Airborne Environments

[Image: Airbus A380, photographed by Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse for Getty Images, via the New York Times].

Marc Newson’s “retro-futurist” interior design for the new A380 super-jumbo airplane, to be run by Qantas, was the subject of an interesting article in the New York Times writes this morning.

Newson’s “design language” for the airplane, we read, “is defined less by what the passengers see than by how they feel.” One example of this is “the L.E.D.’s that illuminate the cabin”:

They are programmed to wash the interior with colors that change subtly throughout the flight. Each shade is selected to create the ideal mood for a particular activity, like sleeping, waking or eating, regardless of time zone.
“Designing an aircraft is like creating a mini-world,” Mr. Newson said. “You’re putting people in a confined environment and controlling how they’ll feel with the oxygen, humidity and everything they touch and see. It all has an effect.”

Reading this instantly brought to mind a few things – including, somewhat obviously, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, here transformed into a total environment sent aloft into the sky. Perhaps equally unsurprising, I was also reminded of Norman Foster’s infamous choice of the Boeing 747 as his favorite building of the 20th century.

Are airplanes the future of architecture, after all?

Somewhat more obscurely, however, I thought of the dream academy of Konstantin Melnikov – Melnikov’s so-called “Sonata of Sleep.” As the Winter 2007/2008 issue of Cabinet magazine described Melnikov’s bizarre architectural invention:

At either end of the long buildings were to be situated control booths, where technicians would command instruments to regulate the temperature, humidity, and air pressure, as well as to waft salubrious scents and “rarefied condensed air” through the halls. Nor would sound be left unorganized. Specialists working “according to scientific facts” would transmit from the control centre a range of sounds gauged to intensify the process of slumber. The rustle of leaves, the cooing of nightingales, or the soft murmur of waves would instantly relax the most overwrought veteran of the metropolis. Should these fail, the mechanized beds would then begin gently to rock until consciousness was lost.

In many ways, this Willy Wonka-like vision of synaesthetic architecture could be realized in the guise of international airplane travel, Newson inadvertently suggests. Lulled by strange colored lights and slowly changing sounds, passengers can be sent to sleep – or woken up – at the will of the pilot, who assumes a new, psychotropic role. It’s an Esalen Institute in the sky.

[Images: Photos by Brett Boardman, for the New York Times].

A few brief questions:

1) What would an airplane designed by Jonathan Ive look like? Or if Mies van der Rohe had been hired to rethink the internal spaces of American Airlines? I feel like entire, speculative, university-level design courses could be organized around such lines of thought; they could be sponsored by Richard Branson. So does Newson’s success – or, who knows, failure – in designing the Qantas A380 imply that our era needs a new Raymond Loewy? Or will climate change and high oil prices ultimately extinguish this temporary airborne niche in the field of architectural design?

2) Less relevantly, should airports look like the airplanes that depart from them? You walk from one tubular environment into another, and you sit in identical seats, served by similarly uniformed stewards – only the room you’re now in suddenly accelerates, taking you up into the sky… Perhaps the interior design of airports and airplanes should be unified – made continuous – so, after too many drinks one night, waiting to depart from Dallas-Ft. Worth, you realize that you might be sitting in the airplane already… You demand to get off; hijinks ensue.

3) What were the test-environments for this airplane like? Did Newson have entire fake airplane hulls constructed somewhere, inside of which entire fake rooms and galleys could be installed – and what was it like to spend time inside that simulated airplane of the future?

4) Could you purchase one of Newson’s perfectly molded bathrooms, receive it by delivery a week later, and then hook it up somewhere inside your own grounded house? I remember hearing once that the Spice Girls liked the mattresses that they slept on so much when they came through Philadelphia and stayed in the Four Seasons they that they simply bought the beds upon check-out. So could you fill out a form at the end of your trans-Pacific, San Francisco-Sydney flight, and say, sure, I’ll buy two bathrooms and a couchette… deliver them to my house in Marin County? A whole subsidiary industry begins: you send experimental interiors into the skies of the world, aboard international business flights, hoping to sell a few rooms to your well-served, half-drunk passengers. What would happen if you could buy rooms from inside any building you’ve ever visited? Surely every interior could be given a price tag?

14 thoughts on “Airborne Environments”

  1. Your ‘blog is funny to me, because everything you bring up lately is something I did yesterday on Second Life. 🙂

    Walk into a place, it’s for sale. The furniture is for sale. The plants, the fireplace, and even the fire. Want to live in an airship? Visit Second Skies. I especially like the Vagabond.

  2. To answer questions (3) + (4)

    3) Yes. Having full size mock-ups is pretty much standard. It's used by the manufacturers to evaluate passenger ergonomics, manufacturability, and repairability. (A lot of this can now be simulated, but there is something about the real thing that can't be beat.) The airlines also generally build them to see what the total environment is like, as well as for crew training purposes. People do spend a few hours in them at a time.

