Sleepless at Stansted: A Nocturnal Airport and its Representations

Recently, I had an early morning flight from London Stansted Airport, located 40 miles outside the capital’s city centre. The day before, while cursing myself for not flying from central Heathrow Airport, I checked my travel options to Stansted and was left with two alternatives. Either, I would take the last evening train and sleep at the airport; or I could get some sleep at home but leave in the middle of the night to take, first, a night bus and, then, a coach. A little curious, I chose the first option, which inspired this blog post. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all. In what follows, I seek to make sense of this nocturnal experience of an out-of-town airport architecture and how different media play into that experience. Three types of representation formed part of my trip: a website about spending the night at airports; a TV show that another night guest watched on her laptop; and an airport information screen. Throughout, I explore night-time Stansted in relation to what anthropologist Marc Augé has established as typical of airports, in order to pin down what made my experience so peculiar.[1]

First of all, I started an internet search at home to check under which conditions a stayover at Stansted was possible. Google pointed me to “The Guide to Sleeping at Airports.” This website assures you that “[a]irport sleeping is no longer just for the cheap young backpacker” but an accepted activity for any early flyer. The online guide normalises the idea of being private and restful in a space commonly associated with publicness and passage. This approach challenges Augé’s definition of airports as non-places which are destined for transit and in which time is spent economically.[2] It suggests that, at least for a few hours every night, people can try to turn this site from a non-place into a place. The guide even promises first-timers to become part of an established community of “fellow airport sleepers.” This counters the loneliness that individuals experience in the typical non-place where they only share their status as consumers with others. [3]

The tips and reviews do not only verbally invite the travellers to imagine the upcoming experience but the website also visualizes it in illustrative drawings of what the bivouacs should look like. A lady in one illustration has gotten comfy on a row of seats, equipped with blanket, pillow, slippers, alarm clock, and magazines. Are past airport sleepovers shaping their representations on the website or is the online guide moulding future airport behaviour? The website leaves it undeterminable which influence is stronger, yet the acts of normalising and visualising the sleepover help to establish it as a cultural practice.

I arrived at Stansted shortly after midnight. Indeed, a considerable amount of people had come to sleep there and they had come prepared with blankets and even air mattresses. The check-in and security-check counters were shut. Individuals, couples, and families with children had begun to populate the floor in front of the security check. Early settlers had occupied the desirable electricity sockets to keep their devices charged for the sixty free minutes of Wi-Fi flagged in the Stansted review online. Others were wrapped up in sleeping bags and snoring. A quasi-colonization was in progress, leaving the colder, windier spots around doorways empty. Couples walked around, contemplated a spot as if it was a piece of real estate, only to move on and find a more favourable night quarter. Pathways remained clear in the middle for wheeled (suitcase) traffic. I observed in miniature what non-places in Augé’s view do not accommodate: the becoming of an “organic society.”[4] At first, people attempted to keep some distance from others. This was not an act of isolation but mutual respect of privacy. As the fringes of the hall filled up, settlers became neighbours.

This proximity put me next to a lady watching Desperate Housewives on her laptop. Her choice of entertainment is strikingly intimate. She did not turn to video games or YouTube clips, both of which are connected to usage in various locations, from desktops to parties to means of transport. The (horizontal) reception of a television show like Desperate Housewives is most closely linked to the home living room or bedroom. Additionally, this specific show concerns itself with residential space and its intimacies. By lying down on a pillow and watching this series, my neighbour privatised her airport spot. Her individualisation problematizes Augé’s claim that the airport non-place defies identity.[5] My neighbour brought a hint of her personal living room to her nocturnal stay at Stansted.

Another screen attracted my attention almost simultaneously: while the hall lights were dimmed, an airport animation on the wall stoically showed the steps for placing hand-luggage into security trays. Yet no one was currently allowed to pass through the security area. Stansted Airport neither stopped this light source nor customized it with information tailored to the nocturnal settlers. The screen confirms what the website guide suggested: Stansted “tolerates” but does not endorse this colonization. This standard communication which is neither specific to this airport nor the stayover passengers, corresponds to Augé’s writing on airports: the abstract institution of the airport contacts an anonymous mass of customers through depersonalised signs.[6] Stansted continues this communication at night, reminding everyone of its ultimately de-individualised nature.

