Friday, March 14, 2003

Calm technology

This afternoon I was telling my students about my trip to Austin and found myself dwelling on the Detroit Metro airport. You see, I've never flown through there before and was completely taken by the tunnel between concourses A and B-C.

The tunnel really conjures a sense of flow.The tunnel is a 12 1/2-foot high tube encased in steel and concrete and situated 6 feet beneath a taxiway. It has two moving sidewalks. The walls are lined with 7 1/2-foot-tall translucent glass panels. Fox Fire Inc., a specialty glass maker in Pontiac, created the curved panels and sand blasted the glass to create fluid swirls. Hidden behind the glass panels and ceiling fabric are rows of light-emitting diodes and an audio system. Controlled by a computer, the thousands of miniature lights splash subtle hues of blue, green and red on the glass and fabric. Mills James Productions Inc., a production company in Columbus, Ohio, created two 12-minute sound and light shows for the tunnel's computer. Both feature original music. "If you have moving sidewalks and music and lights, it makes it a fun experience and you forget that you have a 700-foot walk."

Let me just say that physical distance was irrelevant to me as I walked through the tunnel three times in a row (and I hear there's another at O'Hare, so you might find me there at the end of May). I loved it, but it was better than fun. I found it extremely calming after negotiating the chaos and crowds of concourse A. The subtle darkness, gently swirling colours and liquid music had a palpable effect on people moving through the tunnel. Crowds dissipated and slowed down. People smiled. I wanted the whole airport to feel that good, but realised the tunnel probably wouldn't feel that way if it didn't stand in such sharp contrast to the spaces before and after. It really was a sort of perfect liminal space. Definitely one of the better designed (computer-driven) architecture experiences I've had. It demonstrated such attention to context and affect, and celebrated flow over control; a social space of art and technology.

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