August 03, 2017

Photo Essay: The Triforium, A Disco Spaceship Gone Dark

You might argue that LA has no real city monument like the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben.

Sure, we have the Hollywood Sign—but, at best, it's a piece of vintage propaganda and nostalgia advertising a neighborhood that's inside the city limits of LA but doesn't necessarily define LA.

For decades, we had our City Hall and its pyramid-topped obelisk-like tower as our tallest monument, but that's long since been surpassed by several other skyscrapers, including the U.S. Bank Tower and the Wilshire Grand.

Besides, I don't know if anyone outside of LA—much less around the world—would even recognize our skyline, much less any of its individual buildings.

But right around the corner from City Hall is another monument—a much shorter one that's even less of a widely-accepted symbol of the City of Angeles.

It's both baffling and misunderstood—at times described as "three wishbones in search of a turkey," "The Psychedelic Nickelodeon," and "The Schlockenspiel." In fact, it's probably the most controversial piece of public art in LA.

It's the Triforium, a three-pronged, six-story public art piece that has been silenced since the 1980s and has stood inert for decades. Outfitted with dozens of incandescent bulbs, most have broken or simply stopped burning by now.

The last time anyone managed to flip the switch (about a year and a half ago), only about 20 percent of the lights turned on. And no one has tried since, since no one knows whether turning it on is even safe.

Originally intended as an interactive, technologically-advanced sculpture of sound, color, and light, it never quite reached its full potential. Laser beams were supposed to shoot out up into space from the top, blinking "Los Angeles" in Morse code to whichever extraterrestrial entities out there might heed the astrological beacon.

Back in 1975, when it made its debut in Downtown's Civic Center district, it was supposed to blow your mind. Instead, the disco-tinged chimes of the bell tower fell on the Southland with a resounding thud.

What its creator, mosaicist Joseph Young, originally intended for the kaleidoscopic, futuristic sculpture may have been too ambitious (or audacious) for its time, but no one got to see that intention come to fruition. It was never truly interactive. It could never have been considered kinetic.

So, while the Venetian glass prisms that light up from the inside are beautiful, even just when they catch the sunlight just right, they seem to have become most popular with the birds that roost there.

Apparently rats once found their way in, too, as did frogs into the surrounding water features (which have since been paved over). Who knows what's found its way into the time capsule that was buried directly underneath?!

The Triforium was a spectacular flop among art critics and city workers alike, who derided both the art and the artist—but it's important to understand that Joseph Young wasn't happy with it, either. As it was, the advances of the time just weren't advanced enough for what Young's vision of the future was. So, he ended up settling with what he could get, just to have the project—whose budget was already bloated—done and over with.

That included sacrificing a Moog synthesizer and instead using a set of 79 glass carillon bells (a perfectly antiquated method of making music!), custom-built by German-Swiss glassblower and musical instrument inventor Gerhard Finkenbeiner (better known for his custom version of Ben Franklin's "glass armonica" and for his mysterious disappearance in 1999).

In the 1980s, the City of Los Angeles—which owned and operated the Triforium, much to its chagrin—sold the bells at auction and replaced them with a digital carillon.

In the 1990s, the digital chiming bells were replaced by a CD player, whose musical selections went off the rails, foregoing bell tower classics for the pop hits of the time. So much for its retro-futurism.

The Sbarro's employees who worked across the way from the Control Room at the were tasked with turning it on and off every day probably had no clue that the Triforium was (and is) a musical instrument, meant to be played live. And that automating the musical selections would take the humanity out of it.

Today, the closed-off control room is a kind of time capsule of its own, with a positively ancient Teletype machine and its rolls of tape.

Located in an underground bunker, what's left in the room shows what was necessary to operate such a multimedia spectacle at the time...

...though much of it has been disabled...

...and the rest of it, removed by bolt cutters.

Thankfully, the Triforium didn't ruin Young's career working with tile, but the folly of this so-called "million-dollar jukebox" was so great that the artist hosted a "memorial service" for it just two years after it first opened.

Young never again ventured beyond the decorative arts—and especially not into technology.

I would argue that if the Triforium were to land on our modern art scene today, people would be lining up in hordes to witness—and capture—the flashing lights and colors beaming out of this cathedral of sound, music, and light.

Fortunately, I'm not the only one who thinks so.

In fact, this technological artifact has captured the imaginations of a new generation of art lovers—particularly those with an affinity for the quirky, the oddball, and the otherworldly—who are trying to not only preserve it but also to leverage four decades' worth of technological developments to make the Triforium do what it was always meant to do (but never got the chance).

Interestingly, two of the advocates of giving the Triforium a second chance are themselves musicians—members of the dance-pop band YACHT. They've said that part of what drives them is that they want to try their hands at playing the darn thing.

But beyond that, there's a real emotional connection to be had with an artist whose dreams were dashed and who died before interest in his work had truly renewed.

Maybe it's time for the Triforium to stop suffering from all the indignities of the last 40 years. But that means if it's brought back, it has to be done right.

Otherwise, we'll have to learn to love the Triforium as a static display of a rocketship-shaped belfry that's been grounded and muted, its lights of many colors forever extinguished in the night.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: To the Bell Tower
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