THE SECRET OF THE BEAST (Schiphol Airport); About DNA, Modification and Singular Objects

The last mutation of the city gate
From the free standing and circular shaped ‘palace’ or ‘pavilion form’ of the former ‘station building’ designed by architect Duintjer in 1961, -of which some reminiscences can be recognised in the great window of the central terminal-, in the end of the twentieth century Schiphol Airport rapidly mutated into another quality that best can be described as a combination of tunnel and frontier. ‘Everything becomes a tunnel, even airplanes’ prophesised Paul Andreu.(1) At Schiphol the tunnel form also includes the trains. The experience of a labyrinthine interior that that seems to be the mark of all airports is intensified here by the underground arrival of the train and the direct ascension into the main hall, Schiphol Plaza. The tunnel system is the consequence of the machine it accommodates: a huge transport machine that takes you to your plane in an efficient, but rather enigmatic way. After leaving train or car you are at the mercy of a vehicular system of rolling staircases, elevators and rolling sidewalks and in the occasional transition spaces in between you are comforted by the smoothness of the interior design. The architectural expression of this transport machine is not an homage to the achievements of modern technology, like the former ‘palace terminal‘ was, but can at its best be an architecture that holds a critical distance from the hyper functionality of the transport machine in which it is stoutly integrated.    

‘Dark men speak subdued, young persons lay on the chairs stretched out. A couple tourists carry Van Gogh- cylinders, Japanese clap as a drug dog returns to its trainer with a wagging tail. Floors glance without any compassion, chrome mirrors everything that passes. On the conveyer belt an endless compilation of people slides by, whipped up by an intercom voice men with suitcases on wheels run to the gate. Glass walls on both sides impudently give sight to optimistically painted air ships, which will lift us up to nothing and nowhere. (…) Schiphol is a gate to insignificance. Who I was just before does not matter anymore. Between ten thousands travellers from all over the world my social quality has no meaning. (….) in the ritual of passport control, luggage scan, partial undressing and body searching I have taken off my identity, and can surrender myself to the indifferent emptiness of travelling, whereby the only call I will be subjected to is the one of consumer. (…) Travelling is a mode of disappearing.’ (Edzard Mik, 2010) (2)

 These evocative phrases of Edzard Mik emphasize that the transport machine of Schiphol Airport has an inner dividing line that all passengers have to pass. His words remind us of the original meaning of ‘passenger’: someone who passes, that nowadays has changed into: someone to be transported. Every international airport is a coherent ensemble grouped around this inner frontier between landside and airside, between (national) territory and an undefined non-territorial area: the air. This very line reveals to us that the airport is the last mutation of the ancient city gate, as was the train station before. But, contemporary airport rapidly exceeds the limits of the gate function, and threatens to swallow the city itself in its excessive hypertrophy. (3) Many airports have become bigger then our major cities, Dallas Fort Worth exceed the size of the Parisian agglomeration and in the near future Schiphol will process yearly 40 million passengers, whereas the whole country of the Netherlands will have approximately 17 million inhabitants.
The chain of mutations from city gate-train station-airport culminates in the Air Terminal, a peculiar building type that gives access to the nothing of an absent territory, the anti-city. Air Terminal, spectroscope in which the shadows of deterritorialized peoples pass by, passengers with a retreated perception, who are reduced to body mass to be transported.  Air Terminal, final margin where distance-space is converted into travel-time.
Since the birth of the city the marginal gate space has been this interworld where familiarity and strangeness, the near and the far fuse. In this frontier space the features of place, like territory, law and regular live mingle with their opposites. 
Therefore the margin is the location of an increased insecurity: insecurity of the law, of the reigning code, habits, properties, identities and behaviour. We feel this as excitement, probably because we sense that in the heart of the habitual pliability of the ‘passengers in circulation’ a sudden conversion in behaviour can occur: panic lurks everywhere, a terrorist attack is likely. (4)
Therefore the margin is also the locus of a transmutated city politics that is based on increased suspicion and increased control: control of identity, of behaviour, of orientation and care for moods and states of mind.
In the modern airport we can witness how the margin takes over place. Better then in the city we can observe here the decay of our urban civilisation.   

