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LAX's New Tom Bradley International Terminal Is Better Than It Used To Be. But Our Airport Still Has Issues

Still finishing up
Still finishing up
Wendy Gilmartin

Days before he hands the city over to Eric Garcetti, outgoing Mayor Villaraigosa thanked everyone for helping to open the renovated Tom Bradley International terminal at LAX before he stepped down.

"I'm glad they did it now," said Villaraigosa at a morning press conference Thursday, confident in his insistence that the terminal be opened before he left office, "because in L.A. these things can go on longer than anyone ever intended."

The debate will surely go on about Villaraigosa's intentions in opening the still-being-worked-on terminal -- perhaps it was more about grabbing credit so that it didn't go to Garcetti -- but what was most significant about Thursday's unveiling of the new terminal building to the press (not the public) was the relieved sense of accomplishment that the new building was better than what was there before.

Media screens in the "Great Hall"
Media screens in the "Great Hall"
wendy Gilmartin

The original Tom Bradley Terminal was executed quickly and cheaply for the 1984 Olympics. Over the years, the hodgepodge of spaces made for passenger waiting areas like hovels with dim lights, bad vibes and a warehouse-like arrival area that was too small for the crowded flights unloading onto its floor. The old Tom Bradley customs and baggage terminal was, on one hand, a free-for-all anthropological wonder with hundreds of languages in the air, but on the other fraught with madness and confusion, a nightmare of way-finding, with unmoving, sleep-deprived, frustrated queues of humanity.

Today's "Great Hall" is one soaring, 110-foot-tall centenary curve, slicing into dissipating, smaller (but still soaring) curves that straddle the main space and act as the subservient waiting terminals for passengers. The spaces in between the intersecting curves form expansive, angled windows to the west and east.

Architect Tom Walsh of Denver-based Fentress Architects, said the initial location of the entire structure was supposed to be out in the midway. "It would've been detached from the rest of the airport and accessed by an underground corridor," explained Walsh. "We saved a lot of headaches attaching to the existing terminal. We would've disrupted the whole taxi way."

Fentress Architects are for sure experienced in designing airports, and the Pacific Ocean wave iconography of the LAX building is undeniable (it's an idea much like their peak-roofed Denver International Airport that emulates the Rocky Mountains). But Fentress' airports in Denver and others like the one in Incheon, Korea were built on clean slates. Incheon is practically on its own island. Denver International's nearest highway is two miles from the runway and the complex is surrounded on all sides by a meadow. LAX, on the other hand, is surrounded on all four sides by highway, ocean and landing strips.

Of LAX, Greg Lindsay, author of the book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, has said, "When LAX was first built, it was criticized because the field was seen as too far from downtown -- today, you have an airport that's basically landlocked on all sides, and has been for almost fifty years." Thanks also to Orange County's long standing disfunctionalism towards developing an international airport, LAX is the only game in town . for a square 300 miles. From the start, the LAX team, the mayor and the architects involved knew any physical expansion would be a dicey endeavor. And in the end, all LAX could really do is re-arrange itself in the space it already has. That's why LAX's planners decided to concentrate on improvements to the user experience (doubling the size of the terminal, better flow of baggage, better dining options) and the wow-factor of the building.

More media
More media
Wendy Gilmartin

Passengers are greeted in the new terminal by a 120-foot long LED media screen with an eye-popping, high definition loop of foamy waves, surfers and sunsets. Crystalline storefront displays offer immaculate watches and clutches that lure shoppers into a duty-free zone of delights among fragrance-spritzing and tobacco-hawking femme-bots. There are shops and shops -- Gucci, Bvlgari and Petrossian caviar bar. LAX made sure to include local restaurateurs like Larder at Tavern, Border Grill and Umami Burger too, in a move to promote L.A.'s small(er) businesses and entrepreneurs.

Public art pieces by locals Pae White and Ball Nogues studio are also featured in the new terminal. Thanks to Santa Monica architects Montalba Architects, the onslaught of media blitz and retail options are finessed with an eye-catching spatial cohesiveness and organization, without cluttering the impressive, natural-light infused hall.

But there's a catch: LAX's planners and builders have fallen in line with many other modern airports to cater to a certain type of wealthy world traveller from China, Korea, Russia or Dubai. They've intentionally, decisively forgotten that students, immigrants, and young families from places like Honduras, Laos and Pakistan will also filter through this hall.

The focus on the glitzy new terminal helps us ignore that in some other countries, a more complicated, urbanistic, third type of approach to airport infrastructure harnesses the 24-hour economic engine of Fedex-DSL-UPS globalism. Paris has taken coordinated steps towards developing and promoting the region itself -- the "airport city" -- towards a proliferation of business parks, research & development centers, shopping centers and other new businesses. They've realized that all the areas within the large perimeter around their airports are themselves becoming strategic sites for global activities. If the same task force were applied in LAX's neighboring communities like Inglewood, Hawthorne and Ladera Heights, that could be a more impactful way to reinforce our international notoriety. But it wouldn't make a very good photo op.

To be fair, with construction going strong since its groundbreaking in 2009, the Tom Bradley renovation and addition project was surely a construction and planning jobs generator. But throughout the festivities Thursday, even as the team was eager to explain that the design came from the community, one had to wonder what will the average Angeleno get out of it?

Boosters and the Mayor will say more revenue and jobs. The team continually alluded to the participation of the community in their design, citing an early workshop in which residents (they didn't tell us what residents exactly) were asked, "What is L.A. to you?" Answers given were "environment," "go to the beach," "coastline," natural flow," "modern," "convertibles," "movement" and "ocean," to name a few of the 500 words gathered during the concept phase. These words and phrases were then taken into the architect's studio and utilized as inspiration towards evolving the core idea for the building design. "The design inspiration came from Los Angeles itself -- the community and the environment," said the lead architect, Curt Fentress.

Thanks for your inspiration L.A. -- have a good look as you drive past on the 105.

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