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Long Live the Triforium! Reviving LA’s Public Art Boondoggle

Joseph Young's Triforium at Fletcher Bowron Square, Los Angeles (image by Downtowngal / Wikimedia)
Joseph Young’s Triforium at Fletcher Bowron Square, Los Angeles (image by Downtowngal / Wikimedia)

LOS ANGELES — The Triforium was supposed to be a beacon for Los Angeles’ future, but critics disparage the 60 tons of reinforced concrete, glass, and steel across from City Hall by calling it the “Trifoolery” and “Kitsch-22 of Kinetic Sculpture,” among other epithets. Forty years after its completion, the public artwork has yet to fulfill the vision of its creator Joseph Young, but with the efforts of a group of artists and enthusiasts, the lights and sounds of the world’s first “poly-phonoptic” tower may bring a bit of life to a drab, uninspiring part of Downtown LA.

The Triforium Project is working to change the sculpture’s reputation as a bloated piece of public art, despite the fact that it cost the city $925,000 in the mid-1970s and that its utopian vision has mostly been forgotten by Angelenos. Among the project’s organizers are Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt, members of the band YACHT and founders of the app 5 Every Day, and Tom Carroll, host of the webseries Tom Explores Los Angeles. They join a coalition of artists and civic leaders who have long advocated for the Triforium as an important feature of the city’s downtown neighborhood.

Tom has been wanting to restore the Triforium for years, and we’ve been on board since the first time he shared the idea with us,” Claire Evans wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “It resonates with us because it’s both future-thinking and history-respecting, taking the best of something from Los Angeles’ past and reimagining it for a totally different world, a new generation, a changed city.”

Architectural rendering of the Triforium (courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)
Architectural rendering of the Triforium (all images courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library unless noted) (click to enlarge)

Artist Joseph Young originally planned the sculpture as a kinetic installation of 1,494 glass prisms and a 79-bell carillon that would emit light and sound by detecting motion. One of its unfinished features, inspired by the early convergence of art and technology, included laser beams projected into space, which would have made the Triforium the world’s first astronomical beacon. But troubled by engineering challenges, earthquake retrofits, and escalating costs, the Triforium was unveiled in 1975 with its motion sensor and lasers unrealized and its computer and carillon not fully functional.

I hate to say it, but he may have bit off more than he could chew,” Tom Carroll told Hyperallergic. “But I think he really believed in the project. He said that this would be on par with the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He wanted to create a sculptural icon that would represent Los Angeles.”

The Triforium remained in limbo for decades, too costly to either fix or demolish. Today its incandescent light bulbs have mostly burnt out, nine years after an earlier attempt at restoring the sculpture allocated some city funds to replace them. Its carillon has been removed from the central console, passing into private ownership. Young’s tribute to the kaleidoscopic nature of Los Angeles sits neglected by the city-owned Los Angeles Mall, a subterranean retail space that was once the impetus for the Triforium’s commission.

1977 Los Angeles Herald-Examiner article about the Triforium's political troubles (image courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)
1977 Los Angeles Herald-Examiner article about the Triforium’s political troubles (click to enlarge)

“Our first imperative will be to retrofit the Triforium with technologies unavailable to Joseph Young in 1975,” Evans wrote. “Instead of incandescent bulbs, we want to put in LED lights, which will last much longer and use less power. And instead of a room-size computer with archaic software, a much smaller, faster, more flexible system that can be updated and debugged regularly. But the issue of long-term upkeep remains a problem to which the only real solution will be partnership with the city of Los Angeles.”

Another of the project’s proposed solutions is the creation of an app that would allow visitors to the Triforium to program basic melodies and lights, making the sculpture interactive, as the artist originally intended. A custom analog synthesizer could also take the place of the carillon. The idea is to renovate the sculpture at low cost and with simple upkeep, reconciling the artist’s retro-futurist ideas with technology that is readily accessible today.

Joseph Young, who passed away in 2007, left behind several other artworks in public and municipal sites, like the UCLA mathematics building and the Los Angeles County Hall of Records, just two blocks away from the Triforium. What’s remarkable about the 1975 sculpture is how much it diverges from the more traditional mosaic art for which he was known, and how much it reflects his era’s earnest utopian vision. While detractors may dismiss the Triforium as outdated kitsch, it maintains a devoted following among those who believe the project was ahead of its time.

“I wouldn’t peg the Triforium as lowbrow, although it’s representative of a very ’70s vision of the future that feels woefully utopian in the rearview,” Evans wrote. “But maybe we need some of that utopian spirit right now. The future is only as cool as you make it.”

The fate of the Triforium may ultimately be tied to the future of the Los Angeles Mall and the development of Downtown LA. The mall mostly clears out on weekdays after nearby government and business workers go home for the day, and city planners have contemplated how to make better use of the space as determined by the city’s need for more housing and municipal offices.

Early rendering of the Los Angeles Mall (image courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)
Early rendering of the Los Angeles Mall

“Any visitor to Downtown who goes to LA Mall could easily say, ‘This is a big waste of space,’” Carroll said. “It’s not utilized on weekends and at night. I would say the Triforium is under a little bit of a threat… Space is a huge issue in Los Angeles, and people live with very high rents. We need a better use of space and a more walkable city, so that equals density. The LA Mall is not dense whatsoever.”

With enough public support, though, there’s reason to hope that the city will embrace the Triforium just as it has embraced other public sculptures, like Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. With the Department of Cultural Affairs’ first public art biennial scheduled for next year, LA now more than ever seems to be recognizing the importance of public art.

The Triforium Project begins with a 40th-anniversary celebration of the sculpture on December 11, with live music, free tours of the sculpture’s control room, and talks by architectural historian Daniel Paul and daughter of the artist Leslie Young.

“The Triforium was initially commissioned because the developer of the LA Mall wanted something that would lure pedestrians and look compelling after dark,” Evans wrote. “Those goals are still legitimate. So beyond honoring an artwork that never really got a fair shake, we see the restoration of the Triforium as a beacon for the new and improving Los Angeles.”


The Triforium Project
celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Triforium on December 11 at Fletcher Bowron Square (Temple Street and Main Street, Los Angeles) from 4 to 8pm.

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