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SYD: the city as airport

Gillian Fuller & Ross Rudesch Harley

Untitled Document

Finding our way through mud and mangroves I become aware there is no border between land and sea.
What exists is not a coast but a blur.
Michael Taussig

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From the ground Sydney airport is a series of flat lines and monumental fragments. Unlike the wave of verticals that invoke the familiar patterns of city skylines, Sydney airport, like all airports, is flat. Sydney International rises out of the swampy foreshores of Botany Bay and expands in all directions. The city that is the airport stretches out, not just up. Yet the skyline persists as a classic image of the city. However, as the planes that rumble above and the lingering avgas in the air remind us, the skyline is just one image of a city. An image which exults a vertical aesthetic of power and commerce, its epitome is the city that rises up from the grid, jagged and singular, punching shapes into a seemingly empty sky. These static outlines of verticality seem a little anxious now, asserting autonomy and separation in a world where global commerce demands connection and flow.

In this study we want to consider an "other city" of Sydney ? a city where verticality isn?t anchored to place but takes flight - an Aviopolis, a city of the air, rather than a metropolis. This city has a different command over space than the city of skylines- this other city turns mobility and connection into a productive force that produces value and in the process reshapes a city and its infrastructure. This is the global city of nodes and fragments that is dispersed and yet connected ? a global city which converges with the local city in the most literal of ways at the airport. To consider the relationship between an airport and a city is to consider a relation of intricate connections ? a drawing together of elements, a collective entwining of movement, money, land, sky, matter and information. So our first question might be: Where does the airport stop and the city begin?

For Virilio, the city no longer has territorial limits. They have been subsumed by a series of thresholds that penetrate the gates and walls that once delimited the city, exposing it to multiple outsides which now reside within a city that no longer has an inside or outside - it is a series of media channels, technologicalised procedures and global space-time that obliterates the specificity of local places.

Where does the city without gates begin? Probably inside the fugitive anxiety, that shudder that seizes the minds of those who, just returning from a long vacation, contemplate the imminent encounter with mounds of unwanted mail or with a house that?s been broken into and emptied of its contents. It begins with the urge to flee and escape for a second from an oppressive technological environment, to regain one?s senses and one?s sense of self. (Virilio, 2003:284)

The city space is refigured as a topology no longer bounded by territory, but as an interface ? a series of access points and filters for the bombardment of all that is possible when multiple connections collide.

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The runway lights for 34L/16R (the long north/south runway) cross both Alexandria Canal and Qantas Drive outside the perimeter of the airport. Here the information architecture of the airport rolls over several geographical modalities, stitching paddock, river, road and runway into the one ecology.

SYD - the airport

Sydney International Airport is one of the world?s oldest airports. Surrounded by the industrial waste of more than 100 years and the boggy intertidal ecologies of millennia, it began life as a swamp on the northern shore of Botany Bay in 1920.

When the airport was established it was quite remote from the Victorian city that clung to the working harbour of Port Jackson 10 kms north. The city was ringed with market gardens and grazing pastures, some of which, like the Market Gardens at Bestic Street, remain today. The first iteration of the airport typified the lack of foresight urban planning is often derided for, and the territorial expansion of the airport was soon competing directly with the suburbanisation of the city. The facility had little room to move westwards, and so Sydney International began growing east into Botany Bay, reclaiming land and reshaping its contours into new geometric forms.

The changing shape of Sydney?s airport is part of an ecology of "terraforming" that has been intensifying at Botany Bay over the past 50 or so years, but since colonisation, Botany Bay has been relentlessly "improved" ? it has been dredged, drained and reclaimed, rivers have been redirected, and runways have risen up out of the sea.

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The ecologies we are invoking here are not limited to some idealised notion of "nature". As airports increasingly become metaforms, insinuating themselves into urban infrastructures and geological/botanical landscapes, we prefer a more generalised notion of ecology that recognises all manner of topological connections that may exist across a range of systems. As Felix Guattari notes in The Three Ecologies:

Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think transversally (Guattari, 2000:43)

Airports mix multiple forms of life, matter and information into a series of new and constantly changing relations between bodies and the sky, between local landscapes and global capital. They do this by creating thresholds that enable disparate systems to meet each other. At the airport, the relatively slow and individuated systems of ground transportation meet with the faster mass systems of aviation. It is at this intersection that local urban ecologies begin to entwine with the global. The airport is a structure that is also an infrastructure. It is a structure designed for connection.

