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Airport Landscape: Urban Ecologies In The Aerial Age (review)
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Airport Landscape: Urban Ecologies In The Aerial Age Conference at Harvard University Graduate School of Design 14–15 November 2013 Exhibition 30 October to 19 December 2013

Organized by Associate Professor Sonja Dümpelmann with Department Chair Professor Charles Waldheim, this was another in the valuable series of open conferences and exhibitions staged at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Previous examples include Large Parks (2003) and Ecological Urbanism (2009)—both of which led to the production of significant books on those topics. This event followed a similar format—introductions (Dean Mohsen Mostafavi and Waldheim) and opening keynote lectures on the first evening, followed by a full day (arguably a day too full) of keynote lectures, project presentations and panel sessions. The respective sections were categorized under the headings Cultures, Infrastructures, and Ecologies. They might equally have been categorized under Practical (particularly from MIT), Practitioner (primarily European landscape architects), and Theoretical (broadly comprised of architects and cultural geographers).

The tone for the Practical stream was set on the first evening by Peter Collinson (Harvard microphysicist), illustrating, first, that airport and “avigation” practices emerge from lessons learned from accidents, and that these lessons lead to protective practices extending from deterrents to burrowing rodents (sources of ground collapse and enticement to avian predators) to runway and regional protection zones (against physical obstacles, noise and wider weather patterns). In short, airports are regional (not simply local) phenomena. Other contributors to the practical stream included Richard de Neufville (engineer and systems designer at MIT) demonstrating that “the airline industry is antithetical to [passenger] buildings that cannot adapt to changing circumstances;” Steven Barrett (Director of the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at MIT) illustrating the global impact of airplane fuel emissions and the locations where (because of air movement patterns and background levels of ammonia) their impact is most extreme; and Nina-Marie Lister (planner/ecologist at Ryerson) highlighting the frequent proximity of airports and wild-life reserves, and examining management measures to reduce impacts on each other—while veering toward the Theoretical (and alliterative) with her conclusion that “Emergent Ecologies + Hybrid Habitats = New Natures.”

The Practitioner stream was prefaced by Christophe Girot (ETH Zürich) addressing, in particular, the alienation of passengers from the terrain of the airport, through the history of airport development and site restoration after these airports become redundant … essentially a cri de cœur for airport design to “return to the spirit of each place.” The other presentations in this stream were beautifully bookended by the Wageningen Twins—Adriaan Geuze (“Extraordinary Professor” at Wageningen/West 8) and Eelco Hooftman (Critic at GSD/GROSS.MAX.)—the former showing West 8’s work towards the planting of 800,000 Betula pubescens all around the hyper-active Schipol Airport (the only talk that addressed the landscape of an operational airport), the latter showing GROSS.MAX.’s affective video of their proposals for Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. Others in this stream—apart from Mary Margaret Jones (Hargreaves Associates) on conversion of Crissy Fields in San Francisco for public use—addressed yet-to-be-implemented after-use of a range of decommissioned airports—Ken [End Page 309] Smith on Orange County Great Park; Philippe Coignet (Office of Landscape Morphology) on Hellenikon Metropolitan Park, Athens; Henri Bava (Agence Ter) on the re-use of Berlin’s yet-to-close (1970s architectural icon) Tegel airport.

The ten other talks (making 19 on the second day) addressed various issues related to the planning, design and human use of airports—including that they are noisy and space-demanding (London Heathrow); that there is often resistance to their construction and/or expansion (Frankfurt and Narita, Tokyo); that Paris Orly was one of the last outwardly focussed airports while Paris Roissy (now Charles de Gaulle) airport (from the 1970s—with its suspended travelator tubes) was the first major example of a windowless, inwardly focussed terminal. These talks were replete with (often repeated) references to Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity (but not to Webber’s earlier recognition of non-place phenomena); to the works of Jean Baudrillard, J.G. Ballard and Guy Debord, and to psychogeography. Nothing wrong with that...