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“I saw what I saw very clearly. But I didn’t know what I was looking at. I had nothing to fit it into.” (V.S. Naipaul 1985: 12)

My arrival in Jamaica was unremarkable. That is, it was marked by nobody and by nothing other than my own private astonishment. I enjoyed arriving, it was a mysterious thing to do.

On emerging from the luggage retrieval hall of the Norman Manley Airport, one passes through customs. That demands an arrangement of obstacles ensuring control which is universal, expected, tolerated and therefore largely invisible. If the customs officers in Jamaica are more prominent and present in performing their work then that is due to the fact that we are talking about Jamaica, a place where crime and the criminal is part of its rooted mythology.

As you pass through the bottleneck that is the customs’ queue and spill into administrative Jamaica you are forced, by the architecture, to pass through a corridor. This corridor is without any immediately apparent function. If it were not there, you would simply arrive a little sooner. It flanks a large open space on one side, and moves along an existing wall along the other, presenting a blank wall barely used for anything, not even advertising. Without the corridor, arrival would be no more than half a minute sooner, and certainly a lot less enigmatic. People would be waiting around the doors to greet arriving passengers, and it would all be largely normal.

The corridor is a later addition to the airport. In the time of Dr No, James Bond arrived in the main building . No longer. The corridor, obviously intended as a temporary building, is no ornamental addition to this monument of independence modernism. It makes the airport, together with the broken windows, the dirty concrete, the accretion of temporary buildings stuck in an arbitrary and ever-uncertain fashion to the original fabric, like a tired old man, with bits and bumps growing from its once fine body.

With the benefit of hindsight the purpose of the corridor is clear enough. The corridor is there to exercise yet control, to extend the carceral continuum; as if it were natural, invisible. At the beginning of the corridor you are made to give up your luggage trolley, which has served you for all of twenty or thirty yards from the conveyor belts to the customs officers, and you are encouraged to engage a porter to carry your luggage. The trolleys, being expensive items I now understand, again with hindsight, are on no account to leave the sealed area of the airport. They need to be kept well away from the waiting crowds outside who find them all too useful for their own commercial logistics and general exchange and happily take any stray ones with them. The trolleys have been reduced to little more than a token convenience and a whole apparatus of porters has had to be reinstalled for them to be kept safe. Or is it the other way around?

The corridor might have been the triumph of the porters, who with the advent of the trolley saw their livelihood endangered. The corridor, all twenty yards of it, is the sole medium for their economic subsistence. They stop being useful almost immediately at the end of it where cars appear and everyone embraces, laughs and smiles, kisses and leaves, ever tolerant, unaware or sympathetic to the machinations of control they have just undergone. The point is that the corridor is a discrete machine.

The corridor is there to make sure the trolleys are not stolen and to increase the barrier between inside and outside, making sure that no-one from the Jamaican outside can come into the airport. The fact that this measure allows the porters to derive an income from this barrier is an added advantage a social gift.
But this is not the end of it. Another reason for the corridor is that non-passengers are not allowed into the building, the exit doors at the end which are manned by guards. The only people allowed to pass through the exit the other way and use it as an entrance are the porters, the security people, and diplomats with a special pass. Waiting crowds picking up arrivals have to be efficiently distributed, otherwise they would simply block up the doors. Arriving passengers would not be able to emerge from the building without having to squeeze through the single collective body of seething individuated bodies, all of them eagerly awaiting their loved ones. On entering the corridor as an arriving passenger you suddenly become aware of the theatre of which you are the play. To your right, through a long horizontal band of bars, there are rows and rows of fixed, bright orange plastic chairs filled with people sitting on them in carelessly formed lines, waiting for people to pass by. They are enjoying the wait! Arrival is, unlike in other airports, an orchestrated theatrical performance. Waiting is a medium of diversion, of entertainment. The waiting crowd, which can be substantial, is enticed to make use of a specially set up, longish tribune with three or four tiers of seats arranged along the length of the corridor and giving a view through the windows to what happens inside, so that waiting mums and dads, brothers and sisters, friend and lovers can sit comfortably while looking a the passengers walking from left to right, together with their mountains of suitcases and bags and their porter. Distance needs to be physical.

A last logical addition was a television for the waiting crowds mounted in between the windows. It was a huge success. People from miles around would clog the waiting-theatre, with no purpose other than to watch television. The television was taken away.

There is an emblem in this corridor, a radiant mirror, a microcosmic mirror of the rhizomatic machinations of Jamaican Culture. According to a simple mechanical principle of causality reminiscent of a Tom and Jerry Cartoon, a causality moreover with absurdly complex consequences, the corridor, the waiting theatre, provides the means of spatial control. Selected persons are (not) allowed entry to certain spaces. This causes a simple architectural geometry to emerge which is geared to that exclusion and inclusion, that process of selection. The spatial workings of selection cause all sorts of political, social, pseudo-racial, properly racial and economic side-effects to readjust themselves in its geometry. Small daily occurrences determined by the arrangement, modulation and dressing of spaces have an accumulative emotional impact on the people undergoing them, they are generative as well as reflective of culture. Sometimes humiliating, sometimes exasperating, sometimes intensely human and sympathetic, large and generous, these spatial events become the building bricks of perceptions and generalisations about a culture. Architecture, the hardware of culture, as the background and channels of daily life, plays an important role in all this, as important as the software of rules, norms and values.

Take the corridor. Its existence is there to elongate the gap between the possible exit and the actual exit to protect the trolleys: they are expensive; to arrange the waiting crowd so that it will not block the easy exit of the passengers, to help the porters who otherwise have lost their function and their livelihood. The corridor gives porters their economic modus vivendi. Furthermore the corridor provides a stage for the waiting, who are excluded from the building, for fear of theft and chaos. The last element, also the most poetic, is the tension thus established between the waiting and the moving. When people are excluded from a space, it causes people to wait at the interface, thus creating an unusual emotional tension at the gate, reminiscent of the lobby and the lobbyists in European architectural arrangements; the gates of justice in Islam, and the modulations in sacrality in the imperial architecture of China and Japan.

Have you ever read Kafka? The Castle, for instance? It describes an architecture where geometries and spaces are in the service of administrative rituals and controls servicing the tension between the waiting and the moving, and architecture where open doors can be as impenetrable as closed ones, as walls in fact. The administration of Jamaica has had to go one step further, the controls and the rituals have to be more literally enforced in spatial terms, this is what makes the architecture so marvellous, so ripe for astonishment.



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