Arup’s Gideon D’Arcangelo Relates How It Can Take An Expert Village To Deliver A Big Visual Project

June 26, 2024 by Dave Haynes

When an announcement came out about the experiential work being planned for the new Terminal One at New York’s JFK Airport, I was familiar with some of the parties involved but not the one guiding it all – a design consultancy called Arup.

I clicked over to LinkedIn and was surprised to learn this wasn’t some little boutique company, but a multinational firm with more than 10,000 people.

Arup describes itself as a collective of designers, consultants and experts working across 140 countries. One of the intriguing aspects of the company is that while it has teams very much focused on the creative process, it also has large teams focused on wildly different aspects of projects, like structural engineering and water conservation.

I had a great chat with Gideon D’Arcangelo, a Principal at Arup who is running the JFK project and came over to Arup after many years at the much-respected creative tech firm ESI Design.

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Gideon, thank you for joining me. I think the first thing to do is tell me about your company. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Dave, it’s great to talk with you. Gideon D’Arcangelo, I joined Arup five years ago. I just reached my five-year anniversary of joining. Arup is a global design and engineering firm, 20,000 people strong, with over 90 offices. So, we work at a global scale. We’re really joined up globally, and we do all aspects of design. We are a very multidisciplinary firm. We started out as structural engineers. We are a firm that has major projects with the Sydney Opera House and the Center Pompidou. 

Arup is a cooperative. It became a cooperative in the 1970s, and so we have members that work globally, and we pride ourselves on our interdisciplinary design and practice something called Total Design, which is the more integrated, the more different disciplines working together, the better the outcomes in the built environment. Our main focus is on sustainable development, and in fact, the United Nations’ sustainable development goals are our mission statement for the company and we feel that we can really move the needle since we touched so many projects in the built environment globally, every year, we can really move the needle in that direction. 

Interesting. So, I’m curious about the sustainable development part of it. Is that a pivot that the company has made seeing where things are going, or is that kind of always been in the DNA or has been for some time? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: I’m really happy to say that sustainable development has always been in the DNA. Arup’s been a leader in this place and has been leading in these concepts of sustainable development for 30+ years, if not longer. There are certain professionals here, Joe De Silva, for example, in the UK, who have been leading in sustainable design and development thinking for over 30 years, and really, we are happy to see that the sustainable advice practice that we have as the world is caught up to really understanding that this is a priority and a necessity. So not a pivot at all. In fact, something that we’re just really happy to see is that everyone is focusing on it and prioritizing it as much as the firm is.

I was recently at a conference in Europe about digital signage. One of the major discussion points was what they coined as green signage and the whole idea of sustainability. I led a number of panels, one focused on the North American market, and I told the audience and confirmed it with the North American panelists.

While green signage is a big deal, and there’s a lot of discussion around sustainability in Europe and other parts of the world, it’s barely on the radar in the US and Canada, perhaps to a lesser degree, with a notable exception, maybe very large corporations, but most businesses really aren’t talking about it yet.

Gideon D’Arcangelo: I think that’s right that America tends to be and in Canada, North America tends to be a bit behind on this, and you get the leadership from Europe, from the UK, other parts of the world, I think, because resources are more constrained over there, frankly, and they’re getting to understand the limitations of resources.

They’re better than we do here yet, but everyone has come to terms with that quickly. So we tend to learn a lot from what’s happening in Europe and bring it to the Americas because we know it’s what’s coming next. 

Yeah. Some of the European guys were saying just about any RFP or tender that you get that’s right up top, they want to know about your sustainability point of view and practices as well. One of the American guys said that in the last three years, we’ve never seen it in a tender; it’s not even stipulated. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Yeah, it’ll get there. It’ll get there. It reminds me just of a project that I did at ESI back in 2015 for PNC Bank. PNC Bank, you may know, has just been a leader in the sustainable development of their real estate fleet for years, and there was a wonderful man named Gary Salson at the time, who was the director of real estate and commissioned the PNC Tower in downtown Pittsburgh, which at the time was the greenest sky riser and among the top 5 greenest sky rises on earth really pushed the envelope in terms of green design of a building.

I was at ESI at the time, and we were commissioned to create a digital display component, the sculpture component is part of the lobby experience. That was intended to give the building a voice and have it talk about how it was using resources or how it was saving resources really ahead of its time, fantastic project, and for that, we had to design our own canvas, our own display, because we couldn’t put a big energy hog in the building to tell the story of the building. It was an interesting design challenge. 

