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The Real L.A. Luminaries

Architect Ted Tokio Tanaka Explains Those Giant LAX Light Thingies

November 19, 2000|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Architect Ted Tokio Tanaka calls his contribution to the Gateway LAX Enhancement Project an "Electronic Stonehenge," and it's an apt description for the $10-million pathway of glass towers that constantly change color along the east side of LAX. The project, paid for with money generated by airport parking, concessions and rent, was unveiled early for the Democratic National Convention in August, but it remains a work in progress. Tanaka, 57, recently talked about the project--and its critics.

What does your project say about Los Angeles?

I wanted to tell a story about aviation and the culture and the diversity of the area. A statement that was oriented toward the sky. On Century Boulevard I have the pylons that start at 25 feet high and go to 60 feet high. It gives the notion of an airplane's takeoff. At the intersection of Century and Sepulveda, you have 15 100-foot-high pylons that form a ring and create a sense of arrival, especially at night, for Los Angeles. Because the pylons are in a circle, there's an equal sense of experience. It's quite abstract. Everyone has a different version of what they see.

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Is your airport project complete?

We're still working on the central terminal and beautifying the portal entry feature. We received the project 2 1/2 years ago [as part of a much broader airport redevelopment project]. We were working on it and then comes the Democratic National Convention. We were asked to finish a portion of it.

How long will you be working on it?

It will take another year and a half. We're making some adjustments, trying to even the quality of the light from top to bottom to improve the aesthetics. There are 300 different colors in three hours in the glass pylons. It's a computer program, and the lighting artist is Paul Tzanetopoulos. It changes very gradually [because] we didn't want to cause accidents.

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You received a pretty harsh review for the project from The Times' architecture critic.

I was ready for that. When you do a project like this, something that is so visible like the Getty Museum or Frank Gehry's Disney project, you expect criticism. You are making a statement.

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Do you have any regrets about taking this project?

None. I really wanted this project. I use LAX a lot. It deserved a better environment. This is one of the busiest public facilities in the region. I brought in the best environmental graphic designers and landscape architects, [Selbert Perkins Design and Ima Design, respectively]. This project and the [other] enhancements have revitalized Century Boulevard for hotel and office building owners. It has increased the property values. Before, it was pretty bleak.

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musical inspirations

Ted Tokio Tanaka loves music and integrates it into his design process.

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Usual suspects: The cool jazz sounds of David Benoit ("a personal friend"), the Rolling Stones and the Beatles ("Those were great times, the 1960s and '70s, weren't they?").

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Sound and fury: For the LAX gateway project, Tanaka chose Handel's "Music for Royal Fireworks," as well as several pieces from Bach.

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Blond on blond: While designing a Malibu beach house and the now-defunct California Beach Rock 'n' Sushi restaurant on Melrose Avenue, he listened to--what else?-- the Beach Boys.

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