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Andreas Gursky – “Schipol”, 1994.

An airport is a philosophical question it can take a transatlantic flight to answer.

I went on holiday with my boyfriend to the USA a couple of years ago. We’d only been going out a few months. As the plane took off, I watched Heathrow dwindle away below us. The chaotic specifics of baggage check-in and Starbucks concessions coalesced into a pattern of geometric shapes on a green background.

I experienced a sudden shuddering sense of the uncanny. How had this huge, infinitely complex mass of tarmac, technology and the travel branch of WH Smith come into being? Its function, to send planes full of people roaring into the sky, was achieved by a mesh of individuals, each doing their job, unaware of the humming, glittering whole.

It was like one of those creatures that look like a jellyfish but if you peer closer are made up of thousands of tiny organisms living their little lives while the colony drifts through the sea.

I grasped my boyfriend’s arm. “Why is the airport there?”

“It’s handy for the M4 corridor.” He didn’t look up from his game of Puzzle Bobble on the seat-back screen.

“I mean, why does is exist? No one ever designed… that.” I flapped my hand at the scene below us.

“Well, someone thought a flat bit of land would be good for an airfield.”

“No, right, it’s like the universe. It’s just happened. There is no god.”

“Fuck!” There was a tinny explosion from his headphones as the bubbles filled his screen.

I’ll gloss over the rest of the discussion from this point until my boyfriend marched, glassy-eyed, towards the baggage carousel at JFK, shouting, “Maybe we should ask someone in charge. Excuse me, WHY IS A FUCKING AIRPORT?”

I now realize that if only I’d gone on holiday with Alain de Botton, the flight would have been more relaxed. Alain would have been happy to dissect the philosophical implications of an airport all the way to Brooklyn.

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