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Nathalie Roseau, Aerocity. Quand l'avion fait la ville (Aerocity: When the Plane Made the City).

Nathalie Roseau, Aerocity. Quand l'avion fait la ville (Aerocity: When the Plane Made the City), Parentheses, Marseille 2012, ISBN 978-2-86364-257-3

The conquest of the air created a new view of urban space. Even situated in the urban periphery, airfields performed as metropolitan centers from the outset. On the one hand, the traditional city suffered from chronic congestion and crises; on the other hand, the airfield embodies the imagined city of mobility as the outcome of technical innovations.

Starting from this assumption Nathalie Roseau studied ways of thinking about the future of the city focussing on the relations between aviation culture and city planning. The author concentrated her research on the airfields of Paris and New York using a variety of literature and archival documents.

The seven chapters of the book present a genealogy of metropolitan airports, each described strikingly: Fiction, Reform, Emblem, a Self Contained World, Showcase, Prototype, Lesson. This chronology is fed by five cultural threads: flight from the city (mobility and the intervening dimensions of aerial space); crossing frontiers and the risks of accident and disaster; obsolescence (decay of airfield concepts and typology); mediation of airfare projections through art, photography, film, literature, journals and magazines; the airport city as the 'alter ego' or mirror of the traditional city.

In the metropolitan debates after the First World War, air transport was more or less domesticated by the city. The introduction of the bird's eye view and perfect topographical maps based on aerial photography created a new weapon in the city planner's toolbox, showing the city as an aesthetic whole that could be grasped easily. After the Second World War, the political question rose whether the city, the central government or the market should own airports. These issues must be seen in the context of the triumphant allied nations that pursued a dominant role in international aviation and wanted their airports to be an expression of patriotism as well. The new airfields of Idlewild in New York (nicknamed 'terminal city') and Orly in Paris were placed in the urban periphery. These self contained cities --showing how speed infiltrated the buildings--were conceived as islands closed in by landing strips and well connected to the infrastructural suburban network of the metropolis. There was an analogy between the changing urbanity within the existing metropolis and the airport transformations. The world of transit could thus be analyzed as a showcase that offered the audience new comforts, as if an attraction park: Turkish baths, drive-in-theatre, promenades, skywalks, hotels, retail stores. This shape of commerce, facilities and recreation in terms of panorama and tableaux vivants was typical in the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s.

After the opening of the spectacular airfields of Idlewild and Orly, the phenomenon of obsolescence became visible. The glass facades of the terminals were one object of environmental and societal criticism. Programmatic inflexibility (caused by rapid growth of passenger numbers and parking problems) and the emergence of vast airfields in the jet age meant that airports became less desirable destinations to visit. The erosion of the sense of place was theorized in the 1960s. No longer did the aerial perspective dominate thoughts about the future of the (growing) metropolitan cities; instead there were sophisticated, quasi-scientific diagrams, grids, urban tissues and networks. In Paris, for instance, the new airport Roissy I was one of the results. A team of psycho-sociologists advised on the behaviour of passengers. The transformation from spectacle to spatial experience resulted in an open terminal building without references or illusions, as an unfolding space streamlining the parcours. The envelope, structure and functionality of the terminal were shown in their naked spatial essence. The airfield was situated as a (expanding) fragment inside the interior of the metropolis.

Shaping the airport as an independent entity and a metropolitan instrument of mobility has been determined by international and global economic, social and cultural changes. All the short-lived structures have continuously been (partly) erased or transformed and reused. So in the end the question is whether we are willing to see the relics of twentieth century aviation and its airports as cultural heritage and, if so, which relics we want to remember and maintain, and how are we going to do that?

Nathalie Roseau gives a convincing argument about the mutual influence of the traditional city, urban planning and airfield turbulence. The exchange between the discursive analyses of the social and spatial aspects in the genealogy of aerial culture has been strengthened by her detailed interpretation of plans and images, showing the imaginative power of creativity. 10.7227/TJTH.35.2.11

Koos Bosma

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
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Author:Bosma, Koos
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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