Pittsburgh Int'l Installs Terrazzo with Extra Razzle-Dazzle

Dan Vnuk
Published in: 

Travelers passing through Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) need only look down to see one of the most striking components of the airport's recent multimillion-dollar renovation. The airport replaced its uninspired, dated tile flooring with smooth new terrazzo that serves as the "canvas" for an eye-catching piece of art. The new material also eliminates the familiar racket of suitcases rolling over tile flooring.  

In total, the project took 18 months and cost about $4 million. 

Project: Floor Mural 
Location: Pittsburgh Int'l Airport
Artwork Title: The Sky Beneath Our Feet
Flooring Material: Terrazzo
Size: 69,000 sq. ft.
Approx. Cost: $4 million
Funding: Airport bonds
Installation: July 2014 - Oct. 2015
Design: Clayton Merrell, Carnegie Mellon University
Project Architect: LGA Partners 
Installation Management: SAI Consultant Engineers
General Contractor: Mosites Construction
Terrazzo Subcontractor: Roman Mosaic & Tile Co.
Accolades: National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association 2016 Honor Award; March of Dimes 2016 Special Award; mural artist was named a 2016 Creator-of-the-Year by Pittsburgh Technology Council
Key Benefits: Replacing drab, noisy tile flooring; adding artwork to terminal; reducing maintenance

The large-scale mural installed within the terrazzo, titled The Sky Beneath Our Feet, portrays five iconic Pittsburgh scenes and 12 aircraft (a paper airplane, blimp, the historic Wright Flyer and others). The artwork begins in the airside terminal of PIT's center core, extends into the food court and then leads to its four concourses-spanning 69,000 square feet. Together, it's all designed to engage visitors as they walk through the airport.

Clayton Merrell, the local Carnegie Mellon art professor who created the mural, feels that airports should be welcoming, beautiful places. "It is a city's most obvious public face," he explains. "When the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council's Office of Public Art reached out to me for a proposal to rejuvenate the region's primary gateway, I knew the airport's dull, gray tiles presented the perfect opportunity. The airport atrium is a great space, but it had never really lived up to its potential. The former floor had been an aggravation for some time with the clickety-clack, and it was drab. It was a good time to make a change." 

Goodbye Tile, Hello Terrazzo
Airport personnel note that besides being noisy and prone to cracking, the terminal's former tile floor was "high-maintenance." PIT officials initially considered simply replacing the floor, but ultimately decided it should be a piece of art. The project team ultimately chose terrazzo for its durability and sustainability. Airport officials also wanted to reduce maintenance for the cleaning crews.

Typically, terrazzo consists of marble, quartz, granite, glass or other material chips that are sprinkled onto a surface and covered with a binder. Once the poured mixture cures, it is then ground and polished to a smooth surface. 

Some say construction workers in Venice developed terrazzo 500 years ago by mixing marble chips left over 
from upscale jobs with clay to create floors for their own homes and patios. Originally, they sealed the chips with goat milk to bring out the marble's shine. When electric industrial grinders and other power equipment emerged in the 1920s, terrazzo became much easier to install and consequently more popular. 

To create the design for PIT, Merrell first made a digital collage of photographs he and others took, and then translated it into the piece of art that now embellishes the facility's floor. After arriving at a preliminary design, he and other artists came to the airport to spend time thinking and drawing. The photos in the digital collage were all traced and digitally combined. From there, the artists refined the photos into artistic images that could be rendered in terrazzo.

It took crews 16 months to remove the old tile and install new terrazzo flooring according to Merrell's design. Dennis Pivik, vice president of engineering at the airport, describes the process of pouring the terrazzo as very labor-intensive. "Each of the designs in the floor is made by the use of metal strips," explains Pivik. "The amazing end-product has resulted in numerous awards. Everyone involved in the project did a fantastic job." 

Art & Commerce
PIT's recent flooring project was not its first foray into public art. Numerous isntallments throughout the terminal include Fraley's Robot Repair Shop, an Andy Warhol exhibit and many others. The airport, in fact, has a rich history of promoting art in collaboration with the Office of Public Art, a public-private partnership between the city of Pittsburgh and Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. A staff member from the office comes to the airport two days per week to consult with its Art in the Airport Committee, which reviews projects and proposals. 

"The beautiful new terrazzo floor reflects our commitment to bringing the local arts community, as well as unique elements of Pittsburgh, into our terminal and letting passengers know they've landed someplace special," says Christina Cassotis, chief executive officer at PIT. "We've worked hard in the past year in adding nearly 20 nonstop destinations while also improving our facilities. The Sky Beneath Our Feet brings a new experience for our passengers, and we've very proud of it."

Last year, PIT served more than 8 million travelers, ranking it as Pennsylvania's second-busiest passenger airport. 

Like Cassotis and other airport executives, Merrell is pleased with how travelers are receiving the new mural. "When I went into this project, the thing that was most important to me, the measure of success I set for myself, was that it would change the feeling of being in the airport," reflects the artist. "It's been really great for me that it seems to have done that, that it feels completely different out there; and I think people are connecting with the new feel the space has." 


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