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What is the Triforium, and why should we rehabilitate it?

by Tom Carroll | Off-Ramp®

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Built in 1975, the Triforium sits atop the Los Angeles Mall at the corner of Main and Temple in Downtown Los Angeles Frederick Dennstedt/Flickr Creative Commons

On December 11, join supporters of the Triforium downtown for the sculpture's 40th birthday party, and learn more about the effort to change this white elephant into the full realization of Joseph Young's original intent. The Triforium Project celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Triforium on Dec. 11 at Fletcher Bowron Square (Temple and Main LA CA 90012) from 4 to 8pm. There will be cake and tours of the usually verboten Triforium control room.

When artist Joseph Young described the Triforium — his gargantuan, multi-colored public art project to the people of Los Angeles in 1975 ‚ he coined a new word: Polyphonoptic.

"The rosetta stone of art and technology,” he called the sculpture, which sits on the corner of Temple and Main Street in downtown Los Angeles. It didn't look like anything Angelenos had seen before.

Standing six stories tall, and weighing 60 tons, the Triforium is made of three separate off-white concrete wishbones joined together by an inner circular frame. The wishbones hold up 1,494 hand-blown Italian glass prisms in every major color of the spectrum. The sculpture would define Young's career, who died in 2007.

But after 40 years, the sculpture sits, neglected, perched on top of the Los Angeles Mall. Most of its lights have gone dim, homeless people’s shopping carts dot the square, the organ that once provided the music for the sculpture has been ripped out.

With its 40th birthday approaching, it's worth asking: why should we save it? And how did we get here?

When the Triforium debuted to the public on December 11, 1975, it was a crisp evening. There was a 30 minute delay — the speakers weren’t working. Like a foghorn, feedback boomed out. Mayor Tom Bradley shouted his speech, desperate to be heard: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Triforium!"

City Council President John S. Gibson Jr. also stepped up to the podium. Wanting to be clear about his disdain for the sculpture, he took a public pot-shot: “This is not a jukebox. You don’t have to put a quarter in it,” as if a normal passerby could confuse the two.

What the public saw the night of the Triforium’s debut was “the world’s first polyphonoptic tower” — as Young called it — marrying light and sound in a way that had never been done before in public art. Here's a  video of an organist performing "Jingle Bells" on the Triforium:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itnre5GshZc 

In a perfect world, every note of the 79-note glass bell carillon would correspond with a certain color. If the note was played softly, then the light would appear dim. If played loudly, then the light would shine bright — sort of like the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

Video

But from the start, the Triforium had issues with its computer system — and cost overruns. The sculpture ended up costing well over double its $350,000 budget. A month after its debut, the L.A. Times ran an article detailing its electrical issues.

Rather than the synthesis between art and technology, the sculpture seemed to only demonstrate its limits.

The Triforium entered into the world buttressed by the lofty rhetoric of its creator — but does it deliver?

"I don’t know that it does," said Ken Bernstein, a historian for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. "Personally, I admire the Triforium as an artistic work and as an artifact of technology. I’m not sure it quite has risen to that level in part because the technology has been spotty in terms of its endurance. It has required frequent repairs."

This idea of bridging the gap between art and technology carried weight in the early '70s. LACMA mounted a show in 1971 called “Art and Technology,” pairing famous artists with giant corporations. The show asked, “What kind of art is relevant in the space age?”

By the 1970s, Joseph Young was a very accomplished mosaic artist. His mosaic reliefs graced the sides of several large buildings throughout the U.S. How did this mosaic artist make the jump to large scale, technologically based public sculpture?

"This was the first piece he’d done, this scope," said Leslie Young, the artist's eldest daughter. "[It] was designed to be like the center of a piazza. My parents lived in Rome when they first got married. When he designed the Triforium, he wanted to see that place become a gathering place. I think that he was greatly disappointed that the city didn’t have the long range plan in place to support that."

In its 40 years, the sculpture has been rehabilitated, usually in fits and starts. "In 2006, soon after it turned 30, the Triforium got a facelift. Qathryn Brehmn, the director of the downtown L.A. art walk, led the charge. Her love of the sculpture goes back decades. She recalls seeing it for the first time and being fascinated by the work. But she soon realized she was in the minority.

"Living downtown and dealing with the civic center a lot and being an artist downtown and being involved with several other things that were downtown, I started realizing that people didn’t like it," she said.

Jump to 2005 and Brehmn's love for the Triforium never died, but the artwork fell into disrepair. She made a case for preserving the sculpture to then-Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district contained the Triforium. Perry had the city replace most of the 1,494 light bulbs and clean out most of the light boxes — dimmed considerably after 30 years of pigeons roosting.

A handful of Angelenos came to celebrate the newly restored work:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9jHsVD-JsM

But today, the sculpture sits again in disrepair. Roughly 5 percent of the lights will flicker on seemingly randomly. The music was turned off in the late '90s after a judge in the federal courthouse complained of noise.

Looking back the on legacy of the Triforium, the sculpture's greatest champion in politics was probably the first person to present it: Mayor Tom Bradley. Because of his shepherding, not only was the Triforium fully funded but music played underneath it during the entirety of his mayorship.

A few months after that dedication ceremony, Bradley spoke to a class of 6th Graders. He took questions about gun control; about school funding, too. But even there, he couldn't escape a question about Los Angeles’s newest piece of public art.

He answered the child curtly and clearly: “It’s ours now, so we’re going to have to live with it. More than that, we’re going to learn to be proud of it.”

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