Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Los Angeles Triforium Turns 40

The Triforium today with City Hall in the background, Los Angeles, December 2015
Courtesy of Jessica Hough
“Just as the Statue of Liberty made the Port of New York the most memorable symbol of America in the 20th Century, so now the TRIFORIUM’s astronautical beacon, a triad of rotating laser beams soaring into outer space, can make Los Angeles the first city to lead America into the 21st Century.”–Joseph L. Young
The optimism and ambition of this proclamation seems a bit fantastical from where we stand now, forty years this week from the dedication of artist Joseph Young’s Triforium. The artist’s hopes and dreams for his “kinetic color-music sculpture” were seemingly unbounded, his confidence unhampered even by the reality that he had never built anything like it. This ambitious vision is part of the wonder of the Triforium.
The Triforium was to have laser beams facing skyward that would be visible from space, as shown here in this mock up. This element was eliminated to control costs.
© Joseph L. Young, courtesy of the Estate of Joseph L. Young
Young was primarily a mosaic artist—a good one. As a young man, he was awarded a fellowship to study fresco and stained glass at the American Academy in Rome. There he fell in love with mosaics and made a career of commissions for public buildings, churches, and synagogues.  One of his more prominent mosaic murals adorns the exterior wall of the Hall of Records on Temple Street and Hill, a stone’s throw away from the Triforium on Temple and Main. Young worked with architect Richard Neutra on the design that includes a topographic map of the city.
Young’s clever Topographic Map of Water Sources in County of Los Angeles (1962) was completed as part of the building of the Hall of Records. The fountain—although now in need of cleaning and repair—delivers water through channels that mimic the Los Angeles River and its tributaries and ultimately drains into the “ocean,” the reflecting pool below.
Courtesy of Jessica Hough
But it is a big leap from a mosaic to the 60-foot-high kinetic sound-and-light Triforium. Young’s vision was of a monumental sculpture that would illuminate the park at night and respond with music and light to the presence of people moving around it. In short, Young envisioned a “smart” sculpture way ahead of its time.
This excerpt from a promotional brochure for the Los Angeles Mall highlights Young’s Triforium and its ambitions.
Courtesy City Archives and Records Center, Los Angeles
The Triforium was commissioned by the architect Robert Stockwell (Stanton & Stockwell), who designed the Los Angeles Mall. It was part of an integrated plan that included multiple fountains and murals. But it was far too technologically ambitious for 1975. Even before its debut, the Triforium was riddled with problems—computer glitches, feedback from the speakers, and problems coordinating the lights. This not only frustrated city officials, but also created fodder for its critics who lambasted it at every opportunity with nicknames like Trifoolery and the Million Dollar Jukebox.
The Triforium’s colorful palette against a clear blue sky. Each of the 1,494 “prisms,” or glass shades, was hand blown by artisans in Murano, Venice, Italy, under the direction of the artist. The nearly $1 million project was plagued by technical problems. When the city took over operation of the project, the artist had little control and no resources to fix it. Today the sculpture sits mute and is only illuminated by the sun hitting the blown glass shades.
Courtesy of Jessica Hough
But perhaps to Young and the many individuals and agencies that supported his project, there was an overly optimistic belief in the power of the technology available at the time. The promise and excitement of the Space Age, and the rapid innovations in our daily lives stirred dreams that were still decades away.

The only signage for the Triforium is the circular emblem at the foot of the sculpture.
Beneath this spot, a time capsule, with contents unknown, sits waiting to be unveiled.
Courtesy of Jessica Hough
What may be most surprising about the Triforium is the belief in the potential of a monument, this monument. And to me that is the most interesting aspect of the Triforium and what we should value and celebrate. It represents a significant commitment to art and its potential in the world, even if its potential went unrealized.

The mundanely marked control room for the sculpture can still be found on the level below the Triforium in the Los Angeles Mall. An operator could play the carillon (bells played from an automatic mechanism) from this Oz-like behind-the-scenes location.
Courtesy of Jessica Hough
A triforium, by definition, is an element of church architecture—a band or gallery of windows or arches between the nave and the clerestory windows. This specific reference to ecclesiastical architecture reflects Young’s intended spiritual reading—something beyond a civic monument. Young, who was of Jewish ancestry, was acquainted with sites of spiritual practice; many of his mosaic commissions were for places of worship. His daughter Cecily Young, herself an architect, explains that her father approached uninspired spaces in his work and “elevated them into the spiritual realm.” (Jewish Journal, Sept. 9, 2015)

So maybe another way to think about the Triforium is as Young’s idea of a sort of inside out modernist church of the universe. With stained glass, spires, buttress-like legs, and a mechanized choir of bells, it has all of the elements Young knew well from his time in Rome and from working in churches and synagogues across the United States.

A fountain—now dry due to the drought—by Hanns Scharff (fountain design and tile) and Tom Van Sant (sculpture), 1974, with the Triforium and City Hall in the background. The Triforium was commissioned along with fountains and mosaics by other artists for the Los Angeles Mall project,  art of a larger vision for the civic center of the city.
Courtesy of Jessica Hough
Young wrote, “Since the beginning of time, human beings have created civic symbols that express our relationship to the Universe. Los Angeles is a center for some of the most creative thinking on this level and therefore, the city to renew America’s commitment to the future by building a fresh universal symbol.” (Civic Center News, Feb. 25–Mar. 10, 1975)

It is hard to fault a man for building a symbol that aimed to unite people and point to a better future. And it seems the sculpture’s fate was sealed early by insurmountable technical hurdles and budget problems that were aired in the press even before the sculpture’s debut. The challenges the artist and fabricators faced colored the public’s view before they had a chance to formulate an opinion. Urban decline and flight from cities in the 1970s also might have made it easier to dismiss the work as a failure.

The Triforium under construction
© Joseph L. Young, courtesy of the Estate of Joseph L. Young
Now that we are seeing community return to downtown Los Angeles, a new generation is taking a curious and fresh look at the Triforium. It stood forty years while downtown went from hard times to harder and then back again. It may never have succeeded as a new symbol for the city in the way the artist intended. But it is slowly now galvanizing supporters in a new time—those who sympathize with the artist and his struggle to realize a complex project ahead of its time.

Joseph L. Young
© Joseph L. Young, courtesy of the Estate of Joseph L. Young
“For it is only with courage and imagination that man recognizes his real existence and becomes prophetic.” —Joseph Young
So there will be a party and a toast to Joseph Young. Come to celebrate vision, ambition, and audacious art.
Friday, December 11, 4–9pm, at the Los Angeles Mall
Festivities include food trucks, a DJ from dublab, remarks from the artist’s daughter, tours of the Triforium Control Room, and a cake, of course.  For more details visit http://triforium.la/.

Jessica Hough
Director of Exhibitions
California Historical Society
Thank you to Qathryn Brehm, Tom Carroll, Shelly Kale, Amy Inouye, Andrew Werner, Cecily Young, and Leslie Young. 
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