Walking through history at LAX
Mon, 7 Jan 2002 21:11:27 -0800
I'm waiting at Encounter to meet someone, so I felt like exercising
my ol' trivia muscles to see if I can still write...
Encounter is the renovated UFO-themed, Disney Imagineered restaurant
perched within the spidery Theme Building at the heart of LAX. It's a
1997 implementation of a past future: what we thought 2001 would have
been back when the building opened in 1960. You can see more at:
It recently reopened after 9/11. The ol' Observation Deck atop it
seems closed for good, which is a sad loss for us civilian jet buffs.
Anyway, what got my laptop open is what I'd learned *walking* to the
Like most things in Southern California, a human structure has to be
driven, never walked. It reveals too many of the seams of history to
savor things on foot.
I wish I had had a digital camera for the last few minutes, but that,
too, might have me branded a terrorist. But from the moment you get
off of the jetway, you should put on your 4-D glasses and see the
decades creep by.
* The logo-color themed carpeting on the jetway. Imagine an era where
airlines were as permanent as airports -- because this airline has
long changed its colors. Modern amenities, you'll find are completely
brandless, ready to be occupied by top dollar. Even Denver...
* The circular rotunda arrangement of gates. Back when ring-and-spoke
was the ne plus ultra of gate layout. You can see the modern plan of
arbitrarily extensible long boxes with people-movers around the
corner at Tom Bradley International Terminal.
* The sign for "more phones at gate 37" -- a capacity mis-planning
addressed by 1984 Olympics-era signage -- and now re-obsoleted by
* The dark brown wood paneling of the 20-sided polygon that is the
rotunda -- complete with exposed aluminium spacers and hexagonal,
spherical light sconces. Those spheres of light were what we thought
of as civilized before cheaper baffled fluorescents, I suppose.
* The hidden upstairs of an airport is always the least-renovated and
most revealing. Look for the ornate-built in drinking fountain
openings in the tile, now bypassed unused on the way to the food
* Take the escalator down to the tunnel to baggage claim: There's a
foot-high, 6-inch deep sculpted "Los Angeles" in Helvetica, also from
1984. It's a low, tiled construct, a tunneling style you don't see
anymore. I'm not an engineer enough why, to explain the tilting,
overlapping wall plates.
* And here is the element that most directly provoked the tour: there
are low, added-on signs for "Baggage Claim ahead" in a clean '84
white. BUT ON THE BACK... if you do look backwards, which no one
leaving ever would, you see the yellow detritus of a more innocent
age: "CURRENCY EXCHANGE AHEAD".
* That's right: The hulking, double-size pair of revolving doors at
the long end are the artifacts of the 1970's highjacking scares: the
end of the Sterile Zone. The perimeter of real-life has been pushed
progressively further and further away from the airport, that bubble
of artifice and commerce that grimly replaces public spaces.
You see, this tunnel used to be the *entrance* to the 1960's airport.
Back when there wasn't even an upper roadway (which went in for the
Olympics). This was the main concourse, flowing in both directions.
* Instead, now you see the huddled masses of waiting relatives on the
other side of plate glass, just like third-world airports.
* And when you turn the corner, the 4-D glasses reveal even more
contradictions. You can see the original low, stucco ceilings of
"built-in" baggage claim machines. The INFAX black-and-white analog
monitor distribution systems. The shuttered Baggage Service Office in
the corner with its old logo neatly taped over, three mismatched
guestchairs abandoned in the darkness.
* Above, a lit-up 2x2 sign for "BAGGAGE CLAIM AREA" -- as though
there were only one! -- made of colored-plastic letters pasted onto
milky plastic, straight out of 2001 (the movie). Of course, over
time, there are more layers of branding: a thin, freestanding, but
infintely more colorful, detailed, and cheaper Alaska Airlines logo
has been glued onto the carousel itself.
* Walk outside, and you can see the latest generation of 21st century
addons come into view as well: new benches in sleek brushed aluminum,
carefully arched to support waiting travelers, yet dispose of
sleeping bums. Cigar-tubed airline-aisle signs in purple float
overhead (now conveniently replacable for mergers and bankruptcies!).
The entire Bus signage of the outer island redone in the same look
(instead of the cloyingly crayola colored-support-beam coding before
* Walk, and you can see boarded-over entrances, now insecure. Old
smoking alcoves. Tiled columns. Carpeted columns (from the 80s).
Escalator signs predating AIGA-standard iconography. A riot of 60's
block lettering, 70's Helvetica, 80's Univers, and 90's Franklin
Gothic, all competing to replay the same message (Taxi!).
* And now, from up here on high, in a restaurant whose decor cost
twice as much as the original building it's in (yep!), you can still
see the layers: the old control tower, squat and International,
across from the vastly larger and in-your-face-feminine replacement
(Yes, all female architects. You can get a pressrelease full of
propaganda about it in the Theme Building lobby -- bet you didn't
know the shapes hides an L, an A, and an X -- or that the blob of
LED's is supposed to be a endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly)
And most forlorn, the aerial detail I hope is still there to show my
neices and nephews. Even as parking lots go up and down, then
abandoned by security, then reconfigured -- even as plans simmer for
a new airport entirely at the beach-side of the property -- I hope
they'll still have these old bell towers blaring the Terminal Number
in brown metal and white lights.
You can barely notice them anymore -- once, they towered over
everything, probably visible from the 405. Now lost between the upper
level roadway (walk underneath and see how tenuous its connection to
the terminals is!), it seems that no one has remembered to tear them
But from up here, you can still see the dead hand of the original
designers attempting to give a consistent, clockwork view of the
terminals on the dial.
Even if they have been upstaged by the clockface rotunda of silly
translucent-green-glass columns twice as high, posing
smokestacks-as-art at the entryway.
It has to be bigger, you see: It's scaled as art you can read at 35
miles per hour!
Flying into a traffic jam,