Airport architecture combats the heterogeneous qualities of the ‘terminal’ with strategies of oneness. Sometimes the illusion of oneness can be achieved with a big all covering roof like in Stansted Airport. In Schiphol a combined strategy is applied. First all buildings have a fixed dress code of neutral colours - white, grey and black -, which are also applied in the interiors, where the surfaces are of natural materials and feel smooth and withdrawn. Only the way finding and information system are allowed to draw our attention with their vividly coloured signs. (5)  
    Secondly there is the application of the one terminal system with Schiphol Plaza as its focus.
    Schiphol Plaza is the place you have to pass going to, or coming from the train station beneath and coming from the arrival terminals adjacent to it. The plaza is also accessible for visitors from outside. It is meant to serve as the ‘meeting place for travellers and shoppers’. Here we find the greatest concentration of shops and restaurants on the landside.
    Schiphol Plaza is an interruption, an enlargement that eases the hastiness of the tunnel-corridors. It inserts the quality of city-space in the universe of the transitory, just like the main hall did in the former train station. But it is due to the very quality of the passenger that the function of meeting people, transforms into a mere possibility.  

Modification and DNA
The excessive growth of Schiphol Airport is imposed by ambitions inside a process of international competition and logistic warfare in peacetime. For several decennia it constituted the airport as the chosen laboratory for architecture devoted to change. Here the process of modification, of building, demolishing and reconstruction was at the order of the day from the very beginning, before it spreaded into our cities and infected architecture on a larger scale: flexibility, elasticity, weak materials, reshaping, morphing etc. Of all these only modification seems to happen to architectural practice in the disguise of fate.    

As main architect of Schiphol, Jan Benthem discusses the design problem of permanent modification in biological terms such as DNA. After twenty years of building and rebuilding he realizes that architectural responsibility is not concerning anymore the singular building. 
“… you are busy keeping a kind of organism alive that despite yourself, say, is growing. And although it is not always ready, it is always in use. We thought that, as this building is a growing organism of some sort that always has to function, always is ready for use and always alive, you should note that such buildings should have a kind of DNA that defines this machine’s, this beast’s, this city’s character.
We found that the architects before us, especially the interior architect of the airport, Kho Liang Ie, had inserted a very strong DNA. Kho Liang Ie had thought very well about how passengers experience the building, how one finds their way, and had made a number of simple rules: daylight in the building instead of artificial light; views, so that you can always see where you are; (...) keep the building simple, keep it in neutral colours: grey, white, natural materials, and let us see whether we can make new buildings with these principles such that you have the feeling: it all goes together, it has the same ‘essence’. (...)” (6)

Architectonic DNA enables to define the building complex of Schiphol Airport as a unity. Benthem takes it up as a principle of uniform detailing. He merely stipulates that architectonic DNA would have to function as a characteristic feature that marks the difference with other airports. Architectonic DNA then would serve to create difference and to resist the tendency that all places in our world become the same. The process towards sameness is particular felt in the interiors of the airports that melt together into one undistinguishable world airport, or airport world.
    With architectonic DNA Benthem also looks for means to produce some effects in the public, such as the illusion to circulate within a coherent whole (´it all goes together´), the orientation out of the interior (´so you can see where you are´), and to produce feelings of comfort and safety with natural materials, neutral colours and access of daylight.
    His terminology that also includes terms like ‘organism’ and ‘growth’ is obviously borrowed from biological discourse. In the quote above he does not hesitate to call Schiphol Airport a living ‘beast’, and places this expression in the middle of a short summery that also includes ‘machine’ and ‘city’, thus evoking the techno-biological imagery of Expressionism. (7) Think of Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis.  

