San Jose International Airport Art +Technology Program

In Transition

Breaking out of their role as generic waystations, airports are creating compelling experiences with public art, interpretive storytelling, and environmental graphics.

Many of us are filled with dread at the thought of having to spend an inordinate amount of time at an airport. We try to plan our arrival just right, negotiating road conditions, check-in lines, security procedures, restroom stops, and quick caffeine fixes. If we cruise up to the gate just as we hear our boarding call announced over the loudspeakers, we’ve won a major victory.

In reality, this scenario rarely transpires. Instead we spend countless minutes and hours pacing the hallways of a non-descript terminal until we board our flight, resolved to coordinate better next time.

Part of the problem is that we perceive airports solely as places of transition. And that is typically how airports have been presented: as functional, utilitarian structures that facilitate the movement of people from one activity to the next. But if we have to pass time at airports—and we increasingly do—our experiences might as well be enjoyable.

Fortunately for travelers, this idea is gaining momentum, and it isn’t limited to the typical retail and restaurant offerings. “A lot of airports are trying to do more than just sell people overpriced water,” says Isaac Marshall, principal of AldrichPears Associates (Vancouver). Airports such as San Francisco International have been creating immersive experiences on airport for years. The SFO Museum was the first cultural institution of its kind located in an international airport. Today, SFO offers an aquarium, an aviation library and museum, and numerous art and photo exhibits for the 30 million passengers who use the airport each year.

Working on their own variations of this model, the Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport and Vancouver International Airport have also envisioned comprehensive experiences for users and visitors. Using public art, interpretive storytelling, and environmental graphics, they’ve created experiences that provide a compelling sense of place, promote the cultural and intellectual assets of their regions, and transcend the expected role of generic waystation. In the process, they create impressions that just might outlast the memories of long waits in the security line.

HIGH-TECH GATEWAY: San Jose International Airport

While improving the airport environment with public art is not a new concept, using an extensive, master-planned art program to reinforce the airport region’s unique strengths and achievements is brought to a new level at the Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport (SJC).

“An airport is gateway to a community and to a region, and we want to use that to let people know they’ve arrived,” explains Mary A. Rubin, senior project manager of the Public Art Program in San Jose’s Cultural Affairs Office. Rubin spearheaded the implementation of Art + Technology, the extensive public art program that is part of SJC’s $1.3 billion Phase 1 Terminal Area Improvement Program.

Building on the concept that San Jose is a city of innovation, Rubin seized on the opportunity to reinforce that label visually. “When you talk to the community, whether people identify with the agricultural past or the high tech of recent years, everybody agrees this is a place of innovation,” says Rubin. “And what does that look like? With a limited budget, any one thing you do can look like a postage stamp on a battleship. So we branded the program itself and had it take an innovative approach within the realm of public art.”

On a budget just shy of $6 million, the Art + Technology program includes high-tech artworks ranging from projection-based pieces to large-scale digital- and data-driven works. Some are permanent, while others will rotate approximately every two years to keep pace with changes in technology. The program relies on an infrastructure of flexible, technology-enabled platforms (developed by the interdisciplinary team of Gorbet + Banerjee, Belmont, Calif.) that accommodate data and power provisions, equipment space, and physical attachments. This allows for diverse programming while still maintaining the functionality of airport operations, says Rubin. “Airports are highly restrained, controlled environments. A platform provides the artist a toolbox from which to work, without compromising the building. And by identifying art zones from the beginning, those sites are respected.”

Because the public art master plan was initiated in parallel to the master plan for the new Terminal B, the artwork does not look like an afterthought. In fact, it was considered in every aspect of the program.

Tom Esch, senior civil engineer in the Architectural, Signage and Mapping Section of SJC’s Planning and Development Division, explains that the Terminal B project was a design/build process and, as such, the various team members were constantly discussing and reviewing plans. “During the planning, our department and the public art team were purposely on the same floor to make sure everything worked well together and didn’t interfere with each other. We designated zones for specific functions and, as a result, there were no surprises.”  In other words, the SJC team saw signage, public art, and advertising as three distinct components with defined locations and uses, and there was no compromising each one’s specific role in serving the public. 

