Skip to Main Content

Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): Art, Literature, and Architecture

By Guillaume de Syon

Art, Literature, and Architecture

Aviation served as a muse, though surprisingly little exists in English that clearly links the themes of art, literature, and architecture together.  Few books, for example, have looked at how aviation influenced specific writers.  Robert Harrison in Aviation Lore in Faulkner does document the many references to flight in the writer’s oeuvre.  Meanwhile, Peter Demetz’s The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 focuses on this event that inspired Franz Kafka’s writing of a piece on airplanes.[1]  Laurence Goldstein offers a useful overview of the field in The Flying Machine and Modern Literature, and helpfully complements Clive Hart’s two specialized volumes, The Prehistory of Flight and Images of Flight, as well as Peter Greenaway’s Flying Out of This World, which provides images and commentaries on a selection of art from the Louvre on the theme of the “human longing for flight.”  Goldstein shows very well that flight, though inspiring, also caused deep suspicion and prompted an emphasis on tragedy similar to the myth of Icarus.  Piero Boitani’s work, Winged Words: Flight in Poetry and History, however, builds on earlier accounts to offer a marvelous canvas that shows the tension over not only longing for flight but also wanting to stay home.  Its complexity is matched by its elegance, making the book a great analysis of aviation literature.

Other books in this category are edited collections.  They include Robert Hedin’s The Zeppelin Reader: Stories, Poems, and Songs from the Age of Airships, a collection of writings contemporary of the airship, but with minimal annotation.  More recently, Joseph Corn completed a similar selection on American aerospace designed to introduce readers to the impact of aviation over several decades: Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight.

The realm of painting is more complex to identify.  Many catalogue exhibits have focused on artists’ use of aviation to illustrate social tensions, but the very range of that field makes it difficult to unify.  War art, popular illustration, and sculpture have yet to be considered in a survey, though Flight: A Celebration of 100 Years in Art and Literature, edited by Anne Collins Goodyear, comes close to offering an ideal summary of the richness and complexity of the feelings the airplane occasioned.  The Italian and Russian futurist movements, which made heavy use of the aviation theme, are covered extensively, but the flight dimension is not handled separately.  It is worth mentioning a recent monograph, Robert Delaunay: Hommage à Blériot, which contains a series of Delaunay’s celebratory paintings of Blériot’s 1909 English Channel crossing, for it seeks to cast more specifically the enthusiasm the pilot provoked in the artist by surveying the thought process and work of the latter.

Ever since architect Le Corbusier published his (now reprinted) musings, Aircraft, the architectural realm has endeavored to analyze its relationship to the flying machine, but this may prove more difficult to chart, as many works on the subject are internal documents that are not widely accessible.  For example, Ezra Stoller’s photographic study, The TWA Terminal, is a beautiful little record of this wonderful building (designed by Eero Saarinen) at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, but it offers little of substance beyond Mark Lamster’s short introduction.  Still, historical surveys now exist.  They include John Zukowsky’s edited volume, Building for Air Travel: Architecture and Design for Commercial Aviation, which offers an excellent base to further investigate the richness of airport design.  A similar volume by Marcus Binney, Airport Builders, contains a helpful introduction, but its contributions amount to architectural description with limited social analysis.

The sad paradox of airports is that they have become forbidding fortresses, quite unlike the ones imagined at midcentury.  Yet their situation and evolution have inspired several works of note because airports are liminal spaces where unique human interaction takes place, either during construction or during operation.  Janet Daly Bednarek’s survey, America’s Airports: Airfield Development, 1918-1947, offers a nice summary of the multiple groups designers had to contend with to start building an air infrastructure.  Alastair Gordon’s Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure, on the other hand, surveys the evolution of airports from shacks in fields to full towns with runways.  The narrative necessarily shrinks some of the evolution of such structures, but this can be recovered in Building for Air Travel (previously discussed).  In Airspaces, David Pascoe suggests that airports and the airspace in between are destinations in themselves irrelevant of the cities serviced.  Alain de Botton’s short narrative, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, though very impressionistic, lends a poignant touch to the peculiarities of air travel.  In Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel, Mark Gottdiener prefers the concept of intermediate space, but both note the subtle unpleasantness of these realms, whether it concerns boredom, overcrowding, or longing.  Editor Mark Salter, on the other hand, takes these matters into the present realm by looking at the vulnerabilities of present airports and the impersonal nature of the resulting fear in Politics at the Airport.  Such challenges and the stresses of air travel are far from unique.  Rather, they are one of many hurdles societies overcome to accommodate this method of transportation.  Other fields, notably design and advertising, also help with such adjustments.

[1] Franz Kafka, “Die Aeroplane in Brescia,” Bohemia, September 29, 1909.

Works Cited