It would be too easy to say that biological metaphors as ‘DNA’ and ‘growing beast’ express a new position of the architect who has lost his grip on the organisation of the whole. The image of an autonomous living and growing beast in relation to the weakening autonomy of the architect however is more then a free play with meaning. Implicitly Benthem seems to accept that the power to control the architecture of Schiphol Airport is yielded to other forces outside architecture, like project management and commerce. Schiphol is abundantly provided with shops, restaurants and other business, that probably have the right to equip and furniture their own site at will. This freedom produces a relative chaotic image and the architect has to relate to this chaos and has to realize at the same time goals like comfort, orientation, recognition and above all: identity.

If we want to grasp the ‘essence’ of Benthem’s remarks, we have to shift to their archaeological level and to communication theory. Today there is no intrinsic and compulsive relation between the words we say and the things we see. The art of denomination does not share space with the art to distinguish things and beings. Words and things are related in an act of mutual influencing, in a play of forces that affects our everyday perception. (8) 
    In a revealing essay Maurizio Lazzarato (9) explains that we have to evaluate Benthem’s observations as an act of theory production that is destined for circulation within the realm of architectural discourse. The structural indefiniteness of the complex relationship between words and things give way to the predominance of a practice of problematization.
    According to Lazzarato problematization means the production of a limited amount of enunciations that in the end will reduce possibilities of thought for the architectural professional. Limiting possibilities means to prescribe to thought the application of a defined discursive universe, that is reduced to things and cases that are present here in front of us. In the end this restricted amount of enunciations will outline architectural action, and will define what is legitimate to say and to do. 
Because it installs a grid of words that will influence our way of perception, our way of feeling and our way of understanding, problematization has a political dimension.      Lazzarato refers to Michel Foucault, for whom problematization is ‘not the depiction of an object that existed before, neither is it the production of a non-existing object by discourse. The totality of discursive and non-discursive practices introduces something in the play of truth and falsehood and constitutes it as an object for thinking (…)’(10)

We see that the expressions of Benthem must be interpreted as seeking a new truth for architecture. They start from experiences in reality (architecture is not establishing buildings anymore), are looking for a discourse that corresponds to the new experience (keeping alive and functioning an autonomous growing beast). Benthem’s problematization not only introduces new cases and objects in the professional discourse, but also proposes rules for action and how to relate to the new situation. We can recognize this from the way he defines the new architectural truth: DNA makes the character of the beast legible, and a task: we have to shift to the architecture of modification, and we have to make architecture suitable for a situation of permanent change.
    Although problematization always relates to actual reality, it is its communication that brings the new ‘truth’ in circulation and repeats it over and over again until a general consensus about the nature of the problem is established. As said, this very problem draws the attention and limits the range of possible expressions for architecture. When it circulates the problematization fortunately crosses the path of pure theory. I will come back to this later.

Problematization will never attain its moment of truth. On the level of meaning something else is circulating with it that prevents any closed conjunction between the two terms that constitutes truth: the verbal enunciation and the visible form. Every expression produces a mental image that is the direct effect of its literal phrasing and it is very unlikely this correlative, or ‘discursive object’ will ever be isomorphic with the visible object. This is why the expression will always transcend the proposition, the mere pointing to a case or a visible object.(11)
What is this extra that prevents truth but limits possibilities of thought? With Benthem it is the actualisation of the discourse of modern biology. This discourse effects our perception of Schiphol Airport with its own correlative images and its actualisation of associated discursive spaces.  

If we take Benthem’s words literally and go deeper into the discourse of modern biology we discover that the leading feature there is the denial of the body, of any bodily truth. As modern biology sets itself free from the schemes of natural history around 1800 the natural historian Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844) remarked:

‘Organic structure is becoming an abstract being… capable of assuming numerous forms.’ (12) 