Intuitive wayfinding

In addition to their intrinsic value as art and their role in promoting the region’s high-tech culture, the components of Art + Technology also serve a subtle but important wayfinding function. One of the permanent pieces is Björn Schülke’s Space Observer, a glossy white 26-ft.- tall kinetic interactive sculpture that stands on the large mezzanine in the public entry area prior to check-in. “This is a decision point as travelers move toward security,” explains Rubin. “We understood from the beginning that there was a way to address an intuitive wayfinding.”

Similarly, eCLOUD by Nik Hafermaas, Dan Goods, and Aaron Koblin, encourages the flow of traffic with its long and linear shape that extends down the concourse.  Its thousands of polycarbonate tiles suspended from the ceiling continuously change from opaque to transparent, as real-time weather data are transmitted from around the world.

While the artwork is sited to reinforce how people orient themselves and navigate the terminal, Esch maintains that public art is not integrated formally with the signage. Instead, they each have their distinct roles. “The art draws you to areas,” says Esch. “We don’t have to deal with the question of ‘Where do I go?’ Rather, the art is like an enhancement. It’s interesting and fun and says who we are.” As indicated on a directory for Terminal B, “art/displays” is a category unto itself, given equal prominence to food, shops, and other services.

The power of placemaking

The program budget also covers ongoing commissioning of new pieces. With these rotating artworks, Rubin enlisted a team of curators to assess the platform opportunities and select artists for the first two-year commissioning round. Like the permanent artworks, the rotating pieces respond to the Art + Technology theme, but here Rubin used different criteria. “To have innovative artworks, you have to not expect the same kind of longevity,” says Rubin. So here the artists could take some risks and experiment with their immediate environments.

In Dreaming F.I.D.S., artists Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen have appropriated standard airport signage and used it to animate a dynamic aquatic ecosystem of schooling fish. Located across from the TSA security checkpoint, it simultaneously celebrates the complexity of technological and organic systems and remarks on the ubiquitous nature of surveillance in contemporary society.

At Baggage Carousel 2, Convey by Banny Banerjee, Matt Gorbet, and Susan LK Gorbet projects the captured emotions of departing passengers on arriving baggage, encapsulating the essence of the airport and the high-tech prowess of the Silicon Valley in one fell swoop.

While most of the installations are dispersed throughout Terminal B, the most prominent one is outside. Hands covers the east façade of the terminal’s Consolidated Rental Car Garage, spanning 1,200 ft. and standing seven stories high. Created by Christian Moeller, Hands is part of a body of work the artist calls “Bitwalls,” which utilize high-tech mapping techniques and plotting technologies. 

While the façade was budgeted for pre-cast concrete, Moeller, in collaboration with Fentress Architects, instead specified two layers of architectural metal fabric. The 2-in. outer layer serves as the canvas for the image and the 3/8-in. inner layer provides a backdrop and pedestrian barrier for the garage. This solution, using a far less costly material than previously specified, allowed for the artwork to be built on an immense scale.

The notion of placemaking is embedded within the piece. Moeller photographed the hands of 57 Silicon Valley residents, from a baggage claim handler and a founding CEO of Yahoo to a tamale maker and a surgeon. A machine specially designed for the project used LED technology to precisely map the placement of the 2-in. plastic disks on the intersection of the metal mesh layers to create the image.

Finally, a small crew spent three months snapping the 350,000-plus disks onto the fence. “All these people bonded with the project and with each other so there is incredible sense of ownership,” explains Rubin. “The contribution they feel they’ve given to the city is great. It is a very powerful project.”

--By Jennifer Volland, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011

Editor's note: Jennifer Volland is a freelance writer and curator based in Long Beach, Calif. She co-authored the book Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis.

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