When I last went to London to visit my girlfriend, I landed at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. I couldn’t see any of the chaos that must have been around during the first few months after the terminal opened. However, I noticed something else: I had seen these ceilings covered by pipes, these enormous, airy departure and arrival halls, the shiny granite floor and the yellow signs with the black numbers on them at all the check-in counters somewhere before. Then I remembered the atmosphere in which I had said goodbye to Russian ecologists in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport two years before. Those bright billboards that every airport in the world is plastered with were hardly able to hide up the Soviet style of architecture that conveys such an authoritarian, bureaucratic and bleak atmosphere.
You rub your eyes in astonishment at the first sight: how curious that the architectural style of airports has obviously not changed since then, and how queer that airport architecture has never shown any indication of an east-west contrast. The newest post-modern airports in all Western metropoles look just like the Soviet airports built in the 1970ies. After all airports are truly globalized places!
The ideas of a small elite
On this note of globalisation, there is really no reason to be surprised as far as airports are concerned, though. Their design proves in a very visible way that globalisation is less an uncoordinated process of transnational exchange but more a carefully thought-through political project. In short: what most people call globalisation originates less from the fact that a mass of people from very differing cultures communicate across the globe and happily exchange goods with each other, but more from the fact that a small and astonishingly rich elite of politicians, businessmen and investment bankers live out their ideas on progress and affluence and hew these in stone – in something like airport terminals, for example.
No matter from which country in the world the members of this global elite come, they share an almost identical political ideology and an almost identical lifestyle. The new-monied class of Russia, top American politicians, British multi-millionaires, oil sheikhs from the Arab Emirates, Brazilian land owners, French investment bankers and the heads of Japanese companies are all convinced neo-liberalists and free-market radicals. They reside in the world’s luxury hotels, drive the same brand of cars, eat the same caviare, show off the same suits and handbags and build the same types of airport.
The widening gap
It could all be very different, though. Airports could be built in their country-specific styles. After all, the newly-built suburban homes of average people are not the same throughout the world. They look very different. But airports are not built for average people anyway. It is true that those who run the airports and the airlines themselves are dependent on the average passenger for their profit and it is average people who have to fly from time to time. Who hasn’t seen the pictures of the Pakistani on his arrival at Heathrow Airport or the extended family from Kazakhstan at Sheremetyevo Airport with an array of bulky plastic bags? But the contrast couldn’t be greater between these pictures and the A-list shops and boutiques, exclusive lounges with spa areas and office-style work stations at the airports, as well as the fittings of the first-class section of the large airlines. Nowhere else in the world does the contrast between average and minimum earners and the super rich become more apparent than at airports and in this respect they also reveal the true face of globalisation: the widening gap between the rich and the poor and especially the growing wealth of the rich.
I thought about all this on my flight back to Germany a few weeks later. It’s so easy above the clouds to have a clear bird’s eye view of things. Reality kicked in after landing in Munich. The Terminal 2 reminds me of…