At Bush airport, artist finds the sky’s the limit
Installation at abandoned tower honors I.M. Pei architecture and traffic controllers
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.”
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.
Houston artist Jo Ann Fleischhauer’s “Trapping Time” features illuminated constellations and compass directions of IAH’s runways encircling the old control tower.
The backlit panels of Fleischhauer’s installation are accompanied by text describing the positioning of the constellation in line with runways.