Modern biology is fundamentally indifferent about the concrete appearance of individuals because its main concern has become the abstract principle of organisation, i.e. the composition of body organs according to a functional logic. Because function is an aspect of form that cannot be seen, -it is the effect to be achieved-, the external distinguishing features of plants and animals are grounded in an element that itself is not visible.
The possibility to think the relations between the visible organs and those hidden inside the body requires a connection between the principle of organisation and the concept of life. The mediative role of life brings about that all visible features are automatically reduced to their invisible reasons, especially the so-called life force. I come back to this later.
    When organisation is involved the sign on the surface, which can be a form, but also a colour, a texture, a shining, or a specific material, does not refer anymore to a veiled truth like a secret text, or a hidden word, let be a soul, as was the case in renaissance science, but always refers to a certain type of whole that in its sovereign and unique pattern encompasses the visible as well as the invisible. You see that we are getting closer to DNA now.
    When organisation is involved the act of denomination and the visual act of recognition are not submitted anymore to the same criteria. A form or a distinguishing mark can only be recognised by relating it to the entire composition of the individual. Because one has to start from the determining functions, the visible distinguishing mark on the surface has the mere function to indicate their presence in the depth. It is this very mechanism that makes it possible to find a suitable name (13): for instance ‘mammal’ in biology, or in our case here: ‘airport’. 

Thanks to the primacy of the function there can be ‘similarity’, even if there are no formally identical elements. In biology such a ‘similarity of function’ occurs between lungs and gills. They are ‘similar’ because they refer to an abstract organ that does nowhere exist in reality, and that serves breathing in general. Reasoning by analogy this mechanism allows us to ascribe complete different appearances such as Schiphol Airport, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, Satolas near Lyon, Stansted near London and many others to the same family by comparing them with a non existing abstract facility that serves the function of boarding.

The discourse of modern biology shifts the concept of difference from the minimal differences between the details of beings as was the case in the taxonomy of the classic era (Linneaus), towards a type of difference that ‘reverberates throughout the organism’. (14) This type of difference that is very close to the concept of DNA, forces us to read the distinctions automatically between entire organisms. It provides that the organism can form ‘a whole on its own’ and can continue to exist as such. This ‘whole’ consists of elements that are tightly closing the ranks around clearly separated ‘cores of coherence’. (15)

In the eighteenth century a similar process occurred in architecture and gave rise to the birth of the modern facility. This event that started the building family of hospitals, factories, post-offices and the train stations that succeeded the neo classical monuments in the nineteenth century and of which the airport is the last descendant, can best be illustrated with the appearance of the modern arsenal. This new building complex was formed by a composition technique that was rooted in the analyses of functions. The construction of arsenals gave rise to the idea of a cooperative system in which the singular element occupied a suitable position in relation to the whole and the other elements. Arsenals were composed of separated units needed for ship production that were formerly scattered all over the harbour and areas of the city. The ateliers, sheds, forges, ropewalks etc. were closely grouped around well-situated series of dry docks, from which the ships were launched. Around these groupings a wall was erected that separated them from their city of origin.

The success of the Karlskrona arsenal for instance (Thunberg, 1776) was not due to its formal characteristics, but to its excellent functioning as a production space. (16) Around 1800 the arsenals of Europe show a variety of forms (circular, orthogonal, half circular etc). This variety shows the irrelevance of the formal characteristics of these building complexes that were considered as a set of immaterial screens and coverings. It marks their differentiation from Baroque and Classicist architecture, because it bears witness that the ‘good form’ did not depend anymore of how an idea was expressed in a sign (the classical rule), but depended of a dynamic concept of space and time that was ruled by the function of the whole. Because the arsenal was primary a machine with a fixed function (the production of as many ships as fast as possible) it could appear in several forms.
    The similarity with the biological being and the modern airport is striking. It is due to the concept of organisation and its peculiar type of difference that the functionalists of the Modern Movement are often so close to the discourse of modern biology. It may be evident now how this pattern of concepts seduces us to think (and see) a whole that differs from a singular building and whose ‘live’ can be sustained by permanent modification.  
The complex facility of Schiphol Airport is primarily devoted to its function, and its main constituent is its principle of organisation. A principle that modern architecture could deal with very well without the concept of architectonic DNA. 

