At Bush air­port, artist finds the sky’s the limit

In­stal­la­tion at aban­doned tower hon­ors I.M. Pei ar­chi­tec­ture and traf­fic con­trollers

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By Molly Glentzer STAFF WRITER

Jo Ann Fleis­chhauer could not refuse when for­mer Hous­ton Air­port Sys­tem cu­ra­tor Tommy Gre­gory in­vited her to cre­ate pub­lic art in a de­funct, 50-year-old air-traf­fic con­trol tower at Ge­orge Bush In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Air­port — even af­ter she dis­cov­ered the struc­ture had no work­ing elec­tric­ity and she would have to climb a gazil­lion wind­ing stairs in dark­ness to in­stall the work. All of her projects pose chal­lenges, she said. Dur­ing about 15 years of cre­at­ing site-spe­cific, mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tions that of­ten also have au­dio com­po­nents, Fleis­chhauer has (among other things) wrapped the up­per ex­te­rior of a his­toric house with para­sols; de­signed gran­ite floors with im­ages of in­ter­twin­ing com­plex poly­he­dra for a re­search cen­ter; af­fixed mir­rors, a stair­case, lights and col­lage ele­ments to the Old Mar­ket Square clock tower; and mounted shelves for ta­ble lamps with in­di­vid­u­ally made shades up the walls of an 80-foot-tall grain silo.

“Trap­ping Time” is just her lat­est creative con­struct, beck­on­ing from the air­port’s oth­er­wise idle tower

through Jan. 1.

Vis­i­ble from Bush’s Ter­mi­nal A con­course and park­ing garage as well as planes ar­riv­ing or de­part­ing on nearby run­ways, the piece fills the five win­dows of the pen­tag­o­nal tower with back­lit im­ages — five, 10-foot-di­am­e­ter, cir­cu­lar draw­ings of con­stel­la­tions, each with a re­lated text panel.

“I’m hop­ing when peo­ple board planes they don’t whip their shades down im­me­di­ately, that they look,” Fleis­chhauer said. “I’m hop­ing it’s like a, ‘What the hell is that up there?’ kind of a thing.”

Gre­gory knew she was up for do­ing some­thing in “a re­ally out-of-the-box kind of place,” she said. She fell in love with the tower at first sight.

“It’s like you’re step­ping back in time, to 1965. It’s com­pletely aban­doned,” she said. “You have to carry a flash­light or wear a head­light, but even go­ing up the steps is an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s a lit­tle bit big­ger than go­ing up a cathe­dral tower, but you’re wind­ing, and it’s very dark.”

Noth­ing about the in­stal­la­tion is ran­dom. Not sat­is­fied with sim­ply cre­at­ing vis­ual ef­fects, Fleis­chhauer brings a well of sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity and an ap­petite for deep re­search to her work.

Air­port of­fi­cials have wanted to de­mol­ish the tower for some time to ex­pand Ter­mi­nal A. The low-slung build­ings sur­round­ing it are to be re­moved be­gin­ning Jan. 3, but mem­bers of Preser­va­tion Hous­ton and the Texas His­tor­i­cal Com­mis­sion still hope to see the tower saved as an avi­a­tion land­mark.

Com­mis­sioned in the early 1960s by the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion as a pro­to­type for con­trol tow­ers that would be re­pro­duced across the U.S., the build­ing was the first in Hous­ton de­signed by the famed I.M. Pei & As­so­ci­ates. Look­ing like some­thing out of “The Jet­sons,” it opened with the air­port (which was ini­tially named Jetero In­ter­na­tional) on June 8, 1969, re­main­ing in use un­til 1996.

Ac­cord­ing to Preser­va­tion Hous­ton, ar­chi­tect James Ingo Freed, a mem­ber of Pei’s firm, con­ceived the flared, fivesided tower in four heights. Hous­ton’s was the first and the tallest of 23 built, at 160 feet, to ac­com­mo­date a com­ing gen­er­a­tion of jumbo jets as well as su­per­sonic air­craft.

Pres­i­dent Kennedy wanted “the quin­tes­sen­tial sym­bol of safety in air travel” as well as for­ward­look­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, Fleis­chhauer said.

