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Beginning in 2006, Smithsonian photographer Carolyn Russo journeyed through 23 countries, documenting the one structure nearly every traveler arriving by air sees: the airport tower. Over the years, Russo has trained her lens on over 100 of these buildings, both historic and contemporary, and the resulting photographs are now on view at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Framed like individual portraits from a variety of angles, the prints explore the architecture of these buildings that not only reflects the necessary functionalities of control towers but also unique design aesthetics and, at times, aspects of local culture. Seen as a collection, Art of the Airport Tower reveals the evolution of this specific building type, showcasing the infrastructural updates various towers have received as technology developed.
Stark, closely cropped within their frames, and rendered in high contrast, Russo’s towers are often imposing and intimidatingly tall — yet elegant — and stand as grand industrial feats that command the landscape. Their invaluable and authoritative role as stations for traffic monitoring and other complex safety systems is clear; as Russo writes in her preface to the accompanying catalogue:
I viewed each tower as both an essential aviation artifact and a vessel with a powerful presence — watching over the vastness of the airport and sky; a non-judgmental cultural greeter; a choreographer or conductor; a mother bird caring for her flock; an omniscient, intelligent structure keeping humans safe. In the presence of the tower, I sensed the complex orchestration of humans.
Russo selected her towers based on a number of factors including location, popularity, height, history, and visual appeal. The comprehensive catalogue records and describes much of this information, serving as a survey of some of the world’s most frequented airport towers. Each is identified by its three-letter International Air Transport Association (IATA) airport code and four-letter International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) code, but while this classification is systematic and rigid, the individual designs is anything but standardized, required to adhere only to certain safety and accessibility regulations.
From Edinburgh, Scotland to Hangzhou, China, many cities ushering in planes have control towers whose architects paid as much attention to style and visual meaning as they did to structural practicalities. Many of these towers, which have even won design or architecture awards, stand as some symbol of their city. The 272-foot-tall tower at Stockholm Arlanda Airport in Sweden features two intersecting lookout points near its apex, intended to represent Hugin and Minun, two ravens from Nordic mythology. Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s only crescent-shaped tower; looming over 357-feet-tall over the horizon, it represents the sail of a traditional dhow boat that used to transport goods along the regional coasts. At Catalina Airport, the walls of the tower as well as terminals are lined with bricks and tiles made of local material; at Flamingo Airport in the Caribbean, the walls are pink to commemorate the island’s wading birds.
In addition to these portraits of towers still used for their original function, Russo also documented historical ones as a means to preserve them. In April 2009, she witnessed the demolition of Wisconsin’s Wittman Regional Airport — built in 1927 and initially named Winnebago County Airport — an event that attracted local townspeople. Today, a taller and more modernized building stands in its place, and the images Russo captured memorialize the original tower in its final moments. Other old towers still survive, such as the one at Grand Central Air Terminal in California, which boasts an Art Deco exterior, and that at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor. Both underwent multi-million-dollar restoration projects soon after Russo visited them.
While these decades-old buildings are coming down or changing appearances, many others are still popping up — one futuristic-looking tower, for instance, will soon rise at Istanbul’s new airport. With the fast development of technology, however, it’s anyone’s guess what the landscape of our airports may look like in the future.
Art of the Airport Tower continues at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Independence Ave at 6th St, SW, Washington, DC) through November 2016.