Stansted Airport presents a paradox: it is both tailor-made and badly-suited for inviting sleepovers. Located out of the city and not easy to reach, it tempts the guide’s sleep-community to arrive the evening before their flights by train. They avoid the longer and more stressful trips by bus in the middle of the night. The airport is a likely target for individual nocturnal appropriations which shake up the characteristics of this non-place for a couple of hours a night and which made my time there feel so unusual. Yet, specializing in cheap flights, Stansted does not provide additional comfort to its stayover customers inside the airport hall.[7] The unpleasant lights of the daytime screen keep flashing throughout the night. They prevent the travellers from making the airport really homely – and from ultimately turning it into a place.

Around 2:30AM, my night ended abruptly. The shutters went up and the night quarters became an airport hall again. The website guide does not prepare users for this part. People looked unsure, hesitant, before they started wrapping up their camps. They joined the queue at the security check behind which duty-free shops encouraged a nocturnal shopping spree in glistening light. But that is a story for another night…

[1] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
[2] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 103-104.
[3] Augé, Non-Places, 101-104.
[4] Augé, Non-Places, 112.
[5] Augé, Non-Places, 103.
[6] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 101-102.
[7] The only option for such comfort is to book a room in one of the surrounding bed and breakfasts.

City Symphonies

I had the opportunity last week to see a number of ‘city symphony’ films on the big screen. City symphonies are usually understood to be films made in the interwar period, which take a city as their main character. The most famous examples are probably Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walther Ruttmann, 1927) and the Soviet-based Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). There were also dozens of shorter city symphonies made, across the world.
The city symphony is a product of its time in that it reflects the contemporary interest in the modern urban experience. The classic symphony spans the course of one day, and draws attention to the speed of modern living. Eugene Deslaw’s Montparnasse (1930) includes some quick cuts and close-ups at the start of the film which give the impression that pedestrians are about to be hit by cars. A Day in Liverpool (Anson Dyer, 1929) shows hordes of workers rushing off the ferries and up the steps to their offices. They are so rushed, in fact, that one of them slips and drops his suitcase in his haste.
Another common feature of city symphonies is the inclusion of night-life. Electric lighting was relatively new at the start of the 20th century, and the bright neon lights advertising signs were a popular feature of city films such as Prague by Night (Svatopluk Innemann, 1928) and again Montparnasse.
It is curious, then, that despite the fact that these films were usually silent, they focus on the pace and noise of the metropolis. They derive their sense of haste and tension purely from their editing and cinematography. Although musical accompaniment could enhance the viewing experience, silent films usually did not have a set score so the musical presentation could be different in each cinema due to the background, style and experience of the different musicians.
In a time when technological advances greatly increased the speed of city life, cinematic technology was not advanced enough to adequately reflect this on the screen. Instead of being a ‘life-like’ experience full of noise and colour, cinema was forced to develop its own language to convey the everyday. This is of course true for all cinema, and especially all silent cinema, but the particular point of the city symphony is that it is only trying to depict the quotidian experience of city life. There is usually no overall narrative to emotionally engage with. And thus, by their nature, they are trying to do the impossible. Yet, as a result, this genre developed uniquely urgent and poetical ways of seeing the city.


