A 20TH CENTURY “BRIDGE”

Part of the reconciliation between airport engineers and architects was stimulated by their mutual confidence in the utility of city planning in the design process. In a commentary on a paper presented by Donald Baker at a major meeting in 1928 of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ City Planning Division, John Nolen, one of the nation’s preeminent city planners, wrote: “As an outstanding feature of modem transportation the airport has an effect upon the city or urban community as a unit. To choose a site without consideration of all the elements of the community composition may mean that either the city may be injured by the location given over to the airport, or, in turn, the airport may not be so situated as to serve the city economically; or still worse, it may be so placed that it cannot develop business either from the city or serve as an adequate and safe stopping point on an airway for traffic from outside.”59

What Nolen and others were suggesting was a new way of understanding the specialized contributions of engineers and architects. In the minds of city planners, neither the engineering nor the architectural treatment of an airport facility

constituted the only issues guiding airport development. Good airport design, according to Nolen, necessarily incorporated “mastery not only of the physical conditions, but also a firm grasp on their financial and economic relations under appropriate statutes, laws and regulations.”60

City planners believed their endeavors to constitute a “scientific profession,” derived from a fundamentally different basis from that of engineering or architecture. John Nolen, wrote that “successful town planning cannot be the work of a narrow specialist, or of a single profession. The call is for versatility, special knowledge and cooperation. For town planning is engineering plus something; architecture plus something; or landscape architecture plus something….”61 Nolen was keenly interested in airports. He wrote several papers about city planning and airports, was an active public speaker on the subject, and most importantly was hired by several cities to design their airports. Nolen’s philosophy of city planning was that excellent results could only be achieved if social and economic factors were considered as seriously as demographic, aesthetic, and technical criteria. This produced a strikingly different outlook on airport design than existed in the aviation community. For example, when Commerce Department officials were in the midst of their crusades to persuade American cities to build airports, John Nolen stated unequivocally to a meeting of the Aeronautic Section of the Society of Automotive Engineers that the locations of the nation’s most important airports had already been determined. Simple “boosterism” was not particularly useful to Nolen’s way of thinking.62

Most city planners shared Nolen’s assessment. Airports were like bridges, connecting formerly-separated regions and like real bridges, they had the potential to alter the economic geography of the nation. The “bridge” had little value if it was not integrated with all other modes of transportation. The third part of airport design then, was identified as connecting the airport with the local systems of ground transportation.63

By the mid-1930s, engineers, architects and city planners were all engaged in the problems of airport design. Each profession viewed the technological possibilities of an airport from very different perspectives. This might have resulted in vigorous professional competition yet, instead the engineers, architects and city planners came to embrace each other (albeit warily) in a way that resulted in a synthesis of airport design concepts. There were several diverse factors contributing to this result including the full integration of radio into airport technology; the introduction of an entirely new type of aircraft, the so-called “modem” airliners; the political and economic circumstances of the 1930s that led to the Roosevelt Administration’s dramatic increase in federal investment in airports; and an abiding American fascination with aviation and its seductive promise of speed. How these factors helped bring together these three groups of professionals is perhaps best shown through a brief recounting of the development of LaGuardia Airport in New York.

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