By Mimi Cheng
There is a piece of artwork in Philadelphia that is seen by those who are leaving. At the end of Terminal B of the Philadelphia International Airport, strips of the glossy terrazzo floor suddenly swoop upwards toward the mezzanine, while pieces of the carpeted floor above dive down. As the ceiling touches the floor, it curls gently onto itself. One strip of the floor peels back to reveal a small, lush pocket of foliage underneath. In the mezzanine above, the piece arches through the security line, then dips down to offer seating for passengers to remove their shoes, or make last minute adjustments to their carry-ons.
Flying Floors for the Main Ticketing Pavilion was created in 1998 specifically for the Philadelphia airport by Vito Acconci’s architecture studio, simply named Acconci Studio. It formed out of the artist’s desire to no longer be the singular artistic agent, but rather to collaborate with architects and designers to create active works in the public sphere. Whether it is the geometric fluidity of Mur Island in Graz or the evocative proposal for a new “pre-exploded” World Trade Center these works twist definitions of public and private, inside and outside, creating structures and forms that are somehow familiar, yet completely surreal. Flying Floors, though lesser known, is a prime example of the studio’s ability to animate architecture while reactivating relationships within it.
One evening a few weeks ago, I travelled to the airport to see the piece again. There was a momentary lull between US Airways flights, so the terminal was quiet and eerily devoid of travelers. An airport worker walked across the open expanse of check-in counters to sit behind one of the piece’s arches as she made a surreptitious phone call. A bright blue scissor lift was tucked next to her against the wall, hidden from plain view. I went up the escalator to the mezzanine, where TSA workers were casually chatting as they organized shoe bins and awaited the next rush.
Flying Floors was made possible through the financial graces of the city’s Percent for the Arts program in which 1% of a public building’s construction or renovation must be put towards the creation of public artwork. It was one of the first projects to be completed by Acconci Studio, and while its budget exceeded the allotted amount, the panel of judges was so “enchanted” by the studio’s proposal that they were willing to grant them the project. While percent for the arts laws are one of the main ways that public art has been able to survive and proliferate, Vito Acconci cynically points out that the artwork funded by this program can only ever be worth one percent of the building. Many of the iconic pieces of public artwork in Philadelphia have been funded by Percent for the Arts, but many others have the unfortunate tendency to be commissioned as an afterthought, only existing in the building’s margins, with artists being asked to do something that becomes superficial and decorative.
While Flying Floors does exist at the farthest end of the terminal, it does not function in the aesthetic periphery. The inherent movement and overall scale of the artwork is undeniably dramatic, but its strength lies in its ability to camouflage itself: It is built out of the same material as the rest of the building; even the foliage that has been planted seems corporate. Looking at photographs of when the piece was first installed, the carpeting in the mezzanine that extended onto the artwork was an inoffensive shade of grey. When the terminal underwent a makeover and took on a grey and maroon carpet that is at once banal and conspicuous, the carpeting on the artwork was replaced as well.
In this way, Flying Floors resists becoming a superfluous accessory to the terminal. It refuses to function as a decorative object when it takes on the same material aesthetics of its environment, however sterile they may be. Instead, the artwork actively plays with the building’s elements by twisting them, peeling them open, and turning them upside down. Moreover, it is the building’s parasite: burrowing its way into the movement of travelers, anticipating the need for privacy and respite, and injecting drama into the mundane.
Mimi Cheng received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011. She lives and works in Philadelphia.