A Day in Liverpool: Rushing to work

Attack the Block

Even though it is the name of the 2011 film, the phrase “attack the block” could also describe the process of selling off and the regeneration of land and neighbourhoods in London. More precisely, the trend in recent years has been for local authorities to sell housing estates to private developers in order to facilitate large scale renewal of housing stock and the regeneration of neighbourhoods. One justification that councils have offered in making the case for renewal has been that due to the state of disrepair and the social issues presented by such conditions, it is beyond the financial means of councils to refurbish and upgrade the existing housing stock. It is no secret that most sites earmarked for sale are regarded as prime real estate. Enter the property developers who have the resources to purchase and redevelop the valuable land — value that is defined within a paradigm of exchange value rather than use value.
Whilst, of course, the financial burden is passed on to the property developers, and local authorities promise new social and council housing paid for by the proceeds of the land sale, the proposed benefits also have profound consequences. These are starkest for the current residents of any site. For example, the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle — one of the locations in Attack the Block — tenants in social rented accommodation were dispersed across London, and sometimes beyond, to other council housing. Those who owned the leasehold to their properties were offered amounts under compulsory purchase orders that did not allow them to buy a comparative property locally. Those in one bedroom properties were offered an average of £95,480; the cheapest one bedroom flat in the planned Lend Lease development was to cost in excess of £300,000.[1]

The individual and collective social cost to the breaking up of such communities, then, is irreversible separation, as one community is dispersed across a very large city. One of the local campaigns, 35% Elephant, shows the mapped displacement of the former tenants and leaseholders, as depicted in the following images.[2]

