Neon: Sky’s The Limit at O’Hare Terminal 1 Entry by Andrea N. Sforza


Maybe I just have airports on my mind. After spending the entirety of this summer working on the adaptive reuse of Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport, the first “neon” building that came to mind was the crazy light corridor in O’Hare airport. If you happened to have traveled through ORD you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. The tunnel has become a defining feature to those passing through and looking up.

In Terminal 1, between Concourses B and C, there are 850 feet of public circulation space. What could have been just any other long and monotonous tunnel, was instead designed to be quite an experience. While standing on linear moving sidewalks, long waves of neon lights constantly change colors overhead. Mirrors back the lights, reflecting the cycling colors of the rainbow. The undulating pastel walls at the sides of the corridor further transport you back to the 1980’s. Although barely audible above the airport’s hustle, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue plays in the background.

My first memories of airport travel involved this light display but I had no idea why was the tunnel built and who designed it. Turns out, the tunnel was part of a massive redesign of the airport and was the result of several creative’s imaginations.

A little history…

In 1982 the O’Hare Development Program was released by the City of Chicago. This master plan included providing the airport with new or rehabilitated terminals which was well needed after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 caused major airlines such as United and American to consolidate their operations at O’Hare. A new Terminal 1 was called for to be used by United, just a small piece of a much larger building program. In 1984 the construction began on the “Terminal for Tomorrow” that was designed by renowned architect Helmut Jahn.

The first gates of the new Terminal 1 opened in 1987. Jahn claimed his design, which featured large light filled spaces, was inspired by exhibition halls and railway stations of the early twentieth century. The tunnel was also designed by Jahn who worked with artist Michael Hayden and composer William Kraft to design the 466 tube light sculpture called ‘Sky’s the Limit.’ which covers the ceiling of the tunnel and undulates in color to music.

Although the tunnel has mixed reviews today (In my online searching I stumbled upon a Reddit page where comments on ‘Sky’s the Limit’ ranged anywhere from “cheesy” to “beautiful” to “meh.”) there is no denying that the “largest light sculpture in the world” is truly a sight to see and experience.

Michael Hayden created other works involving the manipulation of light in large, architectural scale, usually on modern buildings. He calls them his “Lumetric” sculptures and you can see more of them here:

If you want to see the neon lights in action, here’s a throwback to 1997…



Photo Source: