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Art of Airport Towers

Posted on November 05, 2015

Douglas Adams began a novel with the line “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’ Airports are ugly.” But Smithsonian photographer Carolyn Russo is out to prove him wrong.

Her series of photos, which make up a new book and exhibit titled Art of the Airport Tower, turns airports’ loftiest structures into objects of odd, futuristic beauty. Opening November 11 at Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, the exhibit’s concept first came to the photographer as she took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The tower’s porthole windows “looked like Swiss cheese to me.” She found herself drawn to the architecture, and set out to capture how these structures strike a balance between function and form.

Russo began shooting in 2007, selecting towers through online sleuthing and speaking with aviation experts who suggested subjects with unusual traits or historic significance (such as the Harbor Control Tower near Pearl Harbor). Squeezing in photo sessions during other trips for the Smithsonian, she eventually shot more than 100 structures (the exhibit includes 50 of them, and the book has 85).

Russo took different angles for each: from a distance, close up, or focusing on characteristics that “defined the tower” or gave it anthropomorphic qualities (JFK’s looks like a swan, she says, while London Heathrow “resembles a top hat”).

Beyond the surprising artistry of airport towers, the show captures how these structures have evolved over time. In the era of Douglas DC-3 planes of the 1930s and 1940s, terminals were one level and towers needed only to be high enough to see to the end of the runway.

“They were really utilitarian—there was nothing special about them and no real relation to the terminal,” says Ronald Steinert, an architectural consultant for airports who has worked in the field for almost 50 years, spending 25 of those at Gensler, heading the firm’s aviation practice.

Read the story at Rhapsody.

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