These maps provide an interesting visualisation of the dispersal of those former residents. For both tenants and leaseholders, these maps clarify how the former community was geographically exploded. It is also salient that each of the journeys represented by these maps is most likely one-way. With that in mind, these images bring to light a collective parting of ways without the prospect of return or of re-establishment of the former communities.
Added to the sense of irreparable change to the parts of the city’s social fabric, Loretta Lees (2014) makes the argument that the London that is left in its wake is not viable or socially sustainable. New Labour pursued a policy of mixed communities, a policy that aimed to foster social integration and mutual flourishing by engineering a social mix of different backgrounds within the same property development. She highlights how the policy, although oft cited by the Mayor’s office and local authorities in the name of regeneration, has largely been abandoned, given the paucity of planned, genuine social housing by property developers. Lend Lease, for example, have plans for around 25% of the development to be ‘affordable’ social housing — this includes socially rented, affordable rent and shared ownership. Real council housing has been and is being written out of the future.
Lees argues that, with ‘[m]ost of inner London now gentrified, […] council estates and tenants have become the final gentrification frontier’ (2014: loc. 3772). The mixed communities policy has, moreover, merely provided a means by which the state has proceeded to displace estate residents from the Heygate and similar, central London locations. Lees writes, ‘[s]ignificant numbers of low-income tenants have been, and are in the process of being, displaced from their homes and communities in inner London through the guise of mixed communities policy’ (2014: loc. 3834). Such changes in the material reconfiguration of London underscore the ephemerality of the city’s spaces and architectural environment; the Heygate itself was condemned to closure by Southwark council less than 40 years after its completion. However, these changes in the spaces of the city, particularly around Elephant and Castle, conspicuously symbolise the forces of capital guiding the priorities of the local council — where a big bang solution was more favourable than a restoration of the Heygate’s existing housing stock. Such a restoration was, in fact, mooted, costed, and could have been made possible (2014: loc. 4121) but such a modest solution did not serve the priorities of the capital forces which built a narrative around the estate that it was always already inviable [3]. Whilst such capital forces are generative insofar as they ensure the ongoing reconfiguration and creation of the city’s material, perpetuating its unfinished, ephemeral materiality, these forces are also socially destructive. Communities are scattered. Without these, the city’s material fabric is undermined such is the inextricable link between the city’s architectural spaces and their human occupants. Playing bagatelle with communities of people, decoupling people from place, suits capital but does not serve the city well, when the ephemerality of social relations in a large, international city is accelerated and fuelled by the forces that promote its material change.
With the closure of the Heygate and pressure on surviving estates to be swallowed up in the same wave of regeneration, Attack the Block (2011) creatively deals with those who resist forces that threaten the estate. The film follows a gang of teenage boys, led by Moses, in thrall to their estate gang and drug-dealer boss. The boys mug a nurse who, it turns out, lives on the same estate as them. Shortly thereafter, something crashes from the heavens into the street they stand in, wrecking a car. An alien, soon dispatched by Moses, hails the the start of an attack by a legion of other invaders that arrive — the boys’ estate is officially under attack. The straight concrete edges of the estates’ blocks and the distinctive angular walkways belonging to the Heygate are evident as the boys seek to defend their estate against the invaders. In the end, all that the strange creatures appear to have been doing is pursuing the scent of a fellow alien, perhaps in order to mate.
The film is comic and light-hearted and notable for its locations and smaller budget, but the film is vitally political, too. Outsiders and authorities external to the world of the estate are impervious to the assault — the boys stand alone. In this sense, these alien trespassers, bent on the single goal of reaching the dead alien whose scent they keenly detect, do not so much stand for the property developers and local authorities but more for the unseen work of capital forces mentioned above. Their goal is to serve the best interests of capital by the most efficient means. Likewise, the manner of the aliens’ single-minded pursuit of the scent of their fellow life-form, the goal, is just as ruthless: people die; property is ruined; and the estate terrorised.
The total impassivity of the world outside the estate is evident, when, having contacted the police, the young nurse turns up with them on the estate looking for the Moses’ gang. The police’s efforts are fatally sabotaged by the aliens, but, of course, the damage and death come to be blamed by the police at the end upon Moses and friends, residents of the estate. Their otherness, it seems, mandates that whoever comes from the place of alterity must be caught up in the negative mythologies that come to be associated with it over time. Moreover, it is on this very point that the film rebuts such an assumption. After the police are killed, the young, white nurse who is relatively new to the area, teams up with her former assailants to survive. Only at this point do the boys discover that she too lives on the estate, that she is part of their world. They help her escape the aliens and she helps to patch one of the injured up. It is not so much to do with the sense in which the perilous circumstances throw the nurse and her assailants together, rather it is the fact that they are neighbours and live on the same estate that is the key variable that facilitates the transcending of differences in race, class, education, and background. It is not just that this unlikely band fight for their estate; this film defends the notion and potential of such communities.
Francesco Sebregondi (2012) argues that between the time of the Heygate being emptied of all but its most determined residents and prior to the estate’s demolition to make way for new buildings, a kind of void opens up in the city landscape, ‘[a]n unoccupied, un-utilised, un-programmed space’ (2012: 338). Leaving a sealed-off, neglected estate of buildings on display to London residents served the conventional, neoliberal narrative that the estate was destined for closure in any event and that such closures should be welcomed as progress. Sebregondi points out that one of the unique phenomena to arise within the void is its role as an image ‘machine’ (2012: 339). That is, it became the site for many films seeking to shoot on a location that typified brutalist sensibilities, and Attack the Block was, of course, one of those objects that arose from that void. Now, Sebregondi argues that one of the functions of the many films [4] made on the Heygate was to reinforce the narrative of this and other such estates as being harbours of violence and criminal activity. More than this, these images co-opted the memory of the estate, to ensure it would be remembered in such a light. What is interesting about Attack the Block is that there are signs of resistance to the general narrative and the memorialising of the estate as a place of crime and violence. Yes, people are killed by aliens and the boy-hoodlums come from there, but the film models the triumph of the estate, of those supposed troublemakers — who exhibit courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice — united with their one-time victim to survive and defend against the intruding force. And it is the estate as a social fabric, of local people and knowledge that accomplishes the very thing being exploded by capital forces.
The other consequence of the many images of the estate in this period, according to Sebregondi, is that images displace and dislocate. So, ‘related to the very phenomenology of the image, is […] [the dissolution of] both the specificity and the materiality of the Heygate as a place’ (2012: 339). Whilst Attack the Block no doubt participates in this very process, what is championed is the idea of the ‘estate’ as a distinctive place, but also as one that is worth something (other than pounds and pence), against the ’30 years of stigmatisation in political discourse and popular culture [that] has established the council estate as a page already turned in the city’s history’ (2012: 340). The film pictures the Heygate — and indeed every council estate — as something that can and should be fought for, preserved, saved.
As a cultural object that arose from the void in the city’s landscape, Attack the Block embodies the very same things as its characters in defence of the estate.