Airports invite a connective type of thinking at all scales, from geological to biological, and not just at the level of place, people, and time-zone (which are abstractions of global jet-time). Despite the fact that airports create some of the most anonymous zones in the world, it is impossible to isolate Sydney Airport from the ecology of Botany Bay ? a site of disaster for Australia?s indigenous people, a location for nationalist myths-of-origin for the Europeans who came after, a breeding ground for wetland bird species, and as a focus for local activism over continuous redevelopment among other things. Sydney Airport depends on what Alfred Whitehead would call the "patience of the environment". Or as Isabelle Stengers has put it, "the ethos of an organism, its specific grasping together of aspects of its environment, cannot be dissociated from its ecology" (Stengers, 2003: np). The airport itself is an organism that is constantly in a feedback loop with its environment, which is itself in flux and change. This process at Botany Bay has resulted in a form of epigenetic evolution at Botany Bay, in which a natural milieu of the bay is transformed into an associated milieu for transport and transmission industries. Botany Bay exceeds itself mythically but also technically. It is involved in an evolutionary process that draws both from within its existing structures and without.

Geoinformation thus invests territories with a technical navigation function just as, according to Simondon, the ocean is turned into an "associated milieu", a technical function of Guimbal?s turbine, with which tidal-powered factories are fitted. This means that a territory, as a natural milieu, itself becomes integrated into the "process of concretisation", and is thus functionally overdetermined by the milieu that essentially has become techno-geographical (Stiegler, 2003).

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"The ethos of an organism, its specific grasping together of aspects of its environment, cannot be dissociated from its ecology" Isabelle Stengers.

At Botany Bay, the energy and matter of one particular environment has been redirected into a global ecology that requires smooth connections, which allow for the endless circulation of commodities. The airport reconfigures its environs as a series of nodes in multiples ecologies, hooking up the local to the monumental scales of global aviation. Sydney is a very compact airport by global standards, occupying only 880 hectares of urban matter. Yet even this small airport processes over 23 million passenger-units each year and has a runway (16R/34L) which is almost four kms long. Airports, even the small ones, work on mega scales. They create worlds that exceed the capacity of contemporary urban planning and create new worlds of their own, in every imaginable sense.

Airports are "terraformers". They literally make land. They flatten difference into manageable contours, reconfiguring geography according to the spatio-temporal rhythms and cross-modal standards of global capital. In the 1960s, Sydney Airport took local terraforming to a new level when it extended the main north-south runway (16R/34L) over two kilometres into the bay. Extended first in 1963 to accommodate 707s and DC8s, it grew again in 1969 to handle the increased size and weight of 747s.

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Tenders for the 1963 runway expansion were primarily concerned with geo-engineering:

"The work included in the contract involves the reclaiming of land in Botany Bay by dredged sand fill; the construction of stone breakwater; the grading to shape of the sand fill; stabilisation of the sand surface and the construction of the runway, taxiway and road pavements with their associated drainage lines and power ducts" ( Original tender documents quoted in Engineering History of the Development of Sydney Airport 1947- 1972, Sydney: Department of Housing and Construction, 1983).

In 1994, more of the bay was dredged to make room for a parallel 2,438 metre runway, situated entirely on reclaimed land. After nearly two centuries of land-clearing, swamp-draining and road-building, Botany Bay displays a strangely bio-mechanical contour. As the airport has grasped the environment around it, all things start changing form as Sydney incorporates into a bigger and faster global ecology.

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Traffic and architecture hum in mutual flows but at different rhythms. Coiling networks of movement and ruin as the once toxic industrial south is repurposed to another ecology of movement and information.

Sydney demonstrates the tendencies that are common among many modern international airports, such as Kansai in Osaka or Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong: rising out of the sea, sucking up land and reforming it into platforms for planes and cars. In Sydney, suburban roads morphed into highways that curl around the airport and redirect cars under its runways. For decades, the daily commute along Botany Bay has been touched by the sublime operations of scale if one is lucky enough to drive under 16R/34L at the very moment a Jumbo jet effortlessly glides over. To motor under the runway is to be touched by the promise of an available elsewhere while stuck in one of the most predictable grooves of everyday life ? the suburban commute. Strange geographies emerge from this meeting of car and plane, tunnel and runway as cross-platform axes of movement create structures and shapes that breach previous logics of space.

