Terminal 1, Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle

The burrowing impulse peculiar to the architects of Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle 1 is observable the moment you alight from the driverless shuttle and take a long, downward-sloping treadmill into the airport terminal. You have come here to board a plane and take to the skies, to fly over seas and continents, but they immediately direct you below ground, and from this point onwards you will see nothing of the outside world until your plane leaves its docking gate some 2 hours later.

Once inside the building there is no time to arrive or take in one’s surroundings. The lobby is cluttered and spacially confusing, and to find their way inside the building travelers must crowd together before a bank of tv monitors opposite the ramp.

With luck, however, they’ll reach the 3rd floor of the terminal (Departures) without too much trouble, and here proper-size display boards will direct them to check-in counters and satellite gates.

These display boards are perfectly banal from an aesthetic point of view; they are also, alas, electronic, and this is the place, I feel, to lament the split-flap display systems of yesteryear.

Few among us, perhaps, will have noticed their disappearance, but consider for a moment how they tickled the senses and teased our imaginations, how the rapid purr of letters and numerals suggested not only the multiplicity of existing destinations, but also the restless activity and sheer complexity of our world, and the dizzying opportunities it afforded (or denied) us.

The power they held over us, one might even say, was in a very real sense oracular, owing much, I suspect, to our curiosity about the future. Marooned in the vast airport terminal we would hear the whir of little steel flaps and instantly look up, our movements suspended, our attention riveted on the vivid flurry of letters which, like a shuffling of cards or the throw of a dice, would literally spell out our fate.

But their insectile sound is no longer a part of the sonic mix in most airport terminals and these wonderful devices are being phased out everywhere in favour of electronic boards, as at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle, or – worse still – tv monitors, whose smallness makes our world seem smaller, and whose dull, monotone glow suggests the numbing sameness of our cities in a globalized culture, as though the progress of technology had abolished time and space, and the romance of travel belonged to a bygone era.

On the two main floors reserved for the public – Arrivals and Departures – the ceilings are low, and since the layout is circular – affording no perspective beyond a few hundred feet – the terminal tends to feel crowded. It often is, and passengers in the check-in area have to be corralled into tight mazes of barrier tape to make optimum use of available space.

The building’s walls and parapets surround you like a mother’s embrace, and how you feel about this probably depends on your psychological pre-history, but of the cosmic parents in Greek mythology – Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Father Sky) – the architects’ favourite is all too apparent. The building, in fact, is so self-enclosed and huddled in on itself that one might even wonder if, like the Gauls in the Asterix books, its architects lived in fear that the sky would fall down on their heads.

That the place is the work of troglodytes is an impression reinforced in every part of the terminal. If for instance, having checked in your baggage, you wish to purchase a magazine, or get a bite to eat before your flight, you will need to take a spiral staircase descending straight down into the bowels of the earth. With its rounded wall surfaces and dim orange lighting, this subterranean area feels much like a pre-historic cave dwelling or the corny theme-park replica of one. Here you will be able to order a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit at what must surely be the murkiest McDonald’s on the planet, – an ambience quite out of keeping with the eyeball-searing brightness the brand customarily prefers.

Those travelers who suffer from a chronic fear of flying can skulk down here in womb-like obscurity and there are toilet facilities (notably hard to come by in Terminal 1) for those of them with upset tummies.

There are also 4 places of worship (Jewish, Hinduist, Muslim and Christian) where the faithful can pray to their God to keep their plane from exploding in mid-air or plummeting into the ocean.

The Christian place of worship – unsure whether I should, I didn’t visit the others – looks like a utility room, and conveys little sense of the sacred. There is a small picture of Jesus, but the walls are mostly bare and we can suppose that the room’s decorators had sought a happy mean between Catholic iconophilia and protestant plainness. The altar is a simple box of varnished wood. There must have been a crucifix, but I recall no other artefact. The place was odourless, as candle or incense smoke would not have been welcome in such a small and airless space.

Having eaten something or voided your bowels or prayed to your God, the time has come to head for the departure gate prior to boarding your flight, and this will take you to the literal centrepiece of the building, a vast concrete well open to the sky at its top and criss-crossed with transparent tubes to convey passengers from one floor to another. Ultra-modern, even futuristic at the time, it seems all the more dated today, but there’s a sense of playfulness about it that is very 60s in spirit, as though the same architect had been hired by Dr No to design his island headquarters.

The light is suitably dim, certainly, for such a shady character, and you have to stoop and crane your neck upwards to catch a glimpse of the sky. They should have put in a fountain to catch the light, and add a little sparkle to the place, but I suppose it would have misted up the tubes…

My point however, to hark back to my chosen theme, is that this courtyard, charming though it may be, is evocative less of space and distance, of elevation and open skies, than of a deep-sea world where octopi or moray eels might lurk, or of those depressing aquaria where transparent tubes of much the same design are used for viewing sharks, the captive creatures weaving grimly back and forth with battered snouts and dire unblinking stares. But now at least, having entered one of the tubes, you are ascending and if, like me, you enjoy taking planes, your spirits too are ascendant.

But you’ve probably guessed what happens next.

You are now on the fourth floor of the building but you might as well be buried under ground for all you can see of natural light, and once you’ve been through airport security you will find yourself entering another downward-sloping tunnel. This is actually a suspended walkway and one of many reaching out from the sides of the building like the tentacles of an octopus, but you would never know it since this structure is entirely windowless throughout its length. The tunnel then plunges under the tarmac before reluctantly re-emerging in the satellite terminal where, gleaming in the sunshine, splendid and serene, a large white bird awaits you, which half an hour hence will lift you high up in the air, leaving the rabbit warren that is Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle 1 far behind you, and burning off the very memory of its murky tunnels in the dazzle of light at 30,000 feet.