So you were at ESI for a whole bunch of years, right? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: I was at ESI for 24 years, so yeah, a long time. That’s where I grew up in my career. 

Fantastic experience. What was your role there by the time you moved on? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: I was in the organization’s leadership by the time I moved on. I also led our business development and marketing. In the end, there, I became a multidisciplinary creative director on some of our projects, for example, leading the design lead on this PNC Beacon Project.

I joined the firm as a UX designer. We called it an interactive media designer in the mid-90s when I joined the firm. 

Almost pre-digital. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Yeah, it was right at the cusp of all that stuff, and ESI was always leading edge in that regard, and we had a team of people that did interactive design when there were very few people in New York City at least the very few firms doing that at the time.

So that’s how I grew up doing UX/UI designs for Museum interfaces. I was always into working in the built environment, creating some interesting museums and corporate programs. But over time, being there as long as I could, I was able to move into the position of design lead, where I could speak to the different disciplines required to deliver these experiences.

So we have physical designers, technology designers, hardware folks, software designers in both front and backend software design, visual design, graphic design, both static and motion, and content people as well as writers who are in practice. Directing that whole team together, is how you get these comprehensive experiences, and so that was what I was doing at ESI by the end of my career. 

And it’s the kind of company that while it’s substantially in that particular space, in comparison to a rep or those kinds of companies quite small and you would have been contracted into projects like PNC and so on, as opposed to leading them versus I assume now with the rep that you guys are largely leading these projects. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: That’s right. It’s a different dynamic. When I moved to Arup, it was really about making a jump in scale and so from working in a 50-person boutique pioneering innovative firm in New York for a couple of decades, going to a global firm that’s operating at a whole different level of scale, really excited me, and I thought this was a really interesting place to experience design because it was being recognized in the marketplace in different ways.

Various architecture firms were building up their experience in design practices. Arup was really interesting to me because it’s primarily an engineering firm and so brings the deep technical acumen that no architecture firm could really bring to the table. So, I was attracted to a firm like Arup that could push into the next generation of experience design at much larger scales than we’ve ever seen it before. 

So would you be competing for jobs with the Populouses, Gensler, or are they a different element of it? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Again, it all just depends on the context. We work with the Populous. We work with Gensler all the time in various capacities on very big projects. There are ways to carve out scope for an Arup alongside our partners like populace and Gensler.

In some cases, we might find ourselves going up against each other for a certain piece of scope. All you know is that just happens in the course of business, depending on the client’s situation and the way the scope has been described. 

I’m guessing massive projects, but, at the end of the day, it’s still a fairly small community, like the folks that at Populous and Gensler are some of the other companies? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Yeah, for sure. It’s a tightly-knit world. We have a lot of respect for each other and we cross paths a lot at various, professional crossroads and conferences, that sort of thing. 

So how was it to go from a company where you knew what everybody else was doing, and you’re of the same mindset to ending up in meetings with civil engineers and people who were experts in water treatment facilities and so on? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Yeah, great question. I think that it was, first of all, exhilarating and inspiring, and invigorating. All of those things were really great. They were a catalyst for my thinking and what I wanted to do with my practice. I feel that the real part of being a good experience designer is being a good integrator of disciplines and being able to speak the language of multiple disciplines really fluently and so even at ESI, five different disciplines, it was not unusual, but a special mix of different expertise that were brought together. You had hardware people, you had people that knew about onsite construction and physical constructability, but you had people working on UX and UI design, and you had to be able to speak all those different languages, and dropped into Arup, suddenly 50 other languages to learn quickly, and, to really get, but there were many people that were interested in working with these integrated projects. So we have a fantastic lighting design here. We have acousticians of the highest order. We have fantastic AV designers but also even on the engineering side, we’ll bring in folks that are working on urban planning.

It was really interesting for me to find which folks resonated with what we were talking about. Actually, we did a project in Providence, Rhode Island, where Arup, led the master plan for what was called the unified vision for Downtown Providence. It was one of the early projects that I did here, supporting one of my colleagues in the Boston office, where we took an experienced design approach to planning how to renovate and reinvigorate Downtown, and for that, we were working on a larger scale than I’d ever worked before. It was a whole Downtown district. We’re putting experience design interventions into this plan, but we’re also looking at the engineering of the site and how to make it ready for public use in a variety of ways.

