TAKE-OFF AND TRANSFER

Vandervoot Walsh, an assistant professor of architecture at Columbia wrote in 1931: “I suspect most engineers believe that the correct method of designing an airport is to let them lay the whole thing out, insuring its practicability: and then, if there is any money left, to call in an architect to spread a little trimming around on the outside of the buildings to make them look pretty.”54 Walsh felt that engineers believed that they could design an airport without an architect. The architect, suggested Walsh, did not share the same conviction about his own skills; the architect “understood” he could not design an airport without the help of an engineer.

Walsh was hardly arguing that an architect was superfluous, rather his article was a strongly-worded declaration of the architect’s rightful place in the design process. The value an architect provided was not in the “trimmings”; in fact, using an architect in this way was surely a waste of money according to Walsh. “Flying will never become generally popular until airports become more than merely practical and safe. They must affect the human emotions, establishing a mental state of ease through a feeling of comfort, safety and other emotions producing pleasure.”55

By the beginning of the 1930s, airport engineers embraced the idea that airport design should pay consideration to psychological factors. They agreed with the architects that the physical appearance of the airport help convey the image of permanence while disguising the very real discomforts and hazards of aviation. The question was to what degree and at which phase of the design process should they be incorporated. Further, there was no established mechanism for coordination between engineers and architects. As Walsh wrote, “practically no engineers have the training which architects have in the technique of keeping the planning in a very plastic condition, capable of quick changes as new and better ideas pass through the mind.”56 On the other hand, few architects understood the dynamics of airplanes and aircraft movement. Architects emphasized in their airport designs the idea of maximizing the functionality of the buildings; airport engineering design emphasized the functionality of the airplane.

It is important to keep in mind that airport design was more complicated than the design of a single facility. What becomes clear is that despite the assertions of the architect, both the architect and engineer were vitally interested in the problems of transfer. However, for the architect “transfer” was a local, small-scale phenomenon – how to get passengers between airplane and car, train, or bus. For the engineer, the problem of transfer was how to get passengers in and out of the air so that they could get from one airport to another.

There was no real resolution of competing claims for technical expertise over airport design in 1931 and 1932, just an acceptance that the amount of money being spent and the increase in passenger traffic had dictated a much more complex set of solutions to the problems of airport design. There was a consensus that airport design had to address two fundamental problems – takeoff-and-landing and transfer. As the matter of take-off and landing still was seen as the more pressing of the two problems, the engineers enjoyed the upper hand; but their visibility, if not their influence, was waning. Architects spoke more eloquently and effectively and captured public imagination. Architects proved much more adept at embedding the rhetoric of the American cultural ideals of progress and modernity in their descriptions of airport design. Again, Vandervoot Walsh provides a good (if lengthy) example:

Since we must admit that one of the grandest achievements of the human race is its newly acquired power to fly, then no airport is worthy of its existence if it does not express in its form the poetry of this great event. … There are others who say that the days of story-telling in archi­tecture are over, that all buildings have essentially become machines – cold, inhuman, efficient, doing their work with precision and speed. Let us hope, though, that the builders of airports will have a bigger vision than this, that engineers will realize that with human beings there is a spirit as well as body that must be satisfied. And that they will be willing to cooperate with architects to make these places of embarkation into the skies worthy of the great science of aviation.57

The reduced visibility of airport engineers was not really due to a lack of poetry but rather the fact that their profession was undergoing significant change. In 1931, Archibald Black expressed his concern for the “vanishing airport engineer” in a brief polemic published in The American City. Black was correct when he noted that there were fewer airport engineers but what was disappearing was the airport engineer who functioned in the same manner as the medical general practitioner – student of all the major airport systems but true expert in none. That airport engineer was about to be replaced by a new type – one more fully engaged in the technological problems of making an individual airport system function within a national system of airports and air transportation. That change was a direct consequence of the new involvement of architects in airport design.58

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