In a world full of borders, the airport is a strange neutral zone, which the Muslim ban brought to light last year. Passengers found themselves stranded at airports, many unable to enter the U.S. but unable to turn around either. Pro bono lawyers set up shop near security checkpoints. Protesters rallied near the departure and arrival gates. All the while, platinum-status travelers sipped champagne, immune to the chaos in their members-only clubs.
Ironically, or at least presciently, months before the travel ban even started, architects at the firm Populous set out to design an airport concept around Trump’s social agenda and his preference for private infrastructure investments over public ones. The firm was hot off a major, very real airport project in the Northeast when projectMOVE, a research arm within Populous (that is independent and doesn’t reflect the firm’s views), began imagining this dystopian airport of the near future. Inspired by the president-elect’s class- and race-driven policies, the architects named their fictional airport “the New Colossus.”
It’s an international terminal composed of private business towers operated by companies like Hilton, Marriott, Trump International, and even Fidelity. Each tower is a self-contained mini-terminal unto itself, with hotels, legal services, and other amenities, and these entities profit upon a myriad of social circumstances at their gates. A pool and party space sit on top, hotel rooms are in the middle, immigration counsel is below that, and all your normal security is located at the bottom. Protesters would have ample space outside in the parking lots. Completely self-contained, you could take your ticket, walk all the way from Trump International’s front door to a (presumably gold) plane waiting for you at the gate. Each building’s striated levels would quarantine social classes by floor, like decks on the Titanic. It’s a vision of infrastructure by private entities–and of a ruthlessly designed profit machine.
“What would happen if you had to find a way to mitigate the excesses of the 1%, and the tragic conditions of refugees could be able to cohabitate within a single space?” muses Populous principal Derrick Choi, who led the projectMOVE effort. “What is the future of the public passenger terminal as a public space, of protest, and a ground zero of people without a home?”
These self-sovereign business towers could serve another need, too. Foreign workers having visa troubles, or those who are barred from entering the U.S. for some reason, could essentially land, go to work for days or months, and get back on a plane to return home whenever their contract was up (or the Tom Hanks movie was over). As farfetched as working at the airport to work around travel bans may sound, Choi says that in back in the 1990s, as another thought exercise, his firm developed a “Microsoft International airport, where people from around the world could get together, have quarterly meetings, and get back to their planes.”
If all of this conjecture about the future of airports has you scratching your head (“wait, could this happen?”) you should know that specialists at projectMOVE, who’ve worked closely with airport planners across the U.S., are just as lost on the topic.
“No one knows who has jurisdiction over these areas!” says Choi, pointing out that the Muslim ban’s chaos proved this point. In other words, the New Colossus may be a mere dystopian concept, but it’s not just eerily plausible. In some ways, we’re already well on our way to realizing it.