Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Feasibility Study and Master Plan for Robertsfield, 1965

The recent posts have reminded me of something I found in the basement of the Library of Congress several years ago, and never got around to posting here before, but now seems relevant: A 1965 Feasibility Study for Robertsfield, commissioned by USAID and prepared by a Los Angeles firm of engineers and architects.

Frankly, in many parts it is so dry and technical as to be unreadable, but I was in love from the cover, with its Microgramma typeface looking like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with a gorgeous, dashing R.F.I.A. logo (famously derived from Pan Am's globe emblem, as the US carrier had the contract to manage the airport apparently from its earliest days as a commercial facility).

The best parts are really all the graphics. There are a decent historic photo of the yet-to-be finished KLM Terminal (today the VIP Terminal but still sporting the sky-blue roof trim of KLM). Unfortunately, no good shots of the main Pan Am terminal, which I've only ever seen in photos and in person as a multi-storied hollow concrete shell. I am not even sure what the "interim terminal building" was, as it looks to be a finely-crafted steel-spanned, winged-roof structure. No such shed exists today, but maybe Pan Am hadn't even built the bigger building yet, and that was what the "interim" was anticipating.

Another good illustration, and what reminded me that I should post the document, is a map which catalogued intercontinental flights to, from and within Africa. The monochrome map is too low-tech for 21st century eyes; its too easy for the lines to cross over and get lost, but its fun to look at, it shows SAS's flight to Rio de Janeiro as well as KLM and Sabena's flights.

But the best part of the document has got to be the watercolor-washed perspective drawing of a future RIA as proposed by the engineers and architects. Too cartoonish to be technical, the poster board acts as an emotional hook to invest in a new airport for Liberia. The scene is recognizable, most notably by the meandering Farmington river narrowing away to the horizon, and the general arrangement and direction of the runway, landslide structures, airside facilities, and waterway are all the same.

But in place of the familiar array of small, bland terminals of today, here RIA looks if not like a miniature Laguardia than at least bigger than what might suit the needs of Madison, Wisconsin or Montgomery, Alabama. Clearly shown is a multistory, multi gate main terminal with early-iteration passenger bridges to the airliners, which here seem to consist solely of a prototype profile of the yet-to-exist B747-100. It is too-wide wings and the too-bulbous visage of these fanciful jumbo jets that most gives the painting its Warner Brothers-backdrop quality.

That this impressive volume has been gathering dust in the sub-sub of the LOC for decades was a treat to discover; what's more curious is how it was always seemingly dead on arrival. At the time of its production, the study rightly anticipated a Liberia that was soaring upwards, at least a decade and a half from its economic peak.

More relevantly, Pan American Airways, which again was not only the primary commercial user of RIA but also the manager of the airport on behalf of the government, would continue adding capacity at Robertsfield and across Africa throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s, up until the oil crisis and related pan-African stagnation first curtailed the viability of jets from New York to Cotonou, Douala or Kinshasa. Yet tiny Monrovia would remain among Pan Am's African destinations to the very end, including many years in which real B747s would in fact land at the airport multiple times per week. It is therefore not immediately apparent why, at the crest of global optimism in 1965, the grander visions of this proposal were never implemented.

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