It’s a blustery Friday night in downtown L.A., but dozens of people are gathered at the corner of Temple and Main to celebrate the 40th birthday of something that used to be a city joke.
Looking like a surrealist rocket, the Triforium, a six-story tower formed of three wishbone-shaped supports lined with strips of nearly 1,500 colored glass boxes, was a big deal when in 1975 it was revealed to Angelenos hungry for a glimpse of the future.
Sculptor Joseph Young had certainly looked spaceward. What he called his “polyphonoptic” sculpture was planned to be a kind of beacon, with lasers that soared up into the skies and also bounced off special windows on city buildings in a kind of endless, uniting tractor beam — but that wasn’t all.
Hanging under the sculpture was a carillon of 79 quartz bells that could play every form of music and synchronize it with the lights above. With the help of motion sensors, even passersby or groups of people standing underneath could influence what tunes it played.
That the cramped underground control room was going to be powered by rudimentary computer technology didn’t stop his dream — until it did.
Earthquake redesigns quickly caused the project to run over budget. People began calling it things like the "Psychedelic Nickelodeon” and the "Million-Dollar Jukebox." Art critics were repelled, and even though it made the cover of the 1976 Pacific Bell phone directory, the Triforium quickly fell out of favor.
Soon it was a rainbow-hued white elephant tumbling into disrepair. The lights blinked less and less, and the last work on it was done in 2006, when the bulbs were cleaned and reinstalled, though the carillon was removed and the music went to CD.
But on this night, temporary color spotlights are illuminating the Triforium from underneath and cheerful art fans (plus a few intrigued rush-hour commuters) take endless photos and videos on their smartphones, the modern-day technology that will — with luck — bring it back to life.
Among the crowd is Bill Vestal, a current music artistic director at LACMA, who was the Triforium program director from 1976 to 1985. He’s carrying a plastic folder that contains one of the sample quartz bells, which looks somewhat like a massage suction cup, and when he flicks it a perfect “ting” is heard.
He hands the bell over to a thrilled Tom Carroll, of Tom Explores Los Angeles, the guide who's leading tours into the usually off-limits control room.
“I haven’t been down here in 20 years,” Vestal says as he enters the space, which leads from a glass-fronted store window to stairs to a yellow-painted subterranean world of tight spaces, overhead pipes and large gray cabinets. “There was someone in the City Council who, whenever they went past me, asked, ‘How’s it going with the trifoolishness?’” he recalls, adding that he and his assistants used to set up stages and chairs for other musical events in the area above.
“It’s like déjà vu,” he says excitedly, kneeling down and exclaiming that “they finally got a Maas-Rowe!” — a digital chronobell system that was quite advanced for the time, and was used for playing CDs.
There’s evidence of historic technology everywhere: disconnected circuit boards and bunches of wires, a strange-looking typewriter with rolls of punched paper on top of it, and a set of filing cabinets containing pristine vinyl, magnetic music tapes and a mass of jazz and classical CDs. “We even found a Kenny G CD in here at one time” Carroll laughs.
Meanwhile, Vestal happily points out a board of light bulbs that indicated which lights on the sculpture were working (they couldn’t see outside from inside), and then he’s at the upright bays of faders and switches that control what is seen and heard — and the level indicators start spiking and falling.
Outside, the Triforium has suddenly come to life. Its remaining lights flash and light up this end of Fletcher Bowron Square to great applause. The 1970s electronic music being played by dublab in a nearby tent seems perfectly cued. Besides being reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it gives everyone a real sense of what could be.
Just who's turned on the Triforium is a mystery (Vestal says it wasn’t him but admits he would have done it), though since the unmarked switch is by the control room entrance, it seems an easy mistake to make.
Back outside, Vestal mentions how there used to be a water feature under the Triforium. “One time I came across a homeless man washing his clothes and carefully laying them out to dry in the sun,” he recalls, adding that he was once accidentally locked in by the Los Angeles Mall security guard.
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Vestal answers more questions before everyone listens to speeches from sculptor Young’s daughters, Cecily and Leslie, a primer on the rise and fall of the Triforium from architectural historian Daniel Paul, and finally a limerick-style song and a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Despite the chill and wind, it’s been a successful night for the collective of L.A. friends, designers and enthusiasts, including the Downtown L.A. Art Walk and Silver Lake multimedia pop group Yacht, who are some of those behind free L.A.-exploring app 5EveryDay.
Taking names for a mailing list and happily accepting donations, Yacht’s Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans explain they’re hoping to refurbish the Triforium, update its computer technology and replace the bulbs with efficient LEDs. They’re also planning to create an app that will allow anyone to compose their own music to be played out of the ladybug-like speakers. “We’re ambitious and optimistic,” says Bechtolt, “but the simple thing is that the technology’s so available now — it’s easy.”
As everyone lines up for a slice of birthday cake, it seems that Young’s vision for the Triforium might be something Angelenos can finally celebrate — even if it’s 40 years later.