Terminal 2's first commissioned site-specific art piece aims to distract viewers from travel woes | St. Louis Public Radio

Terminal 2's first commissioned site-specific art piece aims to distract viewers from travel woes

Jun 14, 2017

Amid the hustle and bustle of morning rush at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, a man in a red baseball hat, blue sportswear shirt, and flip flops chats with a woman in jeans and T-shirt and an adolescent girl in tie-dye.

Much of their exchange is lost to the cacophony of people asking agents for directions, complaining to airport workers about the long security line and making bland observations about arrivals and departures. Yet one comment slips through the noise.

“Wow, it looks like a lake,” the man said, nodding up at the new sculpture hanging from the ceiling, before turning to head through the security checkpoint.

The man’s attention was momentarily arrested by “Spectroplexus,” a 100-foot-long sculpture designed by Washington University architectural graduate students.  The project’s goal? To use innovative design techniques to craft an aerial sculpture that, if only for a moment, alleviates the stress and tension of airport travel.

“As you move along the lines, it should be quite a journey — we hope it to be — so I’m hoping they find just a little bit joy waiting in the airport line, which we all know is hard to do,” said Marija Draskic, one of the students who worked on the project.

Greg Smolkovich wraps polycarbonate fibers coated in resin around a wooden mold that is then baked and solidified into a lightweight but strong diamond shape.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

As part of their digital fabrication studio class, students and professors Lavendar Tessmer and Jason Foster Butz were commissioned by the airport to design the first piece of site-specific art to be displayed in Terminal 2. They were responsible for developing the initial concept, coming up with the manufacturing technique, making the piece. 

Draskic and other students made the 1,500 polycarbonite plastic diamonds that make up one portion of the project.  They dyed hundreds of flat plastic sheets with varying alcohol and ink solutions and cut them into diamond shapes. Then, they attached the shapes to dozens of three-dimensional rhombuses made of resin-slicked polycarbonate fiber woven together on wooden frames and baked in a kiln at TechShop at Cortex in the Central West End.  Airport workers then assembled into five ‘super-sections’ and installed them at Terminal 2.

Greg Smolkovich, one of the architecture students, echoed Draskic’s desire that the sculpture capture soon-to-be traveler’s attention and delight. He was part of the student group responsible for manufacturing the polycarbonate fiber skeleton of the project.

A computerized cutting machine sliced various color panels from polycarbonate sheets. The panels were dyed with combinations of ink and alcohol.

Smolkovich said the final project is a conglomeration of several student designs and a product of each of their insights. Like any professional design project, the work went through several stages, including a review by design professionals and airport representatives. He said it changed in his own approach to architecture.  When Smolkovich entered the program, he thought of architecture only in terms of its practical uses, but was surprised to find himself fascinated by some of the social design, attention-grabbing elements of the project. 

“It can be such a soul sucking space,” he said of the airport, “and now you’re able to use this architectural element to kind of, like ease the — I guess — pain of travel sometimes. Which is very nice because architecturally — other than building and making, in the built world it has a true purpose.”

Although the project may sound like a flight of fancy, Butz said there are very real, practical skills to be gleaned. Unlike many architectural school projects, which rest solely on the individual student’s craft, students were forced to collaborate with each other and with the clients. 

“In general, students are learning how to work on a detailed scale, how to kind of maintain a high level of quality,” Butz said. “How to design a sort of unique piece that limits the amount of variation you have.  These are all things that you’ll encounter in practice.”

That work paid off last weekend when the project was installed. Depending on its success and community response, the airport may tap the architectural school for additional creative collaborations in the future.  Until then, if you find yourself at Lambert’s Terminal 2, remember to look up before heading to your gate.  

A discarded prototype languishes outside the architectural graduate studies building at Washington University.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Correction: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect name for St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold