On a Friday morning in late September, as travelers rushed to catch flights or find their ride home, Kyle Cothron paused to admire the swirls of sky blue terrazzo and the intersecting white arcs at his feet in the center core of the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.
“It’s really striking,” said Cothron, a former radiology resident at Allegheny General Hospital who moved to Connecticut in April and was returning for a visit.
Cothron’s reaction is exactly what artist Clayton Merrell envisioned with his design of The Sky Beneath Our Feet: a 69,000-square-foot terrazzo art installation of blue skies, horizon, a dozen crisscrossing “flight paths” and the city’s skyline that will officially be completed on Wednesday. It is one of two recent art installations at the airport that aim to give rushing and often harried travelers a reason to stop, catch their breath and take in the spectacular view.
Sky Beneath Our Feet spans the center core of the airport’s airside terminal and includes silhouettes from five neighborhoods that Pittsburghers should know well:
• the North Shore with its stadiums and the Carnegie Science Center by Concourse A
• Oakland with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Phipps Conservatory by Concourse B
• South Side including the Smithfield Street Bridge and Duquesne Incline by Concourse C
• Downtown as seen from the Ohio River by Concourse D
• Homestead and the historic Carrie Furnace in the food court area
The terrazzo floor is part of the airport’s $10 million airmall renovation which includes a number of high-end fashion stores, such as Hugo Boss, along with the newest space, Martini. A composite of marble, quartz, granite, and glass chips, terrazzo is a popular, functional and stunning choice for high-traffic spaces, and this one is exceptional in many ways.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority initially invited 10 local artists for consideration, based on their past work. The field was then narrowed to three, who were invited to tour the site and submit proposals. It was during the tour that Merrell walked up to a balcony overlooking the nearly circular center core—that area in between Concourses A, B, C and D—and immediately envisioned turning the enormous space into a spectacular vast, blue sky, an extension of the magic of air travel.
It was, he says, “an opportunity to create something that you could walk around and literally get lost in.”
Skies are a prominent theme in Merrell’s art, which has been featured in recent exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in D.C. and the American Embassy in Belize, as well as closer to home in Chautauqua, N.Y.
“When you are a kid, you lay on your back in the grass and stare up in the sky. If you lay there long enough, you feel like gravity is going to let go of you, and you are going to float up to the sky,” explains Merrell, a professor and associate head of the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.
His inspiration, he says, came from “just harkening back to that more simple mystery of vast space and being lost in the enormity of something.”
Once he was selected to create a design for the terrazzo floor, Merrell toured the city, taking scads of photos and studying the skylines of various neighborhoods whose silhouettes he could translate into a terrazzo floor. The Forest Hills resident completed his drawings for the five neighborhoods and accompanying clouds during the summer of 2013, while he and his family visited Oaxaca, Mexico where he had lived with his family for a year in 1996 doing research and creative work for a Fulbright Grant.
Once his drawings were complete, Merrell turned them over to the Pittsburgh architecture firm LGA Partners (formerly Lami Grubb Architects), which created the computer-aided design drawings. LGA then turned it over to local contractor Mosites Construction and West Chester-based Roman Mosaic & Tile, which created the terrazzo via Merrell’s specifications.
In recent months, Merrell has spent evenings assisting with the floor installation including the roughly 400 tiny triangles and rectangles that make up the Smithfield Street Bridge. The end result is a wonderful series of Pittsburgh skylines surrounding a sky crisscrossed with flight paths, clouds and iconic flight vessels including the Wright Flyer, the first plane flown by the Wright brothers, a satellite and the space shuttle.