David Kipen, the founder of Libros Schmibros and all-around cultural maven, once said, “Los Angeles is like your brain. You only ever use 20 percent of it.” It turns out that the part about our brain is a myth; the part about L.A. feels eerily true.
For every famously iconic landmark such as the Hollywood Sign or the Bradbury Building, there's some weird public sculpture or unnatural artifact that you've never heard of, or driven past and never really given much thought to.
Here, then, are 10 amazing cultural landmarks in L.A. that you may have missed:
10) Korean Bell of Friendship
San Pedro is sort of like the forgotten stepchild of L.A. It's far, and the streetscape often looks like Season 2 of The Wire. But there's a lot of cool stuff here, such as the Korean Bell of Friendship. You might call it our city's version of the Statute of Liberty. The 17-ton bell was given to the United States by the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea, the non-crazy one) as a gift for our 200th birthday. Not sure how it ended up in San Pedro, but it was featured in the film The Usual Suspects.
9) Chain Reaction
Designed by famed cartoonist Paul Conrad, this 26-foot-tall monument to nuclear disarmament in Santa Monica is kind of ugly, incongruously located next to a parking lot, expensive to maintain, possibly dangerous, and totally unique.
8) Pico House
Most of us drive past this edifice on the 101 without giving it so much as a passing thought, not realizing that it's the first three-story building in Los Angeles, the first grand hotel and one of our oldest landmarks. It was built in 1870 by Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, who once owned a quarter million acres of land, making him one of the richest cattlemen in the state. Yet when he died in 1894, he was broke, his fortune obliterated by gambling, bad investments and the flood of 1883. Anyway, he built a nice hotel once. Now it hosts occasional exhibits — and its rear entrance plays the exterior of the California Bureau of Investigation on The Mentalist.
7) Fork in the Road
As the old saying goes, when you come to a fork in the road, take a selfie with it. When this piece of guerrilla art went up in 2009, the identity of who'd put it there was a complete mystery, until it was revealed to be “an elaborate — and expensive — birthday prank in honor of the 75th birthday of Bob Stane, founder of the Ice House comedy club” by Stane's friend Ken Marshall. White people, huh?
Turn the page for more landmarks, including something right out of the original Planet of the Apes.
6) Griffith Park’s Abandoned Zoo
Built in 1913 on the site of (attempted) wife-murdering Griffith J. Griffith's old ostrich farm, by the 1950s the old Griffith Park Zoo had fallen into disrepair and had become something of an embarrassment — the L.A. Daily News called it an “inadequate, ugly, poorly designed and under-financed collection of beat-up cages.” And so the voters, in 1958, passed an $8 million bond measure to build a new zoo less than two miles away. This being L.A., no one bothered to take down the old cages or demolish the crazy caves, which look sort of like the village in the original Planet of the Apes. They just threw up some benches, dubbed it a “picnic area” and called it a day. Underneath the caves are some tunnels with cool graffiti.
5) Beverly Hills High School's Hippie Oil Derrick
The oil derrick at Beverly Hills High School with a weird hippie flower pasted onto it like cheap wallpaper? That's a real and active oil well sitting on the campus, of all places, a fucking school. Yes, Beverly Hills High receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in royalties from Venoco, which they then spend on lawyers to fight the subway extension. Figures. When kids painted it in 2000, the derrick was christened “the tower of hope,” making the whole thing even weirder.
4) Sony Rainbow
Sony erected this 94-foot-tall steel rainbow in October 2012, at a cost of $1.6 million, or less than half a percent of what The Amazing Spider-Man 2 cost to make. “We hope it captures imaginations and people want to come and see it,” Culver City Mayor Andy Weissman said at the time. “It's going to be prominent. Not prominent like the Great Wall of China, where you can see it from space, but it will rise above the trees and landscaping and fencing.” Actually, you can't see the Great Wall of China from space, at least not with the naked eye (it's no wider than a freeway), and you can't see the Sony rainbow up close without a special pass. But it's still pretty neat.
3) The Triforium
The Triforium is a perfect metaphor for L.A. — massive, misunderstood and expensive, it doesn't work as it should, and people either love or they hate it. It cost nearly $1 million to build in 1975, in Fletcher Bowron square, catty-corner to City Hall. It was supposed to have motion sensors and a computer to detect the movement of people standing near it, and then it was supposed to translate that motion into light and sound with prisms and bells. Oh, and it was supposed to project laser beams into space.
Its artist, Joseph Young, called it “the Rosetta Stone of art and technology” and the first “polyphonoptic” tower. Angelenos called it “Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey,” “the Kitsch-22 of Kinetic Sculpture” and “the Psychedelic Nickelodeon.”
It began breaking down almost immediately. First the music didn't work. Then the music did work, but a judge at the nearby courthouse complained it was too loud. The computer didn't work right. The reflection pool under the sculpture began to leak. It became infested with pigeons. Nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to. Some have speculated that it's too expensive to fix and too expensive to take down. And so the Triforium still stands, mocked and derided, near the very heart of L.A., its grand ambitions not yet extinguished.
Turn the page for two awesome more landmarks, including a sunken city.
2) Lenin’s head
At La Brea and Fourth Street in Mid-City sits one of the city's oddest pieces of public art: a giant chrome bust of V.I. Lenin with a tiny figure poised on top, as if walking a tightrope. The piece is called “Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin's Head,” and it's by two Chinese brothers, Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang. Writes Roadside America: “Its chrome surface was meant to 'take the focus away' from Soviet Union leader Lenin, which is impossible since his head is 15 feet tall and there's a baby balanced on it.”
1) Sunken City
Let us turn once again to San Pedro, where, in 1929, a small ritzy neighborhood began to inexplicably sink into the ocean. At one point, the earth's movement was measured at 11 inches a day. Now the area has turned into something of a postapocalyptic wasteland of broken pavement and graffiti. It's fenced off, but that doesn't stop hundreds of people every day from sneaking in, walking around, smoking a joint and maybe tagging a little concrete. Los Angeles is a city where nature and man compete every day. Most of the time, nature loses. Here's one spot where it's winning.
See also: The 15 Things You Learn in Your First 5 Years in L.A.