In 1994, author Pico Iyer spent a week living at Los Angeles International Airport, studying it as both a community within itself and a metaphor for the city at large. He's made repeated trips to LAX in the years since, and in his recently released book, "The Global Soul" (Knopf), Iyer devotes a chapter to his findings.
You describe airports as models of our future. does LAX model L.A.'s future?
I think LAX is where the city's future lands, where a myriad of cultures all speak in languages others can't understand. The challenge for the city and the individual is to consolidate some sense of identity. It reflects the future in the sense that "otherness" begins at home. At LAX, all boundaries are now gone.
What's the best food at LAX?
I tend to live on junk food, so LAX is the center of haute cuisine. I sank into macadamia nuts, developed a fondness for the pizzas--compact, cheap and reliable--and found some very good tropical drinks in the international terminal.
What did you learn about LAX as a community?
What was interesting was not community, but an absence of community. Our cities are starting to look like airports because our sense of community is being removed, and LAX is a cradle of this--individuals thrown into anonymity.
You have written that there is little to reinforce our identities in airports. Did you find your sense of self slipping away during your stay at LAX?
I think so. In an airport you live in limbo without orientation, neither here nor there. You remain unclaimed. What is striking about LAX is how many people are floating around trying to claim you--spiritual groups, insurance organizations, people on the wrong side of the law trying to pick up on arrivals who are disoriented.
You speak often of the airport as reflecting the identity of the city. Was there anything about LAX that simply stood out as being antithetical to L.A.?
I was surprised how LAX seemed to give up on even asserting a sense of hope or promise. It makes very few concessions to the optimistic arriver. San Francisco's airport, for example, seems like a very carefully calculated creation of everything quaint about that city. LAX focuses on the anonymous.
Any chance you view the airport as an antidote to L.A.'s role as the world's capital of illusions?
It's my sense that first-time arrivals here expect too much, and that LAX is burdened with expectations. L.A. is a terminal of dreams, so people are coming here with an acute sense of dreams. In terms of psychological jolts, however, it's one of the worst airports in the world. There are very few welcomes to L.A. at the airport and, in that sense, it acts as an antechamber, ridding the visitor of his illusions very quickly.
What's the best cure for jet lag?
I was reliably told to walk barefoot on grass for 10 minutes soon after landing.
Hickory-smoked almonds or honey-roasted peanuts?
Iyer will be speaking tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. on "LAX: First City of the 21st Century" as part of LACMA's Institute for Art and Cultures "State of California" series. Call (323) 857-6088 for information.
Pico Iyer's three favorite airports in the world:
Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok: "Sir Norman Foster's cathedral of light looks as if it's set to take to the heavens itself: an elegant transit-lounge for a transit-lounge of a city."
Bangkok's Don Muang: "Strangely efficient and deliciously shady: a shiny labyrinth of 'full-service' barbershops, catacomb-like hotels and bookstores selling the hard-to-find British satirical magazine Private Eye."
Easter Island's Mataveri: "There's nothing there: just silence, emptiness and huge stone heads."