[1] Ian Steadman, ‘Look to the Heygate Estate for what’s wrong with London’s housing’, New Statesman, 6 November 2013 <; [accessed 22 August 2015]
[2] ‘The Heygate Diaspora’, 35% Campaign, 8 June 2013 <; [accessed 22 August 2015]. See also the pamphlet: Loretta Lees, Just Space, LTF, SNAG, ‘Challenging “the urban renewal”: the social cleansing of housing estates in London’, in B. Campaign, D. Roberts and R.Ross (eds) Urban Pamphleteer #2 ‘London: regeneration realities’, London: Urban Lab, UCL pp. 6-10 <; [accessed 5 October 2015].
[3] For more for the narratives surrounding the Heygate see Stephen Moss, ‘The death of a housing ideal’, in The Guardian, 4 March 2011 <; [accessed 1 October 2015]
[4] For example, films such as Shank (2010), Harry Brown (2009), World War Z (2013) and The Veteran (2011) in addition to television episodes and music videos.

Danger is: A Woman on the Street at Night

The recent release of the documentary India’s Daughter, about the brutal gang-rape and murder of the 23-year-old Jyoti in a bus in Delhi in 2012, prompted me to reconsider the freedom of women to walk around at night. In the documentary, a lawyer defending the rapists suggests that it was Jyoti’s own fault that she was raped, as she was outside on the street, after dark. Worldwide movements such as Take Back The Night, which organises night-time events across the world to draw attention to sexual violence, indicate that the night is still a dangerous time for women across the world to be out of doors.
The perceived danger of the night for women in particular is not just reinforced by news reports and documentaries, but also by fictional representations of violence against women. Cinema has from the outset portrayed the night as a time especially dangerous for women. Early Hitchcock films like The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929) feature women who are murdered and raped, respectively, when they walk around at night without a reliable man to protect them. A girl being chased through the woods at night is a staple of the slasher genre (see the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This trope has in more recent years also been adopted by other formats such as television: the opening episode of the first season of the Danish The Killing (Søren Sveistrup, 2007) shows the soon-to-be-murdered girl Nanne Birk Larsen running amongst the trees in her underwear.
The premise of the feature film American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) is wholly based on one man’s lust for violence, against women in particular. The 2014 horror film It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) used the ‘woman out at night on the street’ as a visual shorthand for danger and imminent attack in their marketing materials (Fig 1).
It is not just mainstream productions that utilise this trope: the French production Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) features a lengthy scene in which a woman is raped in a pedestrian subway after leaving a party in the middle of the night. And the Russian film Cargo 200 (Aleksey Balbanov, 2007) – loosely based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary – sees a young woman being raped with a vodka bottle, and subsequently kidnapped, after she dares to leave a nightclub with a boy she does not know very well.
All of these examples show that in film and television, a woman going out at night is always in danger of being attacked. Cultural historian Joanna Bourke recently argued that rape is used more and more as a plot device, which disregards the seriousness of the offence.[1] In combination with real-life examples of women being punished for going out after dark, the films mentioned above work to create a sense of peril for women, which pre-emptively limits their mobility. When you are constantly told and shown that going out at night is dangerous, you will think twice about risking it. The other side of the same coin is that if popular culture women being attacked at night is a common occurrence, it can perpetuate perpetrators’ beliefs that it is acceptable to engage in this behaviour. This skewed representation of women in public spaces at night do not do anyone a favour. Women’s needs and wishes of navigating the night are the same as those of men, but until the world after dark is safe for them both in reality and in representation, women will not be able to fulfil these needs.


 Fig 1: UK poster for It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)

[1] Dr Joanna Bourke speaking on the Women of the World festival, as quoted on The Independent on 7 March 2015 ‘Use of rape as plot device is ‘shifting’ sympathy from victim to perpetrator, warns academic’ (accessed 14 April 2015)