So we worked both on the front end and on the back end, and all the infrastructure was as much a part of our design as the front-end experience pieces. That’s what I was looking to do when I came here, and in fact, we did that, and it was a really interesting part of the design. It was so fascinating. We realized after a while that, after our Flood Modelers from the water team took a look at this and saw that the site was really going to be compromised in 50 years. We started to come up with a different design, building bridges, rather than digging tunnels, and a variety of things were done to actually shape the architecture of the site to anticipate the next 100 years and so I was like, that’s the kind of thing we can do at Arup with this really highly integrated set of disciplines all under one roof. 

Yeah, and that integration, I assume, is absolutely essential that you cannot operate in silos. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Exactly, and I think that’s been my skill, Dave, over the years: I’m a horizontally oriented person, and I’m a good interlocutor or translator. I can quickly pick up a language enough to understand what’s critical in that one group and, make sure that constraint maybe is understood by another group that can’t quite see it, and that’s how I think you get to highly integrated design and make sure basically keep people talking to each other and keep working with each other, because every organization fights with silos because it’s just the nature of larger organizations.

It can be deadly if that happens, though, right? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Exactly. It’s mission-critical, So Arup is, I think, smart in the fact that we have people that cut across as well, like myself, and I’m not the only one who cut across as well as we have deep expertise in our disciplines. 

You can go into an engineering meeting and not be bored to tears or completely confused by what’s going on.

Gideon D’Arcangelo: No, It’s fascinating. It was just wonderful, always intellectually stimulating, and a really, really amazing group of talent here. 

I have to say Arup came on my radar because of a post I wrote several weeks ago about JFK and one of the new terminals. I saw that your company was involved in that. Even though you’re huge, I’m old and stupid, and I was completely unaware that you guys existed. That was intriguing to me. What were you doing there? And is that a typical project? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: That is a project that I am leading so I can really give you a good view into that, and I think it’s an expression of all the things we have just been talking about the integration of multiple parts of a project that might in the past have been thought about as disparate or separate, and since the middle of 2022, Arup has been leading what the client calls the Art Branding and Digital Experience program of JFK New Terminal One and it came about because the Terminal has aspirations to be in the top terminals in the world when it opens in 2026, and it’s known that these elements: a proper art program, a proper branding and storytelling program, and digital experience installations are all part of creating a true 21st-century Airport Terminal, and also, this is part of the larger context of the overall upgrade that’s happening to all 3 of New York’s airports, LaGuardia, JFK and Newark, and some of those new terminals are already online. You may have seen what happened at LaGuardia Terminal B was fantastic, right? I’m a lifelong New Yorker, so I’m benefiting from this. 

Arup was deeply involved with Delta LaGuardia Terminal C. In fact, I did some work on that and Newark Terminal A just came online, so a lot of great stuff is happening from here. It’s a good time for that, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is leading that effort to really upgrade. And so as part of that, there’s a real demand for this art branding and digital experience piece and the idea was that while the architect was making the base building, and Gensler is the base building architect, a fantastic team from Gensler is leading that, the client was looking for one team to give a very integrated passenger experience for you of what that layer was that storytelling and a sense of placemaking was going to be on the architecture and that was going to be delivered through art branding as they called it and digital experience, and so we took on that role at the time, and so we’ve been leading the vision for that layer and for that storytelling and placemaking piece.

Since we started in 2022, we’ve gone through the strategy and design phases, and as you can imagine, 2026 isn’t that far away. We’re starting to move from design into production, and it was really key for that to make a strong narrative of what it meant to be coming into the New York airport and what’s great about new Terminal One, Dave is, it’s the only international terminal at JFK. People who are going to foreign lands are coming from foreign countries. So it’s that kind of population coming through, and we had to create an experience really could only happen in New York. It couldn’t be that this airport felt like something that was in Orlando or some other place it had to be for people coming from, coming, or New Yorkers departing or coming that it had to be something that could only happen in New York, and it’s good that I’m a native New Yorker and I’ve lived here my whole life. I have a good sense of that. I like to think and we were really helping craft that narrative.

