By Mark Crawford
When officials at Texas’s Austin-Bergstrom International Airport decided to build a pedestrian walkway between the facility’s terminal and car rental facility, they wanted more than just a path from Point A to Point B. Key to their vision was incorporating a grand, artistic component as part of the structural design that would add emotional value to the otherwise dull journey.
The airport received more than 100 proposals from firms interested in designing the artwork. An independent panel then reviewed the proposals and shortened the list to five candidates. Officials eventually selected Vermont-based Michael Singer, whose work includes an atrium garden in the Denver International Airport and sculpture gardens around the world.
Singer’s highly acclaimed contribution to the walkway – a work entitled “Uplifted Ground” – accomplishes exactly what airport officials had hoped. Visitors are mesmerized by the attractive and thought-provoking flow of colors, patterns and forms that blend together to tell the story of Austin and its geologic place in time.
Even with a very specific story to tell, Singer and his studio accomplished it all with precast concrete.
Up, up and away
The $1.66-million project, which consists of hundreds of geometric precast sculptures, opened at ABIA in fall 2015. Singer’s goal was to create a sculptural landscape that would be the focal point of the pedestrian bridge. Interrelated design concepts include geometries and transitions based on local geological formations as well as ground patterns revealed by aerial photography taken across the state. Combined, these features create a multi-dimensional theme of uplift highlighting aviation, the tectonic history of Texas and, once viewed along the walkway, the human spirit.
As a transition space, Uplifted Ground relies on the viewer’s motion to create a sense of rise and fall along the more than 300-foot-long walkway.
“As you enter the space, you see hundreds of earth-toned, ground-based and suspended precast concrete elements,” said Jason Bregman, a Michael Singer Studio environmental planning and design associate involved with the project. “Farther along, the shapes diminish in length while rising in height into cubic elements with textured relief patterns, copper and steel details, and cut and incised shapes and scores.”
To achieve his vision, Singer used nearly 400 precast concrete pieces. The designs and colors used are inspired by the Texas landscape, including geologic features like caves, faults and the dusty red granite of the Llano Uplift, a nearby area of tectonic activity estimated to be nearly 1 billion years old.
The perfect material
Designing Uplifted Ground – which was commissioned by Art in Public Places, a program of the City of Austin Economic Development Department – presented many unique challenges. Since the precast elements would be in an open-air environment, they needed to be durable. The components also needed to be easily suspended from wire cables. And, because the pathway was being converted from a parking garage floor into a pedestrian walkway, it could only handle a certain amount of weight.
Singer is known for using a great deal of precast in his artwork. Precast enables his designers to have complete control over artistic details in the concrete, something that is impossible to guarantee with cast-in-place concrete and the variables associated with on-site work.
“Precast is a big part of what we do for public works because it is very durable and we can control the specifications to meet the unique requirements of every project,” Bregman said. “Colors, textures and finishes are much easier to control.”
The precast pieces – which varied in size – were manufactured by Architectural Precast and Foam of West Palm Beach, Fla. They contain different colors, patterns, acid-wash finishes and embedded materials such as copper, stainless steel and pieces of the red Llano Uplift granite. Openings within the blocks also allow light to pass through.
According to Bregman, another big advantage of precast is that it is compatible with the other materials in the sculpture, such as the copper and steel detailing and stone inserts. Knowing the sculpture would be exposed to sun and rain, the design team combined these materials so their colors would deepen over time, especially the copper patina. Small pockets were built into the block surfaces to capture water and facilitate “patina in situ” and intricate patterns of weathering.
During the day, the reflection of daylight on the precast and embedded metals creates shifting geometric patterns of light and shadow. At night, 256 LED lights throughout the sculpture create a subtle, attractive glow that emerges from the hollow elements through geometric openings, creating a graceful pattern of light.
Art that captivates
Creating a sculpture for an outdoor public space presents both difficulties and opportunities. The design must plan for how the materials will work together as they weather over time, taking into consideration both the structural integrity of the sculpture and how the colors and patterns will evolve. For Michael Singer Studio, precast concrete solved these challenges, allowing the design team to meet the tight engineering restrictions for the site while also captivating airport visitors.
Singer believes the project is a great success.
“It’s especially rewarding for me to watch as people of all ages walk along, obviously concentrating on getting to their rental car, and then they suddenly stop and look toward the sculpture as though they’re just becoming aware of it,” Singer said. “Many will put down their suitcases, take out their phone cameras, and start taking photos. It’s also a treat to hear some of these travelers pass by asking each other what this could possibly be, as though a mystery needs to be solved.
“An artist can’t ask for much more.”
Mark Crawford is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer who specializes in science, technology and manufacturing.