Carnegie Mellon University
August 28, 2015

A Traveler's Treasure

Airport floor artwork

People making their way through busy airports have one thing on their minds: The destination. At Pittsburgh International Airport, travelers are stopping to enjoy the view along the way.

The new Airside Terminal Center Core offers a great sky view to people arriving or departing the city — as long as they're looking down. Beneath their feet, guests will see a beautiful new terrazzo floor that features airplanes soaring through a vast blue sky above several notable Pittsburgh neighborhoods. More than a floor, this is a work of art by Carnegie Mellon University School of Art Associate Head and Professor Clayton Merrell.

Merrell was commissioned to design the new floor by the Allegheny County Airport Authority in summer 2013. He will complete the project this fall and will cover nearly 69,000 square feet (1.5 acres). It's been a long process, but one that will be worth it — not only to him, but also to the millions of airport travelers.

"When I was invited to submit a proposal for this project, I knew immediately that it was a perfect match with my work," Merrell said. "For years, I've been making paintings of the sky, with unusual perspectives that include the entire circle of the horizon. The effect is to defy gravity and include a feeling of flying — a bit like being a kid lying on the ground gazing up into the clouds."

Merrell said he envisioned the circular hub of the airport as a spectacular sky. People walking across its surface would experience an "extraordinary extension of the magic of air travel, so that the mundane act of walking through an airport could become an evocation of the freedom, speed and openness of flight." After 10 initial designs he narrowed the submissions to three. The panel chose his favorite.

The floor's blue tones lend themselves to a feeling of openness, and every so often, a different type of aircraft can be seen "flying" across the surface. Airport visitors with some extra time can seek out an airplane, satellite, helicopter, space shuttle and, even a whimsical paper airplane whizzing through the clouds. Or they might follow the inlaid lines connecting the aircraft and depicting flight paths. Finally, they can look at some of Pittsburgh's landmarks.

Merrell incorporated silhouettes of five notable Pittsburgh neighborhoods — the "Golden Triangle" of downtown; the South Side, including the Smithfield Street Bridge and Duquesne Incline; Oakland, featuring The Carnegie Museums, Phipps Conservatory, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon; the North Shore, including Heinz Field, PNC Park and the Carnegie Science Center; and the Carrie Furnace, which he said serves as a reminder of the city's former primary industry. It also serves as a transition into the topographical map of the Mon Valley that extends into the terminal's food court.

The muted tones of the terrazzo, which was installed by Roman Mosaic & Tile of Westchester, Pa., blends seamlessly as it depicts the vast blue yonder, but Merrell said getting that effect from terrazzo is not an easy task. Terrazzo is made of marble, quartz, granite, glass and other chips that are mixed into a colored resin then polished; work that requires great skill and expertise. Merrell credits all those involved in the project — the Airport Authority, the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art, architects Lami Grubb, contractor Mosites Construction and the tile company itself — for working together to ensure that his design is truly the inspiration to travelers that it is meant to be.

"The design invites exploration," he said. "I hope it's immediately likable and people will have a lot of fun with it."