We then put together a team to work with us, and so we brought onto our team, Eddie Opara from Pentagram is leading the branding effort. We brought on a wonderful art curator team called CultureCore, who we’ve worked with in the past, at Arup that is leading the art curation, and then Arup is leading the digital experience design aspect of that, creating a whole set of digital canvases that are integrated into the architecture and a real media architecture style way throughout the terminal experience, both on departures and arrivals, and then a company that you know about we brought on, just last year after about a year into the process we brought Gentilhomme out of Montreal to develop the digital content for those digital canvases. We have a really amazing team that we’re working with. 

Another cool part of this project is that the client asked us to collaborate with the advertising partner for the terminal, Clear Channel to have this art branding and digital experience program complement what they were doing and work hand in glove, like one experience.

I’m happy that our client had the vision to do that, and the teams worked really well together to make something that was really passenger-centric and focused on what passengers needed every step of the way so that they worked together. It’s they don’t, there’s no cacophony or competing for eyeballs and imagery. Instead, they work together because we work together and crafted the program. 

How practically would that work in terms of, when you say they’re working together, the digital at a home and the experiential art pieces? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Yeah, there are many examples of that.

Simply, we would work through each space and say, where are some of the high-value places where Clear Channel will do what they were doing and take that area, and then right next to that, we might put something that brings you into a New York sense of place, creating a moment, and so we went area by area and again, working together, it was going to really compose it together, I would say, and saying, hey, this area is good for that, and that area is good for that, and so one program came out of that. So that’s what I mean. 

Okay. So it means you’re not running into conflicts around things like sight lines and you can design this in a way that makes sense as opposed to designing a terminal and designing where the experiential digital pieces go and then Chird Channel comes in and say, okay, what’s left? Where can I put stuff? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Exactly, because you know, everyone’s important in this program and we did it. What’s cool about it, I think, was we took a human-centric or passenger-centric approach to make those decisions and just thought, how can we make a great experience for passengers, and meet all the needs of the advertising program, meet all the needs of the experience design program, and keep it all organized that way.

I’m just always curious how companies such as yours invest a lot of time and have a lot of deep conversations with their customers. How do you define experience? Because when I think of an airport, my idea of experience is perhaps different from some others.

I’m intrigued by the big experiential art things and LED video walls and so on, because that’s what I do. But for me, a great experience is wayfinding and status boards to tell me, “Am I late?” “Am I early?” “Where do I go?” All those sorts of things. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Those are also critical foundational parts of a quality experience. So that’s a great question. I just gave a talk last week to an aviation group, and that’s one of the things I said is wayfinding is the foundation of passenger experience design. 

It’s boring, but it’s incredibly important. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: It’s critical, and for a geek like myself, it’s not even boring and it’s just so key, and it’s not easy, and it’s always being innovated, and in fact, there’s a lot of innovation happening with digital in wayfinding now that we’re quite involved in, actually, not so much on New Terminal 1 project, but other airport terminals and other places. 

The functional experience design has to be right, and that’s critical things. I’ll just use an aviation example in a terminal. It’s crystal clear where you need to go. It’s crystal clear how much time it’s going to take you and how much time you may have. You might want features on a mobile device that help you understand how you can get on tethered from your gate and roam and shop and eat and do a variety of things before you get on your plane. Those are key, and then there’s the more ambient placemaking, sense of place environmental work also. 

In this case, what we’re doing with the New Terminal 1 is really that second category: creating that sense of place, telling that story, doing something that’s all only in New York and doing that through a variety of means. It is that a whole other program is, in fact, happening for New Terminal 1 and one of the things I didn’t mention. We also looked really hard at the wayfinding program to make sure that everything we were doing built off of that, too. There’s a whole other because you have to pay attention to that functional side.

We do work, though, in other environments where our team will get into the functional side as well as the ambient environmental side, because they really need to work together as one. 

I guess it changes with every project, but I’m curious, most typically, where does your team start and stop? Or where does Arup start and stop on a typical project? Or is there no such thing as typical? 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: There’s no such thing as typical, but of course, that’s a broad answer because every project is really interesting and unique. No, but we start early. We’re a whole life cycle company and we work with our clients that way because we are strategists. Still, we’re also builders wearing hard hats on site, making sure that everything got installed according to the strategy and the design, and the big movement right now, in my opinion, Dave, what’s happening in the built environment world is the shift from design and construction into operations is getting increasingly smoothed over and thought through in a different way.

