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Moving elements soothe airport visitors

Interiors | July 1, 2009 | By:

Travelers at the Indianapolis airport are treated to art that aims to calm.

Air travel is stressful these days. Increasing delays, shrinking legroom and the proliferation of fees dog the business and casual traveler alike. Just arriving at an airport seems to raise the stress level, and the conclusion of a trip is usually a frantic dash to the car. Greg Hull is hoping to relieve some of that stress — with art. “I want to slow people down,” he says, “not distract them, but calm them.” His latest work, installed recently in the parking garage at the new Indianapolis airport, may actually do that.

“Breath” is minimal: 11 bright red forms suspended in the sanitized, white-and-gray atrium of the garage. They float in a double arc, diving below the main floor and then vaulting almost to the ceiling. The intended calming effect comes primarily from the movement of the elements: each one inflates and deflates, like — as the work’s name suggests — breath. “The movement mimics human respiration,” explains Hull —respiration at rest, that is. In theory, this can actually slow breathing and heart rate in its viewers, thereby returning frazzled people to a state of normalcy.

The best way to understand these sculptural elements is to think of them as pairs of umbrellas joined at their outside edges. Down the center of each one is a machined aluminum track that houses the artwork’s motorized mechanics. Twelve sets of stainless steel ribs support the red covering, which is a 184.3g fabric called Odyssey III™ manufactured by MarChem Custom Fabrics Inc. of New Haven, Mo. The fabric has a water-resistant acrylic coating on the outside and was assembled by J.P. Fine Manufacturing / A-1 Tarp of Indianapolis, Ind. A computer program monitors site conditions and closes the elements down in extreme cold or when winds reach 16m/s.

Hull’s work was selected through an international competition that attracted more than 500 artists. Julia Moore, public arts administrator for Indianapolis-based Blackburn Architects Inc., the airport’s lead designer, orchestrated the selection of “Breath” and the 16 other projects now on view at the airport. She and six other arts professionals selected 52 artists from the overall pool, then began sending out site-specific requests for proposals to this short-listed group. Hull’s proposed solution for the parking garage, which, after some refinement, became “Breath,” resonated with Moore and a second selection committee comprised of the airport’s designers and owners. “Greg’s work,” says Moore, “is a good blend of something meaningful and obscure at the same time. The viewer can connect with it at whatever level they feel comfortable.”

This isn’t the first time Indianapolis-based Hull has experimented with umbrella-like artworks. His initial fascination with the form came as he looked down from the upper floor of a New York City hotel as a rainstorm began. He was amazed at how the street disappeared under the opening umbrellas. “Breath” is a culmination of years of exploration. “This is the first time I have done a kinetic piece of this scale,” says Hull, “so I wore a lot of hats.” He had to learn engineering, computer software and, of course, fabric manufacturing. He credits an open-minded and engaged design team that included the building architect and the installer of the parking garage’s fabric roof.

What’s most striking about Hull’s Indianapolis airport artwork is its silence. As the elements slowly transform from vertical to horizontal, from upright spiky wheels to long indented batons, they make no perceptible sound. That in itself, as a foil to the bustling nearby transportation hub, is relaxing — like a deep, calm breath.

Adam Regn Arvidson, ASLA, is a landscape architect and freelance writer based in Minneapolis. He is founder of Treeline, a design/writing consultancy that focuses on environmentally sustainable projects.

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