L.A.U.F.O

The Triforium – Los Angeles’s weirdest and most reviled public artwork – awakes from a long slumber

web_img_9669_cmyk.jpg

The Triforium (restored), Los Angeles, 2017. Courtesy: The Triforium Project

It was the largest electronic musical instrument in the world – or it would have been, had it ever fully worked. These days, the Triforium is a silent colossus in the plaza behind Los Angeles City Hall. Its six-storey concrete columns, which meet in pairs like slender chevrons, once contained an electronic harmonium and a 79-note glass bell carillon, until someone cut it down and sold it for scrap. Operated from a console or a computer, the bells triggered lightbulbs in a colourful girdle of hand-blown Italian glass panels, cascading in rainbow ribbons like a nightclub chandelier. Three speakers hang below this transom like speckled eggs.

Artist Joseph Young designed the Triforium in 1971, the final year of the famed Art and Technology Program (A&T) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which paired artists like Robert Irwin and Claes Oldenburg with engineers in aerospace and technology firms. The programme produced ambitious projects but few enduring prototypes. After visiting A&T’s culminating exhibition at LACMA, Young set out to create the world’s first ‘polyphonoptic’ public sculpture, equipped with motion sensors that would transform the movements of pedestrians beneath its bays into shifting compositions of light and sound. Its original design called for laser beams shooting into space, making it the world’s first astronomical beacon, too – public art with cosmic ambitions. The carillon’s clang, accompanied by pulsing colours, may have inspired the key scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Young’s proposal landed on my father’s desk. He was then Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, responsible for cultural initiatives, and next in line to the charismatic Mayor, Tom Bradley. The Triforium, he complained, ‘was not only hideous, but expensive’; yet Bradley had pre-approved the plan, and nothing could stop its construction. When the sculpture was installed in 1975, its computer was wired incorrectly; it never functioned properly. Critics called it ‘Tri-foolery’, a ‘psychedelic nickelodeon’ and ‘the million-dollar firefly’.

web_triforium-plaza-1975_cmyk.jpg

Annotated photograph of the Triforium, Los Angeles, 1975, designed by Joseph Young. Courtesy: Estate of Joseph Young; photograph: Julius Shulman

I had heard this story many times when, three decades later, I found myself exploring the streets and squares of downtown LA. Of all the quirks I encountered, the Triforium was the strangest; a dusty UFO on an empty dais. I loved its pillars, conjoined like wishbones, and its garish speakers. An alien instrument from the future past, it sat as though waiting for  someone to play it. That someone, it seems, has arrived. In 2015, Claire L. Evans and Jona Bechtolt – also known as the electropop band YACHT – along with Tom Carroll, host of the YouTube series ‘Tom Explores Los Angeles’, founded the Triforium Project to restore the sculpture and realize Young’s original vision. With grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Goldhirsh Foundation, they aim to replace its incandescent bulbs with LEDs and rewire it with a modern, net-worked computer, so passersby can operate it via a mobile app. The Triforium, they assert, was 40 years ahead of its time. It may find its audience at last.

Evan Moffitt is associate editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. 

Issue 194

First published in Issue 194

April 2018

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018