Tow­er­ing tales

Who would ever think to find beauty in that util­i­tar­ian struc­ture, the air­port tower?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By MAN­GAI BALASEGARM star2@ thes­tar. com. my

THEY say beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, but some­times, the be­holder opens our eyes to beauty, trans­form­ing the or­di­nary into the ex­tra­or­di­nary.

So it was with Carolyn Russo, a pho­tog­ra­pher and cu­ra­tor with the renowned Smith­so­nian Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton DC. In stun­ning pho­to­graphs, she cap­tured what many of us hardly ever no­tice: air­port tow­ers.

Air­port tow­ers? Yes. Russo trav­elled to 23 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Malaysia, and in breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs, brought out the beauty and char­ac­ter of 85 tow­ers. Lofty, majestic, stylish, com­mand­ing. The images, on dis­play at the Air and Space Mu­seum un­til Novem­ber and col­lated into a book, Art Of The Air­port Tower, have drawn wide ac­claim and me­dia cov­er­age.

To Russo, air­port tow­ers are “mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures keep­ing hu­mans safe”.

“They’re th­ese un­sung he­roes of the air­port. I wanted to draw at­ten­tion to them,” she ex­plains in a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view from the United States.

She tried to evoke “what made that tower unique” in her images.

She deftly de­scribes the char­ac­ter of many tow­ers. There is the “Swiss cheese” tower ( La Guardia air­port, New York), “The Swan” ( John F. Kennedy air­port, New York) and the “Beak of the Bird” ( Al­liance air­port, Fort Worth, Texas). Many tow­ers look “bird­like”, she adds.

So what im­age did Russo have of the con­trol tow­ers in Kuala Lumpur International Air­port ( KLIA)?

“That tower I as­so­ciate with a tree in the for­est,” she says of KLIA’s west tower, which is fea­tured in her book. That’s an ob­ser­va­tion that be­fits the orig­i­nal de­sign con­cept of the air­port: “Air­port in the for­est, for­est in the air­port.”

“I had my eye on that tower from the word ‘ go’,” she adds. “It is very in­ter­est­ing.”

But it proved a chal­lenge to pho­to­graph, be­cause the then newly- built tower still had con­struc­tion ma­te­rial at its base. Plus its de­sign was “rather min­i­mal”. The fi­nal

pho­to­graph, Russo says, makes the tower look rather like a “light­house with all the win­dows up the side”.

As the world’s tallest con­trol tow­ers, the KLIA tow­ers were an ob­vi­ous draw. Usu­ally, though, Russo’s chose tow­ers based on aes­thet­ics. She also in­cluded his­tor­i­cal tow­ers, such as the field con­trol tower on Hawaii’s Ford Is­land, which sur­vived dam­age from the Ja­panese air raid on Pearl Har­bor in De­cem­ber 1941.

Some­times, on over­seas shoots, she sim­ply pho­tographed tow­ers nearby. Thus she shot the tower in Malacca air­port, be­ing close to KLIA. It is also “quite un­usual”.

“I loved the tower in Malacca,” she says, ad­ding that it re­minded her of “a gi­ant mush­room with the huge round shape that sits on top of the col­umn”. The tower is fea­tured in her book.

Of­ten, tow­ers ex­ude a spirit of the lo­cal cul­ture, such as Abu Dhabi International Air­port’s curved tower, which Russo feels looks like the tra­di­tional “flow­ing robe”, the kan­dura. She as­so­ci­ates Heathrow Air­port’s tower in Lon­don with a “gen­tle­man’s top hat”.

In Stockholm, the top part of the Ar­landa air­port tower rep­re­sents Hu­gin and Mi­nun, Odin’s ravens in Norse mythol­ogy.

Air­port tow­ers, Russo feels, are like “non- judge­men­tal cul­tural greeters” of a coun­try. “It’s the first thing that peo­ple fly­ing in from all over the world see,” she points out. “It’s the first thing that even the air­plane sees. It’s there to welcome the air­plane and di­rect it when it ar­rives.”

Russo has a deep affin­ity with all things avi­a­tion – she has been pho­tograph­ing air­planes, pi­lots and avi­a­tion arte­facts since 1988 for the Smith­so­nian’s Air and Space Mu­seum, which is the most vis­ited Amer­i­can mu­seum, with eight mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

Her work has been widely ex­hib­ited across the United States and in Fin­land and China, and also pub­lished in three books – Women And Flight: Por­traits Of Con­tem­po­rary Women Pi­lots ( Bulfinch Press, 1997), Ar­ti­facts Of Flight ( Harry N. Abrams, 2003) and In Plane View: Ab­strac­tions Of

Flight ( Pow­er­house Books, 2007). Russo is also a mu­seum spe­cial­ist, ac­quir­ing art for the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion and cu­rat­ing ex­hi­bi­tions.

The air­port tow­ers idea came to her al­most a decade ago when a tower – La Guardia – came into full view while she was sit­ting in an air­plane. But she had no idea how to go about re­al­is­ing the idea, so she sat on it. As luck would have it, she found her­self sit­ting next to the very per­son she needed at a mu­seum func­tion one night. Not­ing he had an avi­a­tion badge, she asked him who to con­tact for per­mis­sion to pho­to­graph air­port tow­ers. He smiled and said, “That would be me.”

She had no idea she had been talk­ing to the act­ing di­rec­tor of the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity.

Get­ting per­mis­sion to pho­to­graph tow­ers over­seas was not al­ways easy. Au­thor­i­ties were some­times slow or sus­pi­cious, even sus­pect­ing her of spy­ing. Heathrow de­manded an in­sur­ance cer­tifi­cate for US$ 20mil ( RM81.4mil).

She waited “a long time” for ap­proval from Thai au­thor­i­ties to pho­to­graph the tower in Su­varn­ab­humi Air­port ( aka Bangkok International Air­port). Ex­as­per­ated, she de­cided to write to an old pen­pal from her youth for help. As it hap­pened, he worked for Thai Air­ways, and per­mis­sion fol­lowed swiftly.

Due to time and bud­get con­straints, Russo did not pho­to­graph tow­ers in Ja­pan, South Amer­ica and Africa. The fi­nal tower she pho­tographed was one of the most chal­leng­ing to cap­ture: a mod­ern “re­mote” tower in Örn­sköldsvik Air­port, Swe­den.

“No­body [ works] in the tower. At the top of the tower is a video cam­era which scans the whole air­port. That was strictly func­tional. It was not very pretty and a chal­lenge to pho­to­graph,” she re­calls.

That tower is a long way away from how air­craft were first di­rected – on the ground with a flag sys­tem, in which a black- and- white check­ered flag sig­nalled “go” while a red flag was a sign to stop.

In the fu­ture, the tow­ers them­selves may be­come ob­so­lete when tech­nol­ogy takes over, which makes Art Of The Air­port Tower a unique chron­i­cle of the avi­a­tion ar­chi­tec­ture of our time.

The Art Of The Air­port Tower book ( ISBN 978- 1588345080) is avail­able from Smith­so­nian Books ( tinyurl. com/ hbh­pbf3) and ma­jor on­line book­stores. The Art Of The Air­port

Tower ex­hi­bi­tion is on at the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum, Wash­ing­ton DC, un­til Novem­ber.

Malaysian beau­ties: Russo pho­tographed the air­port tow­ers at ( from left) the KL International Air­port, KLIA2, and Malacca Air­port. — Pho­tos: CAROLYN RUSSO/ Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion Air and Space Mu­seum

( Right) Vi­enna International Air­port, Aus­tria.

( Above) Ed­in­burgh Air­port, Scot­land.

Russo sees air­port tow­ers as ‘ cul­tural greeters’ and ‘ mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures keep­ing hu­mans safe’. — car­olyn­russo. com

Abu Dhabi International Air­port, United Arab Emi­rates.

Birm­ing­ham Air­port, Bri­tain.

LaGuardia Air­port, New York City.

Stockholm- Ar­landa Air­port, Swe­den.

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