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  • Airport Urbanism: Infrastructure and Mobility in Asia by Max Hirsh
  • Owen Gutfreund (bio)
Max Hirsh Airport Urbanism: Infrastructure and Mobility in Asia Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. x + 204 pages, 100 black-and-white and color illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9609-3, $87.50 HB ISBN: 978-0-8166-9610-9, $25.00 PB Kindle, $23.75

Airports are architecturally unlike other buildings because of their expansive footprints, their unique and complex programs, their visibility from so many directions, distances, and elevations, and their symbolic role as economic and technological civic statements. Airport exteriors are usually visually striking and photogenic, while their interiors often contain a glossy landscape of consumption replete with futuristic overtones. As a result, many books about airports have focused on these characteristics, either offering artful photographs of trophy architecture or exploring the design and planning of the walled micro-city within, and the implications thereof. Few authors or scholars have looked beyond the walls and boundaries of airports to consider their broader cultural, economic, and regional contexts. Fortunately, Max Hirsh's Airport Urbanism is unlike most airport books.

In fact, despite the title of his book, airports themselves are not Hirsh's primary object of study. Rather, he has used airports and the related transport systems to shed light on new and changing patterns of multinational mobility. He shows us that the dramatic growth in air travel to and within Asia has not been driven just by an increase in international businessmen and wealthy tourists, but has also included four notable groups of less-affluent travelers: middle-class retirees from the growing roster of more affluent Asian countries; expats returning for visits; international students; and middle-class workers traveling domestically as what Hirsh calls post-agricultural "migrant workers." By considering this fuller range of travelers, Hirsh provides readers with a nuanced view of economic and cultural changes in the region, and the roles that airports and air travel play in these historic changes. His is not an as-expected critique of the impacts of globalization, formalization, and modernization, in which megastructures like airports are interpreted as physical manifestations of these external forces. Instead, he shows us that Asian air travel is inextricably tied to an unexpectedly rich blend of activities, informal as well as formal, entrepreneurial as well as staterun, local as well as international. Furthermore, he shows us that the neighborhoods surrounding the airports are an important component of the air-travel ecosystem.

Hirsh builds his case by drawing on studies of four large Asian cities and their airports, from four different nations: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. It is worth noting that the national contexts vary considerably—economically, politically, socially, and culturally. This breadth enhances the utility of the book, increasing the contribution that it makes to scholarship, both on airports and on cities in Asia more generally. The Hong Kong case—which gets far more attention than any of the others—also encompasses its mainland megacity twin, Shenzhen. Separate but unequal airports serve this dual-centered metropolitan region that straddles the geographic and political barriers between semi-independent Hong Kong and mainland China. The Shenzhen airport serves most of the region's domestic travelers, with flights to dozens of destinations throughout mainland China and a handful of nearby countries. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong airport supports international flights to worldwide destinations. It is not unusual for big cities to rely on two coordinated airports [End Page 114] in this fashion, but this instance is complicated by the borders dividing the two cities.

The metropolitan scale of this two-airport cross-border case allows Hirsh to guide his readers through the fascinating array of multimodal transport networks, both formal and informal, that provide most of the connections between the two major airports. This broad illustrative potential may explain why the Hong Kong–Shenzhen case gets so much more attention in Hirsh's text than do the other three. Still, the other cases, while less developed, are fascinating and essential to the overall analysis. The Singapore case serves as a vehicle for an examination and explanation of the different types of airlines operating in the area, as well as the...


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pp. 114-115
Launched on MUSE
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