Monday, August 6, 2007

Airport distress

It is interesting and a bit ironic that I find myself sitting in an airport stranded for the third time in only 9 weeks. The first was a canceled flight to Denver due to high winds and the second a canceled flight to Phoenix because of flooding. Actually, technically I am not stranded, I am waiting on Kerri who is delayed, but thankfully in route, out of Chicago due to severe thunderstorms. Technically I can't say that I was ever stranded as much as I felt hostage to the airlines. It reminds me of my reading of F. L. Olmsted in his journeys of the prewar South.

The Ironic part is the trio of books I have read due to the modern marvel of air transportation:

"A Clearing in the Distance" by Witold Rybczynski

One of my favorite parts of "A Clearing in the Distance" is where Olmsted is traveling the South:

In Norfolk, he found that the only good hotel had been closed down due to insufficient business, and when he did find a room, there was rainwater from a leaky roof puddling on the floor, and no fireplace. t was January, and he was so cold and damp that he was obliged to go down to the warm but smoke-filled and stinking public bar. He sat in a corner and listened to the landlord and his drunken cronies complaining loudly and obscenely about the infidel abolitionists, chif among them the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin!"

The next morning, as he was abuot to have breakfast, he was told he would have to leave immediately or he would miss his train. He suspected he was being cheated since he had already been charged for the meal--this had happened to him once before. Nevertheless, he hurried to catch the ferry across the river to the railroad station. He and the porter carrying his luggage arrived at the dock just in time to see the stern o fthe departing boat. There was nothing to be done, so he bought some food from a market stall and sat down to wait. Twenty minutes later the ferry returned. His anxiety about missing th train--and having to spend another twenty-four hours in that dismal hotel--was aggravated when, halfway across the river, the paddleboat began to drift with the current because the stoker had gone to sleep. Finally, they arrived at the railroad station, a full half hour late. The train had not left; indeed, the ticket office was not even open. It was another hour before they pulled out of the station.

Olmsted continues on the woes of traveling in the South. Not much has changed in human character and our traveling predicaments. The transportation and hospitality industry has the traveler over a barrel. The airlines are finally starting to turn a profit, and it is at the expense of the passenger. What other company makes its most profits at the discomfort and inconvenience of the customer? Is it the fault of the airlines when bad weather cancels or delays a flight? No. However, not having a contingency plan for the customer is their fault. It seems the less contingency plans made, the higher the profits. Like the stranded of Denver this winter, if you are bumped, you are bumped into a dark hole at the mercy of the airlines where there is very little mercy to be found these days. The standard accepted practice is to cause a commotion and demand which only steels the airlines defences and jades the people behind the counter. I have never experienced such horrible customer service as our air transportation. Traveling has devolved into a shove and scratch mentality. The common traveler has amazing resilience, but the airline employee has been denuded of patience and compassion. I saw an airline ticket agent yell and scream at a group of passengers that were standing in hopes to get on an outbound plane. "SIT DOWN!" and when they didn't she hollered it again and demanded they sit and wait. It was the most uncomfortable feeling as I was being ushered past them by another airline agent because of my canceled flight. Prepare yourself if you fly. It will feel like antebellum South out there.

Where Olmsted peaks in the second half of the 1800s, 1491 is about pre-European settlement of the Americas.

I have been struggling, philosophically about my footprint and the footprint of my designs. Oklahoma, in my mind, has always been this grand prairie system independent of man's hand. I would not say that 1491 by Charles C. Mann flipped my way of thinking, but it helped clarify my design motives and intents. Man has a much longer and deeper connection with Oklahoma than I had previously believed. Man probably has a prehistoric connection with the great plains that is uncelebrated.

A more broad and regional approach to land management should be applied. Man is part of the equation, and regional aesthetics are still a founding principle in direction, preservation and appreciation of landscape.

My final airport read is Scott W. Berg's "Grand Avenues". It is the story of L'Enfant, the designer of Washington D.C.. As a designer it is a very passionate story of grand design, betrayal and emotional vindication. Berg does a fine job of needling out politics of the day. It turned my imaginations of esteemed men upside down and in different light. Thomas Jefferson in particular. In the end Rick Olmsted jr. son of the first American landscape architect sees the vision of L'Enfant and has the ability with the help of others to pull the vision of L'Enfant out of quagmire. Like most Landscape Architecture projects, designs are polluted with the limiting factors of finances and politics. Truly landscape architecture is the art of a sale, the persuasive powers to get finances and the enduring quality of the design.

Daniel Burnam wrote:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing asserting itself with ever growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon be beauty.

With these three books I reflect on the direction and plodding of history. I wonder as I wait for Kerri's plane if our transportation grid of the sky is doomed? Should we have invested more on high speed rail? Am I doing a disservice to my clients by not presenting what their little piece of land is capable of? Of the three books one of the major influence is transportation. I find it ironic that I sit, wait and ramble like so many before me who have traveled.