is another. Perhaps Jeffes was imagining Heathrow as a gigantic musical instrument.

Of course, Heathrow isn’t a musical instrument – unless you are an avant guard musician warping your understanding of common sense in the name of iconoclasm.

But it is a sound.

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Heathrow is fascinating as a piece of architecture mainly because it’s so terrible. If you asked someone to draw Heathrow, they’d be hard pushed. It’s a mechanism, an atmosphere, a means to an end. It’s somewhere you come up in the middle of.

It’s scale dwarfs bijou provincial of airports like Stanstead or those sculptural buildings that wish to conjure sensations of light-as-air or swoop-in-flight-ness such as LAX’s Theme Building or Eero Saarinens TWA Flight Center.

But for something so big, Heathrow is almost invisible. Its scale is so large that its visual presence has no capacity to express itself. It is unlike other architecture of big scale – unlike the horizontal expressions which merge landscape and architecture like Versailles or Blenheim and unlike vertical buildings like the Empire State or the Burj Tower.

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All of the signatures of traditional architecture have vanished. It has no discernable elevation, section or plan, no motif, no structural approach. Heathrow is formless: a shapeless agglomeration. It is essentially a series of corridors snaking around the flat landscape of the Thames Valley.

Heathrow is a gigantic roar with a distribution of furniture, shopping facilities, and smoking areas.

Perhaps plans for the airports expansion don’t need architects, but people who work with sound – specifically noise. Leading candidates could include Sonic Youths Thurston Moore, My Bloody Valentines Kevin Shields, or J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr.

Then again, maybe I’m simply a posturing avant guard wannabe, warping common sense in the name of iconoclasm. Maybe Heathrow is simply terrible.

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