Friday, December 12, 2008

Airport Chapels: Detroit

Almost exactly a year ago, Bill Caraher wrote some Travel Notes from a 30-hour-long international odyssey spent on airports. The posting explored the notion of Third Space, Edward Soja's powerful paradigm for analyzing the postmodern condition. Bill took notes for those 30 hours in a special notebook. I was reminded of this notebook recently, when Bill blogged once again in transit, this time from the Grand Forks International Airport on his way to Montreal.

As the Holiday Season approaches, we migh spend many hours in the heterotopia of airports (see Foucault, 1967). Recently, I've been intrigued by the sacrality of airport heterotopias, and here I'm not speaking metaphorically, but I'm referring to a recent architectural type, the non-denominational Airport Chapel. I had no idea that such a thing ever existed until the Eleutherios Venizelos airport opened in Athens. Flying out of Greece in 2003, my dear Aunt Popi came along to bid me farewell. Aunt Popi had immigrated to the United States in 1953, and she has a deep psychological connection with leaving home; she loves taking people to or picking people up from airports, having herself dramatized so many highlights of her life in those spaces. Popi goes beyond the airport. Whenever she spots a plane flying up in the sky, she blesses it with the sign of the cross (a very subtle and fleeting sign, considering the minuscule size of a plane seen from the ground). I think my grandmother started doing this when Popi took her first flight to the United States; the idea is that every plane in the sky must have some person leaving his/her mother, getting uprooted, and in need of blessings. Some readers will find it interesting that Orthodox forms of devotion have adjusted to modern technologies. After all, didn't a sign of the cross appear in the skies during Emperor Constantine's victory revelation at the Milvian Bridge? Aviation and devotion have a long history. From my aunt's point of view, airports are spaces of life-altering events, uprootings and returns, not spaces for casual business commuting. A room dedicated to divine concerns is the most logical thing in airports for Popi.

I must confess, I know very little about the history of airport chapels ( starting with Our Lady of the Airways, Boston Logan Airport, 1951). Nevertheless, I feel compelled to document them. They are fascinating spaces. Today, I'm giving a final exam in my History of Art class, where I'm asking the students to define the minimum requirements for a religious space (church, synagogue, mosque). We must write the history of airport chapels because here we'll find the minimum requirements for religious devotion. What are those elements that transform a generic room into a chapel? Most airport chapels seem to recycle generic notions of Christian decoration, making slight quotations to a rich history of churches. The very stuff we, art historians, teach our students with slides and digital images gets recycled as popular imagery within the interior of non-confrontational, non-denominational chapels. There is often low lighting, some back-lit stained glass windows, mosaics, a pseudo-altar or pulpit, etc. From a Protestant point of view, there are no liturgical requirements, but the visual references are always there.

During the Holidays, as people pass through airports, waiting for long connections, I encourage them to seek the chapel and report back. Let's collect some evidence and then make some observations. During my last airport visit, I did exactly that in Detroit's airport, which has a "Religious Reflection Room." It's not easy to find. After following signs, riding up an elevator, and walking through some corridors, one finds a marked room (see sign at beginning). Once you open the door, you enter a drab space that looks like this:

Surrounded by seats along four walls, marked in the cardinal directions, lies a bizarre religious space caught in the weirdness of postmodernity. A compass on the carpet situates you globally, an important detail if you need to face towards Mecca. The lack of Christian iconography suggests that a Moslem audience was considered for this space. There are some Bibles lying on a chair, but also some prayer mats and Korans lying in the corner.

The Islamic overtones raise all kinds of interesting questions. A Muslim does not need a "religious reflection place" to pray, but can pray anywhere. Is this an attempt to segregate Muslims away from an assumed Christian airport? South East Michigan has one of the highest concentrations of Arab Americans, ca. 150,000 people, see "Hockey and Hijab,"
Economist (December 6th, 2008) p. 79. Dearborn is the home of ACCESS (the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) and an Islamic Center bigger than any nearby church. The Arab American National Museum also just openned. Can you imagine McDonalds selling halal McNuggets? There are two in Dearborn. So perhaps, the Detroit airport chapel is a statement of Arab American pride. Demographically, one may wonder whether the audience might be not travelers but the airport's Arab Americans working force.

Then there is this bizarre sign next to the door of the Reflection Room, which complicates matters. It says, "This is a Religious Reflections [not Reflection] Room NOT A BREAK ROOM. Employees using this facility as a break room are subject to CONFISCATION OF BADGE," signed personally by Lester W. Robinson, the the CEO of the Airport Authority. It must be one of the most dense social artifacts of the entire airport, loaded with assumed meanings, assumptions, directives, prohibitions, control, policing, discipline and punishment.

Personally, this very sign makes it impossible for me to feel reflective, other than in some Marxist sense of critical thinking. Authority, ownership, labor and leisure get all twisted up. How does a private company intersect with the public sphere? the sacred and the profane figure into the equation.

1 comment:

GBtG said...

I'm at Detroit Metro now. There is a long hallway with an arrow pointing towards the elevator. However, when one arrives at the elevator, it is marked "Authorized Persons Only." Attempting to find a different point of access, I went down the escalator to baggage claim--inadvertently crossing the "magical" security line. After going back through security, I peeked through the window of a glass room (*not* the correct room) on my way back to the main terminal. I was immediately and aggressively questioned by a passing TSA agent. I explained several times that I was just walking around before my flight, which she finally accepted and continued on. With that, my wandering spirit was subsequently squelched, and I moved quickly and obediently to my assigned gate.

It occurred to me at that point that the Religious Reflections Room could actually be a form of Honeypot,used to mark and possibly hold religious extremists intent on one last prayer before committing terrorist acts.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States