A string of translucent monoliths is emerging along the center median of Century Boulevard, culminating in a huge ring of more monoliths at the threshold of Los Angeles International Airport.
"Some people say it's a psychedelic Stonehenge. Some people see Popsicles," says architect Ted Tokio Tanaka. "That's great. Everyone's going to have their own interpretation."
Get ready for the world's largest permanent lighting installation, a key component of the $100 million welcome mat LAX is putting out in time to greet attendees as they arrive next month for the Democratic National Convention.
Early next month, the glass pylons will come ablaze with colored lights at night. Fifteen computer-controlled lighting programs will be showcased, taking three hours to complete the cycle. Periodically, different artists will be brought in to reprogram the light show.
Starting at Aviation Boulevard, 15 pylons will ascend from 25 feet to 60 feet in height along Century to suggest the experience of takeoff. Fifteen more pylons, each 100 feet high, will form a ring at Century and Sepulveda boulevards.
Los Angeles World Airports is spending the $100 million to execute its LAX Enhancements Project which includes the pylons, new signage, streetlights, sidewalks, street furniture around the terminal loop, hundreds of palm trees lining Century Boulevard and lots of other landscaping. Huge "LAX" letters are being installed near the airport entrance and a "Welcome" sign in several languages will greet new arrivals as they drive off the LAX property and onto Century Boulevard.
Creating a landmark
"Our charge was really to design a gateway not only into LAX, but into the U.S., California and the city of L.A. It's a real landmark icon that can speak to a global audience," said Robin Perkins, president of Selbert Perkins Design, which created the pylons and lettering for the LAX sign.
Workers are pushing to get the pylons and much of the landscaping installed by the time delegates start streaming into L.A. for the Democratic National Convention, which kicks off Aug. 14. The pylons will be lit even sooner by Mayor Richard Riordan, in a ceremony on Aug. 2.
Towering as high as a three-story building, the 30 pylons promise to be the most striking element of the entire undertaking. Undoubtedly, some people will be enchanted and others will scratch their heads.
Already, the art project has generated controversy. Critics say the money would have been better spent improving traffic conditions around the airport. The Cultural Affairs Commission approved the art on a 5-2 vote.
Alycia Enciso, who cast a dissenting vote, said she was concerned that, "It might be too much. I didn't want it to be Las Vegas. I want it to be sophisticated. Our main concern is that it be done tastefully."
Lee Ramer, president of the commission, said she was troubled with the approval process, which seemed rushed because of the convention. The commission approved the project in May, after construction had already started.
"It went too far before it came to us," she said. "It had gone very far for us to say no. It was almost too late for input."
Some politicians higher on the scale aren't too thrilled, either. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes the LAX area, is among those who thinks the money would have been better spent elsewhere.
"I think these pylons are nuts. I can't believe we're spending money on all this," she said. "We ought to be spending money marketing Ontario (Airport as an alternative to LAX)."
Nonetheless, Ramer and Enciso both said they're feeling more positive about the pylons now that they're taking shape. Said Enciso, "Maybe I'm happy I was outvoted."
Supporters say the overall project will not only improve the area's ambiance, it will make the airport more convenient and functional, helping people easily navigate within the airport property and along the main approaches. It will also impart a sense of identity to LAX and help revitalize Century Boulevard, where signs blaring the word "Nude" on adult entertainment venues are among the more prominent landmarks.
"We're trying to make (LAX) not only a more visual icon of L.A., but also (improve) the clarity of signs and freshness of the facilities," said John Agoglia, president of the Board of Airport Commissioners. "The airport gets a tremendous amount of use."
Tanaka, the principal designer, noted that the airport is the busiest public facility in the region, and few major upgrades have been undertaken there since the 1984 Olympics.
Support from community
Property owners on Century Boulevard say the beautification project will further boost the once-beleaguered corridor, which has been on a gradual upswing as the real estate market has tightened on the Westside.
"It's definitely adding to an area that's already up-and-coming now," said Jim Bowers with PM Realty, director of leasing for three office buildings on Century. "It needed some type of pizzazz here."
During daylight hours, the pylons resemble huge columns sheathed in soft, translucent greenish glass, with a hint of the steel frame infrastructure within. It's indeed a different story at nightfall, when they'll light up with 300 different colors.
"Our intent was to have it be dynamic, a color symphony," Perkins said.
Tanaka said the colors won't change too fast, because designers didn't want the effect to be distracting. He thinks it has the potential to become an L.A. icon.
"Hopefully, when they show Hollywood movies, they will show this shot to give identity to L.A., like the Hollywood sign," he said. "It makes you feel you have arrived. For people who live here, they can feel they're home."
A more purely practical aspect of the enhancement project the new, user-friendly signage system will be in place before the end of the year. The signs indicating which airlines are located at which terminals will begin much farther down Century Boulevard; currently, drivers are practically into the airport before they see the first signs. Silver-colored terminal numbers will be 20 feet high.
"The intention is to set up an easy, simple introduction, so by the time you got into the actual terminal, you're really just looking for a big number and where to park," Perkins said.
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