So, a building was finished, and then people moved in, and there were various tasks like adding other things. “Add” is a term from air operational readiness that air airports used to shift from construction into operations because it has to work on day one; you can’t take a few days to get it right. It has to work the moment it opens, you open the door. So there’s a whole process, and Arup has that team. We can bring that to our clients as well, because our understanding of the design and construction process and the commissioning process at the very end, as it shifts into operations, gives us expertise in a way to make that as smooth as possible.

But beyond that, there is a whole movement of using the tools, the digital tools that you create and design and construction as models that then can be brought through into operations and putting sensors into the building and putting a variety of things into the design of the building, so as you move out of design and construction, you have a digital model of the building that you can help use to operate and maintain and work with facilities management and other teams that are helping that building to operate more efficiently once it’s opened. So, the long answer to your question is that we really will start when there’s a blank sheet of paper with our clients and help strategize what needs even to happen all the way through. Of course design is our main bread and butter. Of course, we stay on during construction to oversee construction to ensure it’s delivered as designed and then increasingly into operations in that whole life cycle.

I’m guessing that when your career started, digital was something that was perhaps added on, thought about later in the game, and I’m wondering now, is the visual digital components of big projects are now fundamental to the overall thinking? 

Like it’s not something that’s added on later. They’re talking about it right from inception. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Definitely. It’s a good insight, and I’ve seen that over the course of my now 30-year career to see the shift in that where initially we would have to work hard to convince the clients, even to consider some of these things, and then over time, about 10 years in, you started to see them showing up in a variety of ways and then increasingly they just become, as you say, just part of the program and assumed part of the program. But there’s still such a long way to go on that front. And I’ve always thought that this idea of digital and physical being separate is a design problem of our age. 

In a hundred years’ time, people will just see that we got through that design problem and just digital permeates everything you do because it’s, why wouldn’t it? It’s a smart way to go, and it’s an innovation and human ingenuity and history. So right now there’s a lot of work for bringing the digital mindset into every aspect of life, and particularly into the built environment. The built environment has been slow to pick up on this. So construction is really now in this kind of really exciting phase, the virtual design and construction where these digital tools are coming in and taking off, but there’s a long way to go. I like to think of Arup as a leader in digital-physical integration, that’s a task of our day, digital-physical integration.

It’s not like digital something off on the side, but then you do it at the end or do it in a box. Instead, you think of it from the very beginning and build it into every aspect of how you design, deliver, and operate the project. 

Yeah. I think it’s exciting that we’re getting very close to a level that LED displays, both physical ones and ones that are embedded in glass, and things like that can now be thought about as building materials that you can use as a wall. Is it necessarily going to be mahogany or travertine tile or whatever. It can be like LEDs that can be changeable when as much as they need to be changeable. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Absolutely. I worked with Michael Schneider when he was at ESI, with me. We often talked about that as we talked about media architecture as that was an emerging term in the field. One of the things I really am grateful for working with ESI was the idea that media wasn’t something that you attach to an environment in creating an interactive environment, you actually were working with this audio-visual material as you say, that becomes part of the architecture, and what’s interesting about that though is then the client for that gets confusing because if you’re putting in travertine or mahogany, you’re talking to one side of the client, the design and construction folks. As soon as you put a dynamic piece of media in, who are you talking to? You’re talking to that same client who’s responsible for building that space. But suddenly you’re also talking to the director of communications and the director of marketing and the storytelling people of the company.

And that was something that I’ve always seen about this field. You needed to be able to talk to storytellers. That would be your CMOs, your directors of communications, your chief communication officers, as much as you could talk to the the head of real estate, that’s building something.

Where it worked well, you got leadership from both sides on the client that really understood what you were doing. As you put this material into the building, there’s still the question of what it’s doing. What story is it telling? Who’s maintaining it over time? What’s the content strategy? And that’s what made it really exciting because it’s different from putting a static tile on the wall.

As soon as you put a media, an LED tile on the wall, it has a whole different governance aspect to it that is very modern, and I think now it is becoming standard. People expect that in their buildings. 

All right. That was terrific. I know a lot more about Arup than I certainly did half an hour ago, and I suspect it’ll be the same for a lot of listeners.

Gideon D’Arcangelo: That’s great. Thank you, Dave. 

I appreciate your time. 

Gideon D’Arcangelo: Likewise. Great to talk with you.

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