Any space, including artificial space, affects our minds and our bodies. But artificial environments shield us from phenomena like climate, and particularly daylight, whose cycles in the natural world expose us physically to the reality of constant change. In an optically static environment, like most airports, the body is physically desensitized from its sense of time.
In a brilliant essay called The Poetics of Light, the American architect Henry Plummer observed that "our very sense of being is based on an experience of process, activity, and movement. We seem to find an image of our own existence in the changing lights of the natural world." Moment-to-moment mutations of light also provide what the philosopher Henry Bergson called "lived time," and Ernst Cassirer "a consciousness of sequence."
All this in contrast to the so-called objective time of clocks (and departure times at airports). A sense of time is more than an indication that you are well-organized. Much more. According to the psychologist David Winnicott, "loss of temporality is a feature of the psychotic and deprived individual, in which a person loses the ability to connect the past with the present." The bridging of the present into the past, and into the future, is, says Winnicott, a crucial dimension of psychic integration and health.
So there you have it. Air travel, by scrambling your mind-and-body clock, creates the preconditions for psychosis. That's another reason it makes you feel strange!
This will not come as dramatic news to any architects in the audience. As far back as the 1930s, the celebrated Hawthorn Study analyzed a connection between light and mental comfort; Hawthorn's work represents the pre-history of environmental psychology; this has been an established branch of science for about 15 years now. It is environmental psychologists who first coined the term "sick building syndrome," and the development of so-called "environmentally porous" new buildings. The smartest new structures now let fresh air and daylight in.
The challenge posed by airports to architecture and design is threefold:
1 - contradictory operational and commercial agendasThe contradictory agendas of airport operators is the most intractable problem facing architects and designers. Remarkably, the architect is one of the few people, along with the planner and the economist, who grapples materially with the larger totality of the aviation system. Almost everyone else tends to be a specialist in one bit of the system. But it is obvious, given these conflicting agendas, that the chances of an architect imposing a coherent design solution are small. I will return to the consequences of this in a moment.
2 - impact of artificial environments on our physical/mental state
3 - impact of cognitive disorientation, of not understanding the system, on our mental/physical state
The second problem - of artificial space which isolates us from natural rhythms
- can be, and is being, solved by letting in fresh air and daylight. (Indeed,
most nineteenth century parents knew the benefits of fresh air, and that
opening a child's window at night aided sleep). Increased exposure to the
elements will certainly help unscramble our sense of time when traveling, which
philosophers and psychologists agree is indeed a basic component of a healthy