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Window to a city: Airport art design with a purpose

Blending beauty, usefulness, and civic identity to leave airport travelers with a lasting impression

By Gelare Danaie, M. Arch, MRAIC (Toronto, ON)

Every day as I ride Toronto’s subway and streetcars, I think about the quality of our public places. I see my city as a continuation of my home, my place. I look at the walls of subway stations, the streetcar queuing area, the public furniture, and I dream about the ways they could be better. I dream about improving the citizen’s experience of everyday life through design.

As an airport designer, I view airports as mini-cities. We used to think about airports merely as semi-industrial buildings that people fly to and from. Today, as air travel becomes affordable and accessible for more people, this view of airports and the role they play is changing. Airports are now public places connected to the city they serve. I strive to improve passenger’s experience in airports and I believe good design and public art can make memories and make people more connected with their environment.

So when the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) approached my team and I to design a center for passenger information at the heart of Toronto Pearson International Airport’s domestic terminal, we asked ourselves “how can we design a central information zone and make a sense of place too?”

To do this, we needed to delve into the passenger experience at Pearson International. We walked the terminal like a passenger and observed the experience of the site. We passed security and seeing our site first thing as we come down the escalator. It’s a beautiful space with a soaring ceiling and daylight shining through a skylight above. It’s the perfect place for a striking piece of art. With these observations in mind we started our design with a clear goal: Let’s make this location a destination and not a passageway. Let’s make a place with unique character so people will immediately associate it with the domestic terminal at Pearson Airport.

Related item: Toronto Pearson International Airport - Terminal 3 Enhancement Program

The design could take any shape—so long as it related to Toronto. Our approach was to make a feature and merge the flight information with a public art piece. We wanted something simple, but memorable. Toronto is a city with beautiful natural parks, so we drew our inspiration from nature. We designed a flower. The flower we created is a digital installation. It merges flight information, vivid light design, and an organic steel structure in one public art piece. The cylinder digital installation is the symbol of time and the content will change in every season. The information desk and the free standing self-guided digital kiosks were also designed with similar characteristics to complete the look and feel of the information zone center while serving the need of the passengers. The flower is more than a passenger information zone. It’s an unforgettable landmark that travelers gravitate to, and feel welcomed by. The truth is we demand to live in places where we feel connected and engaged. We want our surroundings to be beautiful.

When I was a student of architecture, I had a mentor who portrayed cities as a network of houses with tails! Imagine every house connected throughout the city. But the truth is, our desire for connectedness doesn’t end at our front door. Airports connect our cities across the country and across borders, and serve as a gateway into our communities. Public art can provide that feeling of connectedness when, for some, the airport may be their only impression of a city as they pass through to their ultimate destination. In the end, creating beautiful works of art in airports, like the flower at Pearson, is a chance for a community to connect with travelers. It’s gift from the city to all those who arrive.

Related item: Airports Hub

Gelare will be speaking about the Toronto Pearson International Airport - Terminal 3 Enhancement Program at the Passenger Terminal Conference on March 15 in Amsterdam.

Gelare’s passion is creating spaces with a sense of place, places where you can experience architecture. She’s a design manager with our airports team, with more than 15 years of experience as an architect and project manager.

The truth is we demand to live in places where we feel connected and engaged. We want our surroundings to be beautiful.

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