Dublin Airport Environmental Graphics

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Thanks to environmental graphics that celebrate Ireland’s literary heritage, Dublin Airport’s Pier D is not just another generic waystation.

Airports are a defining symbol of our modern culture. Neither origin nor destination, they exist as isolated pockets of suspended time. We travel through their terminals amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces. Only unified by purpose, we lack a personal connection to one another and to the space. The nondescript surroundings and repetition of gates only heighten our feelings of dislocation and disorientation. Such is the paradigm of our globalized existence: in these transitional environments, we could be anywhere.

Dublin Airport’s Pier D offers a different model. As the first phase of a 10-year, €2 billion investment program to expand and modernize the airport, the Pier D boarding facility has 12 new gates situated in a spacious and airy structure. It services short-haul flights and can handle up to 10 million passengers per year.

But the design team at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP—the firm responsible for Pier D’s environmental graphics program as well as its architecture—realized the remedy for airport monotony had to seize the imaginations of fast-moving pedestrians. So one of the airport’s most distinguishing features introduces travelers to a unique part of Ireland’s heritage. 

The SOM team integrated a series of mural-sized portraits honoring Ireland’s literary giants. Positioned at 12 points along the concourse, they help to distinguish the gates, but are more than just markers. Responding to the elongated circulation space, the designs appear to change when viewed from various distances, creating a succession of visual diversions.

“The pressure to avoid the unpleasant aspects of air travel really drove the project,” says SOM architect Kent Jackson. “In airports, there is an interesting duality. With arrivals, everyone is in a hurry to get their bags and get out. With departures, everyone is there an hour or two before flights, and there is an opportunity to capture people.”

Attempts to incorporate artistic elements into airports have been met with lukewarm success in the past, particularly if they are tacked on after the fact. Fortunately, SOM was involved with the Dublin Airport master plan and considered the application of supergraphics early on. Lonny Israel, SOM’s lead graphic designer, says the environmental graphics program adds another level of richness and longevity to the project.

“These elements were an integral part of the architecture, versus an art program that was an afterthought,” says Israel. Despite tricky technical and structural issues, such as supporting enormous sheets of glass and determining the placement of gates, the panels blend fluidly with the surroundings.

Layers of discovery

Each mural-sized portrait is composed—literally—of a quotation selected from the author’s most noted work. The design team created a custom software program to scale individual text characters based on the light and dark areas of the source image.

Using an algorithm created for that purpose, the team strove for a range of values. Within this range, they could define smallest to largest type size and tonal variations, explains Israel. From a distance, airport travelers see the faces of the authors next to a large quote. As they draw closer, the source image disappears to reveal the variable-density text and, in some parts, the text becomes fully legible.

A series of 1m by 3m laminated glass panels comprise each gate. Sandwiched between the panels is an interlayer with the color graphic digitally printed on clear film. SOM enlisted science-based products and services company DuPont to assist in the fabrication. DuPont used a propriety process called SentryGlas® Expressions™, which is able to produce continuous-tone images within a decorative safety glass panel. Dr. David J. Matz, technical consultant for DuPont, concedes that there are other processes out there, but most use technology that forces the use of block color. “With inkjet, you can do shadings,” he says. “The very small dots allow gradients of density and you have the sensation of an image.”

DuPont completed the printing of the film and then sent it to Interpane, a glass laminator in Germany. Herein lay one of the project’s biggest challenges. Because each gate is comprised of multiple glass panels, and between each two pieces of glass is a specialized PVB interlayer, proper alignment was crucial. SOM produced separate digital files that contained the information to be used on each individual panel. The images had to extend to the edge of the glass and the overall design had to appear as a single image.

“We were worried about slippage,” concedes Israel. “Because of the length of the graphics, there would be some stretch in the material. So we created a centerline crop that would allow the laminator to align.”

Curating content

While the perceptual qualities of the design figured largely in the process, so too did the content. The SOM team and the client developed a list of deceased authors whose work ranged from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. They pulled passages from the authors’ best-known works, emphasizing those that touched on the Irish experience or subtle relationships to movement and travel.

“We thought it would be great to relate back to the location,” says Jackson. “We wanted graphics that operated as a distraction, but also a reflection.”

The 400-word excerpts, in gradient sizes and tones, render the images on the panel, and briefer quotes appear in full scale. Obtaining written approval from each writer’s estate for the use of these materials proved to be quite complicated. Even deciding the typeface required sensitivity, as each panel’s selection loosely corresponds to the work itself or a distinct time period.

Subtle reinforcement

At Pier D, the gates can be identified by number, by author, or both. “A traditional method of wayfinding still remains. But the murals add recall and augment the numeric system,” says Israel. The designers also used a four-color system to further distinguish the gates. Seeking an enduring color palette, they chose black as the primary color and then applied tones drawn from traditional photography processes such as cyanotype and sepia prints.

The inclusion of an attribution for each panel adds another element of discovery to the already layered experience. As visitors get closer to the gates, information is revealed, and the interaction becomes more personalized. In effect, the graphics mirror travelers’ disequilibrium and then, step by step, bring it into focus.

Barry Drinan, program manager of infrastructure for the Dublin Airport Authority, says the metamorphosing images lend just the right amount of edge to a building typology known for its utilitarian value.

“We realized we had to do something unique,” reflects Drinan. “In gateways such as this, it is important to reflect upon place. Sometimes we do this through building form and sometimes we do it through graphics. There is no doubt the success of the ‘literary walk’ is due to the unusual and sophisticated graphic design.”

Perhaps no quote better sums up the engaging effect of this project than the one emblazoned on Samuel Beckett’s panel: “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression that we exist?” Similar to the characters in the author’s seminal play Waiting for Godot, passengers transitioning through Pier D are bound to contemplate the absurdity of suspended time so endemic in the airport environment. Yet here, the graphics offer points of contemplation, in essence a reaffirmation of our existence in an otherwise chaotic and fast-moving world.

--By Jennifer Volland, segdDESIGN No. 25, 2009

Editor's note: Jennifer Volland and is a freelance writer and curator based in Long Beach, Calif. She co-authored the book Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis. Her current work focuses on the history of hotel culture and how it has been shaped by architecture and design.


Jury comments

"Very visually compelling supergraphics and a keen eye for detail. It's great to see worthwhile thoughts being put up in public spaces."

"They've taken the heroic photographic image a step further by adding text and making the application appropriate to the environment. The textured effect of the layered glass is beautiful."



Location:  Dublin

Client:  Dublin Airport Authority

Architecture and Environmental Graphics:  Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Design Team:  Lonny Israel (lead graphic designer); Brad Thomas (graphic designer); Kent Jackson, Julia Skeete (architects); Normunds Krickis (technology specialist)

Fabrication:  DuPont (SentryGlas Expressions interlayer film), Interpane (glass laminator)

Consultants:  Laing O’Rourke (general contractor)

Photos:  Gerry O’Leary


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