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In the 1960s Sydney Airport took terraforming to a new level when it extended the main north south runway (34L 16R) into Botany Bay.

In Foucault?s later work on space and power, he began speculating about an increase of "other spaces" ? spaces of multiples and crossovers, spaces where old disciplinary distinctions (and thus old methods of control) break down.

Perhaps our life is still governed by a certain number of oppositions that remain inviolable, that our institutions and practices have not yet dared to break down. These are the oppositions that we regard as simple givens: for example between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between the space of leisure and the space of work. (Foucault, 1986:24)

The airport is a space where all these distinctions fold in on each other to create spaces in which the polis is both a logistical node in a global network and a mythical place of promise.

At the airport distinctions like private and public, leisure and work, open and closed, global and local, complete and incomplete, fold in on each other to create spaces of multiple relations. The airport is an "other space" ? a real space that is linked to numerous other types of spaces, contradicting and inverting the sites to which it connects. Sydney Airport is not a place that has a defined border, but instead dissolves into a series of modalities that fold into the city ? the M5 Motorway, the Airport Rail Link, aircraft noise limits, regenerated buffer zones, and navigational beacons that are fretted across the city landscape.

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All kinds of terraforming occurs around the airport. Golf courses display a formal art of terraforming. Bush regenerating, another major form of terraforming around the airport is a staple of "work for the dole" schemes and community programs.

In fact no airport has an absolute limit. They make runways in the middle of bays, their sonic footprints can be heard for miles, their legislative reign stretches across nations. The airport is a world of looping horizons. It unfurls out over the city and insinuates itself into the daily activities of the dispersing city. In its endless grasping of the environment, old futures are abandoned and new ones appear. All around Sydney Airport, junkyards, rubbish tips and the remnants of light industry are being replaced by car parks and logistics firms. The industrial surrounds of the old airport have given way to the new futures of information architecture, which produce value by making connections rather than things.

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Sims metal has been replaced by TNT Logistics. In its endless grasping of the environment - old futures are abandoned and new ones appear. Junkyards and light industry that used to ring the airport are being replaced by car parks, airport hotels and logistics firms. The industrial surrounds of the old airport give way to new futures of information architecture and endless storage facilities.

Meanwhile the Port Botany Cargo Facility nearby proposes to reshape its immediate environs yet again, reclaiming 70 hectares of shoreline to expand the port facilities in order to meet the next 20 years expansion of cargo. The proposed expansion reinitiates yet another debate ( about the nature of global and local borders, as beaches are buried under runways, roads are expanded and the smell of avgas mingles with the diesel fumes of increasing freight. The airport pulls everything tighter together even as it seems to be pulling it all apart. It is a site where all kinds of transgressions across discrete spaces, times and systems occur ? in which the very latest of air guidance control systems mingle into the ancient wetlands of Botany Bay, creating "techno-cultural miasmas" and new modes of life:

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The airport crosses many governmental and corporate jurisdictions but its sonic arms reach out and touch all those below.

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Many airports seem to flower in the rotting and seemingly most unusable spaces on earth: Sydney, Idlewild, Pudong and Kansai are just a few. In his evocative discussion of the important role corruption and contagion play in the cycles of life, Michael Taussig reminds us that the ancient Greek word for contagion, miasma, arises from a transgression. In the age of mobility machines, all kinds of transgressive co-minglings occur. The noise of jets overwhelm the blare of the TV in suburban homes. The airport and its city become indistinguishable.

Finding our way through mud and mangroves I become aware there is no border between land and sea. What exists is not a coast but a blur. The mangroves claw at the mud, like me, matter falling through time with a strange comfort in a sucking motion where being coagulates in a unity of sticky shadows. This morass is definitely the long sought in between of sludge rising and falling with the tide, home to all manner of life forms, the lunar zone of rot and decay in whose slow, eternal rhythms, clouds of shrimp waft and crabs hide. (Taussig, 2003)

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And yet, in this paper about connections , flows, mutual graspings and other "sticky" kinds of relations, everywhere there have been images of fences and perimeters. The multiple fences that buttress and loop around the airport create strange perimeters. It is hardly surprising that a space that is utterly about relationality would invoke multiple modes of spatiality within it. Such a space is both open and closed. It is isolated and yet at the same time connected. It carries within its structures the remnant features of genealogies of a past and anticipations of a future. As technical systems of access and control fracture, reproduce and become planetary, the airport ? the site of take ?off ? ringed with fences, overlaid with electromagnetic wavefronts that monitor all movement on multiple frequencies and synchronised into the most literal network of global time-space still seems the best example of the paradoxes of the modern polis ? the city never more connected with its "outside" and yet with multiple frontiers operating in its "interior". As Massumi notes in relation to digital networks:

[W]hen human desire invests connection and circulation without renouncing control, it falls into a double bind. A body that succeeds in controlling connective and circulation by externalizing itself in it, loses control in exact proportion to which it gains it. In doubling and bubbling, the more controlled the process, the more the process controls. In other words, a techno-desire for the future envelops a potential politics--a (self-defeating) system of power in germinal form. (Massumi, 1995:3)

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Never complete - always upgrading the horizontal city entwines with the vertical one. Unfurling to new horizons both open to each other and yet maintaining mythical divisions through the semiotics of boundaries.

In the age of mobility machines ? the city is necessarily multiple ? part of a complex network of global axiomatics in which space is reconstituted as on the network and smooth, or off it and chaotic. And Sydney like every city is a complex intermeshing of both these functions. As Foucault says ? we are in the epoch of juxtaposition of the near and the far, of the side by side and the dispersed (Foucault, 1986: 22). This isn?t just visible in the rotting, regenerating lands around the super slick and fenced off airport, it is everywhere. In the highways and the bike paths around it as well as the flight paths above. It is evident in the endless movement of more traffic and all the control and storage facilities that go with it. The way in which the growth of an airport cuts new grooves into the geo-cultural landscape of the city shows us, on one level, the constructedness of space. It also highlights the multiple "reals" of any city ? the multiple ecologies and the multiple connectedness of space.

Sydney Airport is a seeping miasma of control spaces and logistical architecture that is woven into the everyday life of the city. This is a city of movement, where traffic and architecture hum in synergistic flows and at different rhythms, and yet everything is geared towards greater integration and the smooth imperatives of transcapitalism, which flattens all ecological registers ? human, cultural, environmental, and architectural ? onto the same plane of equivalence, converting everything according to the logic of profit. The mention of profit here is not, as Massumi would note, to make a point about greed.

It was to make a point about a desire for the future that starts by taking profit as its end, and ends with information as a means; that starts by personalizing its machines, and ends up machining its personality; that encapsulates its motive force, and the form of its self, in an auto-productive process greater than itself. (Massumi, 1995:3)

Airports have always had a strong sense of the future ? utopian in the imaginings of their architecture and aviation in general and dystopian in their spreading of global procedures, world space-time and a logistical need for control. The city that is an airport would seem to be locked into an evolutionary process in which the heterogeneity of experience is regulated according to the ethos of distributed security and global standards. Like Virilio?s over-exposed city mentioned at the beginning of the paper, the airport is less a location and more a set of contact points with a new mode of geo-informational technics. The way you need to think about life becomes complex when one thinks about passing through the airport. A state identity is raised as one searches for their passport. A strange temporality emerges on your ticket as you realise you will arrive the day before you left; or as you begin packing your bags you begin thinking about weather patterns in another hemisphere. Life fractures into different geographies, the here and the now, the there and the then, the possible and the actual all begin to fold into and loop around each other. The airport is a place where everything seems so separated, so packeted ? but really it is all connected. And yet it may not be so grim. SYD, the city that is an airport, is also a node in multiple networks, a participant in multiple ecologies and therefore multiple possibilities.

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Department of Housing and Construction (1983) Engineering History of the Development of Sydney Airport 1947 - 1972, Sydney

Foucault, Michel (1986) "Of Other Spaces" Diacritics Vol 16, Number 1 p 22-27

Guattari, Felix (2000) The Three Ecologies, The Athlone Press: London

Massumi, Brian (1995) "Interface and Active Space:Human-Machine Design" in Proceedings of the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art, Montreal.

Steigler, Bernard (2003) "Our Ailing Educational Institutions" in Culture Machine 5

Stengers, Isabelle (2003) "Whitehead and the Laws of Nature", unpublished manuscript

Taussig, Michael (2003) "Miasma" in Gay Hawkins and Steven Muecke, eds, Culture and Waste, Rowman & Littlefield: Maryland

Virilio, Paul ( 2003) "The Overexposed City" in Roam: a Reader in the Aesthetics of Mobility, Blackdog Publications: London (first published in Third Degree No. 1, 1985)