At airports we seldom notice the flat-weaved kaleidoscope beneath our feet. But why not pause a while to celebrate the geometric gum-covered sublimity of the airport carpet?
You are standing in an airport. What do you see? People? Luggage? Perhaps an aeroplane or two, glimpsed through the portholes of a lounge?
No. None of these. If we are honest with ourselves we never really see anything when we are in an airport. We look beyond the unnecessary goods, look beyond the bawling infants, look beyond the indecipherable directions to our boarding gate, and keep looking, unhindered and uninterrupted, towards our beach holiday, our business trip, our family reunion, our dirty weekend. In airports – even if they are Eero Saarinen's Washington Dulles, or Renzo Piano's Kansai – we are always looking forward to things, never at them.
The fact is that airports provide little more than a visual holding pattern for us. They are a mauve zone of pseudo-familiarity in which our imagination can project freely into the near-future. Even that strange dance of personal suspicion and official superstition that the modern traveller adheres to – the ritual undressing and body patting, the sacrificing of creams and liquids, the renunciation of fire – barely touches us. Airports are not filled with experience but expectation.
Or are they?
Those travellers who turn their eyes away from the skies, their thoughts away from the future, and look down at the ground of their immediate present, will be richly rewarded. For unbeknownst to many beneath each traveller's feet is a knotted kaleidoscope of shapes and colours, a flat-weaved cornucopia of scintillating signs and sigils, a polypropylene sea awash with dark and hidden beauty.
I speak, of course, of the airport carpet.
As the world's largest interior visual design medium, airport carpets have spread a multi-faceted but uniform aesthetic to the furthest reaches of the globe. From Shanghai to Sydney, from Kuala Lumpur to Kansas City, be it figurative or abstract, woven, tufted, or supplementary weft cut-loop piled, airport carpets are both geoglyphic in their enormity yet almost unbearably intimate in their designs. In their geometric precision, sensitivity to colour, and ability to absorb and hide stains, airport carpets are aesthetically unique. These aren't carpets but canvases upon which we walk.
The link between carpeting and flight stretches back millennia. The legend of the flying carpet first appears in the Thousand and One Nights in which Prince Houssain buys a carpet in the city of Bisnagar that is able to "instantly transport" him wherever he wishes to go. Similarly, in one of the many non-Biblical legends surrounding King Solomon, the mystical king has a flying carpet made of green silk with a golden weft which allowed him to "sail through the air so quickly that he breakfasted at Damascus and supped in Medina". Sixty miles long by sixty miles wide, Solomon's carpet prophesied the immense scale of today's airport carpets. One need only look at the 170,000sq m of carpet that spread throughout Delhi airport's newly opened T3 terminal, or the 135,000sq m of carpet in Hong Kong Airport to realise that the stuff of legend has come to pass.
But if history explains the aptness of finding carpets within airports, it is the fact of their position at a nation's entrance that necessitates the importance of their aesthetic success. For airport carpets reflect the country that stretches out beyond the luggage carousels, often depicting the highlights and history of the surrounding nation. Witness the carpet at Singapore's Changi Airport, a vertiginous monochrome wonder that seems to mimic what one would see if you fell out of a window in the city's brightly lit Downtown Core. At the other extreme, sits tiny Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport in Oregon, whose carpet sports a Prince of Wales check, referring to the secret visit to the small town by Edward VIII in the late 1930s to open a Girl Scout camp.
Occasionally airport carpets can be too candid. The torn, gum-covered, sub-neo-constructivist carpet at London's Heathrow immediately suggests one is entering a city of delays and obstructions, while the carpet in Murmansk Airport in Northern Russia, with its unforgiving pallid grey colour scheme and aggressively thick tufts, ominously alludes to the icy tundra that surrounds it.
The fact is that carpets are never incidental, yet despite their importance they face an uncertain future. Many airport authorities are tearing up carpet and replacing it with linoleum, terrazzo and wood. Even such a prestigious new airport building as Foster & Partners' Terminal 3 in Beijing, has eschewed carpet entirely for tile, providing a jarring, echoing soundscape that is not so much suggestive of Beijing's claustrophobic clamour as a new addition to it. If one needs to look for a cause of this renunciation of carpeting, one can trace it directly to the War on Terror.
In the wake of 9/11, security became such an issue in airports around the world that carpet manufacturers found it increasingly difficult not just to install carpets but to maintain them. Even in Dalton, Georgia, the Mecca of carpeting that provides 45 percent of the world's commercial carpet, there are grumbles of discontent. Tom Ellis at Tandus Carpets laments the fact that, due to increased security checks and stringent regulations on what can be brought into an airport, his workers often have little more than four hours a day to install or replace carpeting. Since the work has to be done at night, the cost of overtime alone causes costs to rapidly spiral.
The result is that airports are rapidly becoming faceless processing sheds with hard surface floors providing a characterless "international" style that is as opposed to interpretation as it is repellent to the foot. When it comes to airport carpeting the terrorists won. There is a grim irony in this, for if airports can be seen as temples to travel, gateways to other worlds, then airport carpets are the vast prayer mats upon which we all genuflect. Why else, when we enter airport security, are we forced to take off our shoes?
LF Wade International Airport, Bermuda (BDA)
A three frame Jacquard Wilton with a 100 percent BCF Nylon BASF-Zeftron 2000 ZX yarn, the carpet of BDA cannot help but both comfort and interrogate the identity of the traveller. This carpet investigates the quality of the traveller's attention while its inability to absorb stains, despite its heavy-duty weave, both elicits and resists interpretation. Its sheer frivolity brings to mind such carpets as Aeroporti Di Roma and Hull Airfield. "You stand on me," it seems to say, "Why?"
Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia (KUL)
KUL's bright, fiery design has survived largely thanks to the attentions of the airport's "bomoh", or witchdoctor. When KUL becomes ripped or torn the bomoh performs a "main puteri", or healing ritual, for in Malaysia it is believed that carpets that are in a state of disrepair have been possessed by Ahtran, the raggedy god. Despite these preventative measures, KUL is known as a bad luck carpet and is blamed for the airport's high rate of flight delays.
Lynden Pindling International Airport, Bahamas (NAS)
Lynden Pindling. Go on, say it. Lynden Pindling. Lynden Pindling. Lynden Pindling. It's like a zen mantra, or like water flowing over rocks, or like a warm azure sea filled with turtles and tropical fish. In short, like NAS itself.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, US (PHX)
The treacherous vertical wind vortices that once made PHX one of the most inhospitable airports in the world are here celebrated upon its carpet. Approximately 60 aircraft have been lost since the airport opened in 1935. Planes keep coming though, drawn both by the challenge of trying to land in one piece and by Phoenix's excellent Mexican food.
See more at www.carpetsforairports.com
Images: Kevin Miyazaki, George Pendle, Dominic Elliot