So, why architectonic DNA? To answer this question we have to shift to the concept of life. (17) Life causes the conceptualisation of isolated forms that are primarily related to themselves and try to be equal to themselves. From the very beginning in the eighteenth century the concept of live was connected to the ‘riddle of a secret force’ that only reveals itself when it has to maintain itself. This ‘secret force’ turns the living body into a kind of furnace that consumes dead material from the environment in order to live on. The concept of live maintenance within a given habitat that is submitted to change, gave rise to the very meaning of mutation.
    More important however is the projection of historicity inside the living matter. The historicity of life evokes the image of an immeasurable vital power that manifests itself in the short presence of the living beings, but that also finishes off with them. In the light of life living beings appear as figures passing by. Their bodies are mere shadows, a spectre of perception, essentially an illusion of time. But the language of biology also evokes a stubborn resistance against the limits of time.
    Because of the projection of historicity in living matter modern biology is more fascinated by animals then by plants. Remember, Schiphol is a ‘living beast’. This fascination comes from the animals figure, but only insofar it testifies of his life force that is hidden deep, deep inside.   
    If living matter is a manifestation of life, then the animal shows its riddle, always being on the edge of life and death that menaces it from outside and within. In the reflection on life and animality since the nineteenth century, bestiality appears as an untamed entity. In literature this culminates in the invention of the beast as the carrier of a wild and dark power. The beast is always coming from beyond. Always it is a force that opposes being, as does the movement in face of immobility and time in face of space.
That’s why we need architectonic DNA according to the biological discourse. To ease the instable forces of the beast and its dark power to erase any static being …like architecture.

The singular object, or resisting change
The modification theory of Benthem risks to be a just another way of adjusting architecture to a kind of eternal process of change in which it is caught. Apart from constructing a continuum it provides no reason to choose one form rather ten another and the problem of  ‘essence’ could just be an effect of contemporary science, of the evolution of our knowledge of matter, quantum physics, fractals … and DNA. Modification can go two ways. On the one hand architecture succeeds to change completely the quality of a more or less badly defined functional building complex, after which the place cannot be experienced as before. This we could call mutation. 
On the other hand, if there is no production of new meaning, and if there is no excess or redundancy, then we are confronted with rehabilitation. Rehabilitation being the pure process of providing qualities the space did not have before. Benthem might be on the latter path.
    Opposed to pure change and concepts that starts from flows is the theory of the singular object. (18) It holds on to idea of the object, to a phenomenon that exhausts itself fully in its very existence and that is always completely present, just like a poem does. 

The theory of the singular object not only differs drastically from architectonic DNA, it also radicalises its process of problematization. It does not originate from reality; it cannot be exchanged for it, neither for truth. However it could very well be the diagram of the singular object of architecture, be it in a relationship of challenge. It plays with the power of theory, which is not representation, nor instrumentality for design, but its capacity to circulate. Theory wants to be fed and consumed, it wants to influence someone unconsciously and it wants to be completely appropriated, be it by vocations that fully oppose to it. It wants to cause accidents of discourse and to give rise to new thoughts.
A singular object has many features. It creates utopia out of disaster, opposes real time thinking, redistributes leftovers of the culture it destroys and adheres to the present.   
The ideal singular object very likely possesses an autonomous force and creates an effect, not in, but alongside culture. We might call this effect singular object’s secret, its literality, or even its singularity (in the sense of ‘according to its own nature’).
This force manifests itself especially in the use of an existing building. The literal expression of a building then might very well oppose the official message of it. We all know the forms of Schiphol show no sign of bestiality, they do not even remind us of a living being, like Satolas near Lyon does and surely some parts of Roissy Charles de Gaulle that either look like a machine (terminal 1), or like a gigantic centipede (terminal F). 
Schiphol however is more subjected to the dictatorship of surfaces and the access of light. Surfaces that are smooth and play along in a general dramaturgy of illusion and seduction. Here we should be more sensitive for something we might call the ‘secret image’, an enigma that would be equipped with a bodily recalcitrance and that would be able to catch our eye beyond every intention of the architect.

An architectonic surface that appears smooth to the spectator, but at the same time would suggest a secret, or better, a monstrous dimension would testify of a deep inner conflict. It would resist problematization, because it would exclude whatever limitation of experience and would obstruct any limiting clarification of its meaning.  
Can such a singular surface be the result of a conscious architectural effort? Important is that we try to make it, that we try to describe it, important is, that we look out for it.

