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’.
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.
First published in Issue 194