    4) Yes, but you wouldn't like the price, and lead times for lavs & galleys are several months. They are build to a much higher standard than terrestrial fixtures (higher duty cycle, and you really can't have them fail.) Also, weight is a total fetish among aerospace types, so if we can save 3 ounces with a carbon-fibre toilet bowl, we'll probably do it.

    I've visited one of the high-end Galley / Lav suppliers, and their build quality is stunning. If I could afford it, I'd have them build my house.

  3. 4. A definite yes! I’ve always thought airplane bathrooms perfectly sized to be powder rooms (of course, I’m also five-foot six and less than 120 pounds). Also, in public buildings might it be better to have lines of airplane bathrooms, each with its own little toilet and sink, than two big washrooms?

  4. I love the idea you could be tired and confused, sat in the departure lounge… and suddenly realise you weren’t, as you thought you were, on your flight that took off an hour ago, as it looks identical.
    “Why has nobody brought me peanuts yet?”

  5. Air Canada has a few 20 year old Boings on service which also use the changing cabin lights.
    These are certainly not LEDs and at times the lightshow is more “disco” than “ambience”, but obviously they tried this many years ago.

  6. In answer to 4:

    I feel like the world would be an unhappier place if people were allowed to purchase any interior they walked into. Buildings and public spaces are meant to be lived in, and turning them into reproducible commodities would make it much more difficult to do that.

    When I’m walking through for example an art gallery, and I’m looking at all the art with an eye towards purchasing some of them, I’m necessarily forced to evaluate how much I like or dislike the art in front of me, how much I need or don’t need it–in other words, to form an opinion, and then translate that opinion into something like “how much I’m willing to pay.” Maybe this mental process is not so concrete, and I don’t think about it so much as I do it, but nevertheless it’s a different mindset than, say, if I were to look at that same art in a museum.

    I think I’m also thinking a little bit of Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and of people who walk through art museums taking cell phone pictures of all the portraits instead of looking at them.

    Which isn’t to say that it’s bad to look and think about spaces in different ways. I guess I’m just against forcing people into certain ways of thinking about them.

  7. I had a negative “gut” reaction to the mention of universal commodification. Perhaps it’s an instinctual reaction to the dramatically changing world we live in, but it seems that this inevitable course would be to the detriment of one’s sense of home and individuality. On the other hand, universal commodification also suggests the ultimate expression of individuality.

    great and interesting article. thanks!

  8. your speculation tires me. Oh, poor you, anonymous! You have to be pretty pathetic if speculation like this wears you out. Go get some sleep – and good luck out there in the big, tiring world. It must be hard for you.

    Debbie, I would simply add that the ability to purchase the bathroom of an airplane, for instance, doesn’t “force people into certain ways of thinking” about the world – any more than our present inability to purchase the bathroom of an airplane forces people to think a certain way. It’s just a different – and more expanded – set of options. So the inability to do this is just as imposing as is the possibility that we might find certain architectural fragments – rooms and corridors – up for sale. We’re just used to it.

  9. 4) Hence…mass production! LOL…these days its tough to have one of a kind as, as soon as someone rich enough comes along that unique piece is no longer…different look maybe but the idea is still the same.

    I forgot which artist said that “mass production is the highest form of compliment” and I tend to agree with him/her..

  10. Interesting was a test done by American Airways (if I’m right)… (a few years ago) They made their interior of a 737 completely white, (not beige or any other off-white color BUT white). The test passengers experienced it as TOO SCARY, people felt they where in some kind of heaven. Realizing that they where really flying. Some people said it was an amazing experience, feeling free and light! Would love to fly in such a airplane.

  11. oh the anxiety that would come from not knowing if I were in an airport or an airplane! i’m anxious enough when traveling (often standby, no ticket)…am i going to miss my flight? will i get a seat? will they make me gate check my suitcase?! i hate baggage claim! …simply reading that line of thought made my shoulders tense up!

    i for one enjoy the leaps taken in this write up. we all do it on our own…thanks for sharing yours Geoff.

  12. Thanks, Aaron – appreciated. Though I’m sorry to make your shoulders tense up!

    Hopfoot, that sounds like some combination of Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol.

    And, twelve, perhaps an all-black airplane interior is the next step in experimental flight design.

    Or perhaps every plane in a certain fleet should be different – so that three years after your last flight on American’s all-red interior plane you find yourself riding it again on a short-hop flight between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia… Six months later you’re on the polka dot plane again. And so on.

  13. As in any business, the big carriers are always looking for new ideas and ways to improve their offer, over and above that of their competitors.

    Emirates did it with their A380. The interior design and seating areas – themed around the concepts of Fire, Water, Air and Earth – provide a soothing and enjoyable ambiance. Relax and treat yourself to a range of premium services from the Timeless Spa.

    My favorite quote is “is defined less by what the passengers see than by how they feel.”

    Thanks for this article.

    – Sujan

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