T5 Murals at Chicago O'Hare International Airport

Flight Path

Thirst creates some artful placemaking at Chicago O’Hare’s newly renovated International Terminal 5.

Let’s face it. In most airports, it’s hard to know whether you’re coming or going. In the rush to get there or home, the parking garage is a trial, endless corridors look the same, gates are miles away, and the overall experience can be, well, less than energizing.

In Chicago O’Hare’s newly renovated International Terminal 5, home-town creative studio Thirst improved that scenario. T5 master developer Westfield Group asked Thirst to create artful interventions to greet people arriving at the terminal. Conceived as architecturally integrated murals, these “moments of art” were also designed to be functional, serving as subtle wayfinding queues to direct travelers through the airport.

Thirst was inspired by the idea of capturing the essence of the many unique journeys travelers would take, all from a common point: Chicago.

Thirst’s installation tells that story of connection in three distinct landmarks: "Gathering Together," a dramatic two-story, 300-foot-long entry wall; "Our City," a continuation of the mural down the entry corridor; and "Our World," a glass frieze above the central concessions court. The landmarks were installed in spring 2014.

>>Thirst founder and creative director Rick Valicenti will be a keynote speaker at the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience Chicago June 4-6. Meet us there!


Follow the bricks to Chicago

As part of the $26 million renovation, security functions were relocated to maximize real estate for shopping and dining in the 1.3 million-square-foot terminal—the largest in the Midwest. Westfield not only wanted to help travelers find their way through security and into new concession areas and beyond, they also wanted to create a memorable arrival moment, says Ziba Ghassemi, Westfield’s senior director of design, airports. “Our goal was to create a visually engaging, exciting journey for travelers from curb to gate.”

The first of Thirst’s installations appears just inside the door, a two-story, seemingly abstract composition on glass. Inspired by photos of Chicago taken from a NASA satellite, principal designers Rick Valicenti and John Pobojewski created a software program that used NASA images and sampled colors to create vector graphics that they scaled to fit the proportions of the space. The pattern of elongated bricks glows in tans, browns, and golds and the underlying grid for the wall is based on Chicago’s primary street grid, so the overall result is an abstract map of the city. In the entry/mezzanine, the mural is opaque at the bottom and translucent at the top, a choice that not only lets natural light stream in through the atrium skylight, but hides the duty-free shop fixturing directly behind the glass on the lower level. The kinetic horizontal pattern of the elongated “bricks” also subtly encourages travelers to move to the right toward security.

As travelers make their way down the corridor, the gold and tan bricks end at the lake’s edge, and the palette gives way to the blues of water and sky.

“We definitely wanted to create something unique that would speak to the emotion of flight,” says Pobojewski. “We knew it could easily have seemed cliché, but we also recognized there is an emotional experience that all people traveling through airports share at some level.”

Valicenti added that the mural’s sense of horizontal motion was important in moving people through the space. “We wanted to recreate that kinetic motion by representing flight patterns. It’s almost like being on the tarmac and taking off over the water as you move down the corridor.”

He admits most people don’t “get it” on a conscious level, but they certainly feel it. “For most people, the faster they can get through security and toward their destination, the better they feel. This helps.”

The world is here

In the concessions area, Valicenti and Pobojewski designed a frieze consisting of a map of the world rendered in flight paths, the shapes of the continents formed only by their straight lines between cities. At the edges, the map feathers away, suggesting cloud formations. Made up of 4-by-8-foot panels and more than 250 feet long, the frieze was inspired by data artist Aaron Koblin’s visualization of real-time FAA data on flights from different regions around the world, a project that Valicenti says marked a seminal moment in “data as design.”

“As artists, we were inspired by how the map of the world can be recognized simply by tracing a straight line between every airport on the planet,” he explains. “We recognize ourselves through our connections.”

Through the glass

While the Thirst team explored several options for materiality, glass won out in the end because of its long lifespan, translucency, and architectural gravitas. Goldray Industries (Calgary) fabricated the murals by digitally printing Thirst’s design in a ceramic frit that is fused to the glass, creating a crisp and durable image. 

“In the past we might have done this with traditional mosaic tile, which was a common vernacular in public transit settings,” notes Valicenti. “There’s a little of that implied grout-line here, but it’s a different technology for a different time. It makes reference to the past without being burdened by it.”

Rendering the colors true to Thirst’s designs posed a challenge, says Cathie Saroka, co-owner of Goldray. Ceramic frit, an ink made of ground glass mixed with pigment and a medium, is printed directly onto the glass, then goes through a tempering furnace up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, fusing the ink to the glass permanently. Only a very limited number of pigments, and particularly those using magenta, can withstand the heat. “It took a lot of experimenting and testing to get the colors as close as we could to the designer’s intent,” she adds. Pobojewski agrees, calling it “almost a paint-by-numbers exercise to get the right values. But we were pleased with the result.”

In the end, says Westfield’s Ghassemi, the murals succeed in creating a memorable connection to Chicago, celebrating a very unique place, and abstractly expressing the transformational aspects of traveling. As Valicenti notes, “We see ourselves in our connections.”




Client:  Westfield Concession Management

Location:  Chicago

Architect of Record:  Epstein

Design:  Thirst

Design Team:  Rick Valicenti (founder, principal designer), John Pobojewski (principal designer, programmer); Cameron Brand (designer, programmer)

Photos:  ©Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing

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>>Thirst founder and creative director Rick Valicenti will be a keynote speaker at the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience Chicago June 4-6. Meet us there!


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