Now I am curious to return to Schiphol Airport and to look again.

Delft, 22-10-10


1.    Tellinga, J., a.o (ed.), l’Europe à grande vitesse, Rotterdam; NAi Editors 1996  p. 102

2.    Edzard Mik, Koolhaas in Beijing, Amsterdam; Fonds voor de beeldende kunsten, vormgeving en bouwkunst 2010  pp. 6-7

3.    Virilio, P., ‘From the site of election to the site of ejection’ in: Negative Horizon ; an essay in dromoscopy, New York; Continuum (2005) 2008  p. 93

4.    Nijenhuis, W., ‘City frontiers and their disappearance’, in: Assemblage 16 (1991)  pp. 43 - 53

5.    Tellinga, J., a.o (ed.), l’Europe à grande vitesse, Rotterdam; NAi Editors 1996  About Stansted Airport pp. 133-134, about smooth surfaces and light access: 131-132 and about Schiphol Airport: pp. 139-141

6.    Benthem, J., in: ‘Six meters under NAP-Residential luck in the polder’, Haarlemmermeer | Schiphol; Perspective Production/ Podium for Architecture 2009

7.    The techno-biological imagery of expressionism is especially shown in the works of Ernst Jünger. In his books like for instance Storm and Steel, London; Pinguïn modern classics 2004, he combines technological concepts with those of biology. I analysed the expressionistic style of Jünger in: ‘De diabolische snelweg’ in: Nijenhuis, W a.o., De diabolische snelweg, Rotterdam, + 010 Editors 2007 p. 132 (Dutch only)

8.    I have discussed this topic in my dissertation. Nijenhuis, W., Een wolk van duister weten; geschriften over Stedenbouw(geschiedenis), Eindhoven 2003  p. 54 - 63  See also: Nijenhuis, W. , The Riddle of the Real City (and the dark knowledge of urbanism), Rotterdam; Post Editions 2011 (forthcoming)
       The most beautiful description of the nature of the ‘discursive object’, has been written by Gilles Deleuze in: Logique du Sens (1969) See: Bogue, R., Deleuze and Guattari, London and New York, Routledge (1989) 2002 pp. 67-74

9.    Lazzarato, M., ‘Geschwindigkeit, Medien und Information’, in: Peter Gente (Hg.), Paul Virilio und die Künste, Berlin; Merve Verlag  2008  pp. 158-160 (170)  (German only)

10.  Foucault, M., Dits et Ecrits. Schriften 4. 1980-1984, Frankfurt am Main;  Suhrkamp  2005 p. 826

11.  Nijenhuis, W., Een  wolk van duister weten, Geschriften over Stedenbouw(Geschiedenis), Eindhoven 2003 pp. 54-63
       See also: Deleuze, G., Foucault, Frankfurt am Main; Suhrkamp 1987/1992 pp. 69-72 and 92-98

12.   Quoted by Cahn, Th., La vie et l’oeuvre d’E. Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, Paris, 1962 p. 138  See also Michel Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, London; Routledge 2001 p. 287

13.  Foucault, M., The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, London; Routledge 2001 p. 250

14.  Foucault, M., The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, London; Routledge 2001 p. 296

15.  Foucault, M., The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, London; Routledge 2001 p. 297

16.  Démangeon, A. / Fortier,  B., Les Vaisseaux et les Villes, Liege ; Mardaga 1978 p. 27 (Ships and cities)

17.  Foucault, M., The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, London; Routledge 2001 p. 302- 304

18.  For the idea and definitions of the singular object see: Baudrillard, J. and Nouvel, J., The singular objects of architecture, Minneapolis ; University of Minnesota Press  2002


This article has been published in:
Christof, K. (ed.), Working with Architectonic DNA,  Haarlemmermeer ; Jap Sam Books / Platform for Architecture Haarlemmermeer and Schiphol 2010





© 2011/07/19