Observation Deck

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When I began writing ATW’s “Observation Deck” blog, it never occurred to me that I would be focusing on carpeting in airports. However, my friend Bill Schafer, a retired railroad executive, recently sent me a link to a website covering this subject, and soon thereafter, I read the article in the Wall Street Journal, no less, about the same entity. Titled “Fans of PDX’s Magic Carpet Don’t Want it to Disappear”, it made analogies between owning a swatch of carpet from the Portland (Oregon) International Airport and pieces of the Berlin Wall; 1960s Beatles’ concert ticket stubs; and a seat that had been in the ‘old’ Yankee Stadium. Who knew that a utilitarian product literally made to be walked on could be in the same league as these types of souvenirs?

The WSJ article also provides the provenance for my friend’s recommendation of the CarpetsForAirports.com website. Going well beyond the confines of a single location, it includes brief reviews of airports all over the world. As an example, it indicates that the carpet at Mexico City’s International Airport is of interest mostly for the fact that it changes colors every two years, noting, wryly, that “After years of study, Mexican scientists officially declared MEX a miracle, and attempts have since been made to have the carpet canonized”.

And it answers the larger question that certainly has been running through your head as you are reading this, namely…why? Apparently, the reason for this interest is simple and obvious:

Ever since the dawn of time man has separated himself from the lifeless earth beneath him with carpets.

Nowhere has this renunciation of man's transience been more joyous or uplifting than in the medium of airport carpets.

From Santiago to Sydney, from Bishkek to Boston, the airport carpet sings out its inviolable song, a sign of man's refusal to go drably into that dark night of international travel.

Such aesthetic intimacy, poetry and passion, has for too long gone unnoticed by the modern traveler.

Until now.

(Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any loss of productivity on the part of readers with who actually peruse, and enjoy, the aforementioned website.)

In reality, airports are front-line representatives of the localities that they serve. While they need to operate efficiently, lest they discourage -- rather than encourage -- passengers to use them, they also have the opportunity to imprint a positive view of their sponsoring entity on travelers. A postcard from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport from the 1960s provides an example, in the English-language description on its reverse (non-picture) side: “The front gate of Japan…. Since it was completed in 1931, its particular atmosphere has been familiar”.

In an earlier time, transportation companies went out of their way to build lavish facilities for their passengers to use. A prime example, starting with the name, was the Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Not just a place for railroad trains to begin and end their journeys, but effectively a city-within-a-city, and to some extent for the local community, a destination itself.

Of course, not all of these structures survive today; Grand Central’s near-neighbor, Pennsylvania Station, was razed in the 1960s, for example, as was a significant portion of Union Station in Chicago, although their transportation functions continue at the same sites, albeit on a less-grand scale. Others, including those in Washington, DC and Los Angeles did manage to survive, in part due to a renaissance of rail commuting and transit in recent years.

Few major airport terminals today could be considered to be distinctive on architectural merit alone. The former TWA terminal at JFK designed by Eero Saarinen exists, but has no current role in actual air transportation. In his book The TWA Terminal, Ezra Stoller states that “Saarinen outlined two primary objectives for the project: first, to create a “distinctive and memorable” signature building for TWA; and second, to “express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel”.”

While it may seem somewhat of a stretch to compare world-renowned architecture with floor covering, the fact that people are clamoring to get pieces of worn-out carpeting suggests that, at least in a small way, PDX succeeded in creating something ‘distinctive and memorable’. And in the process, they also demonstrated that doing this doesn’t have to cost a fortune, or require construction of a monumental palace. Hopefully other airports will emulate this in distinctive and localized ways, and, in the process, continue to emphasize travel’s drama, specialness and excitement.

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