She ob­tained orig­i­nal plans from Pei’s com­pany and dug up pho­to­graphs in the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s ar­chives of the fa­mous ar­chi­tect pre­sent­ing his ideas to the FAA in 1962 but had to aban­don ideas for an in­side in­stal­la­tion or some­thing ad­di­tional on the ex­te­rior — too cost pro­hib­i­tive.

“Trap­ping Time” may prompt peo­ple to think about the ar­chi­tec­ture, but with the im­ages that glow through the win­dows, Fleis­chhauer also pays homage to the work the air­port’s traf­fic con­trollers have done for 50 years. When the Pei tower was built, con­trollers de­pended on sight, binoc­u­lars and radar; now, of course, they’re look­ing at com­puter screens.

“But there’s still a lot of oral com­mu­ni­ca­tion, hand­writ­ing and not­ing on a board when planes are com­ing in and where they are in line with each other,” the artist said. “So much of my work is about mak­ing his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions be­tween what was rel­e­vant in the past in re­la­tion to what is rel­e­vant to­day.”

She was sur­prised to learn that run­ways every­where are num­bered with a uni­ver­sal sys­tem, from 1 to 36 — a short­hand for the de­grees on a com­pass in re­la­tion to true north. So, for ex­am­ple, Run­way 33 sits at 330 de­grees north­north­west, and Run­way 15 lies at 150 de­grees south­south­east. “They still use north as a di­rec­tion fin­der,” Fleis­chhaeur said. “So there was a con­nec­tion with an­cient car­tog­ra­phers or mar­itime trav­el­ers.”

She copied pic­tures from a circa 1660 ce­les­tial at­las, draw­ing them by hand on pa­per, to cre­ate im­ages of fa­mil­iar con­stel­la­tions. Af­ter col­or­ing each one, she ma­nip­u­lated them in Pho­to­shop, also lay­er­ing in pho­to­graphs she took of Hous­ton cloud­scapes. Bayou Fine Art Imag­ing cre­ated the huge prints from her files on Du­ra­tran, a film used for back­lit sig­nage.

Fleis­chauer also wanted the prints to be cone­shaped, rather than flat, to give them a more “sculp­tural” qual­ity. With the lack of cli­mate con­trol in the tower, hold­ing the con­vex ob­jects in place be­came a bit of a night­mare.

Each il­lus­trated panel ref­er­ences what trav­el­ers would see on June 8 — the air­port’s an­niver­sary — if they weren’t sur­rounded by the lights of a ma­jor city, from five run­ways the win­dows face. For ex­am­ple, from Run­way 8, it’s Cygnus (the swan), Her­cules and Draco (the dragon). From Run­way 15, Virgo and Leo (the lion). From Run­way 33, Bootes (the plow­man), Ursa Ma­jor (the large bear) and bits of Her­cules and Draco.

The flat text pan­els, printed by High Tech Signs, give the run­way num­bers and the time of day the con­stel­la­tions would the­o­ret­i­cally be vis­i­ble. The project also had an­gels from PGW So­lu­tions, which do­nated five, 100-watt LED pan­els, and HouTex Elec­tric, which wired and in­stalled the light­ing.

Fleis­chauer prob­a­bly could have just con­jured what­ever im­ages she wanted and put it up there. “That’s true,” she said, with a hearty laugh. “But I am so not that way.”

Mark Mul­li­gan / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Cour­tesy of the artist

The back­lit pan­els of Jo Ann Fleis­chhauer’s “Trap­ping Time,” seen through the win­dows of a de­funct air-traf­fic-con­trol tower at Ge­orge Bush In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Air­port, con­tain draw­ings of the con­stel­la­tions above five run­ways at var­i­ous times of day.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Hous­ton artist Jo Ann Fleis­chhauer’s “Trap­ping Time” fea­tures il­lu­mi­nated con­stel­la­tions and com­pass di­rec­tions of IAH’s run­ways en­cir­cling the old con­trol tower.

Cour­tesy of the artist

The back­lit pan­els of Fleis­chhauer’s in­stal­la­tion are ac­com­pa­nied by text de­scrib­ing the po­si­tion­ing of the con­stel­la­tion in line with run­ways.

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