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Odd Sculpture Stands Above Public Opinion

The colored crystal and concrete Triforium was erected in 1975.

December 05, 2002|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

After more than a quarter-century, Los Angeles' most controversial public artwork still provokes arguments between those who contend that it's outstanding -- and those who complain that it's still standing

Love it or hate it, the Triforium in the downtown Civic Center has never stopped polarizing people.

At six stories and 60 tons, the three-pronged concrete and crystal tower at Temple and Main streets is hard to miss. Especially on those rare occasions when its 1,494 light bulbs hidden behind colorful Italian glass prisms are pulsating to music piped from loudspeakers that are part of it.

The $925,000 sculpture was completed in December 1975. City officials commissioned it to be the sparkling centerpiece of the $30-million Los Angeles Mall, a subterranean shopping plaza tucked between municipal and federal buildings.

From the start, the Triforium was more lightning rod than crown jewel.

Critics -- many of them across the street in City Hall -- derided the sculpture as "the Psychedelic Nickelodeon," "the Trifoolery" and "Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey"

There were problems with its sound, its lights and its setting.

An electrical short delayed the music system's debut during dedication ceremonies. When the pod-shaped speakers finally came to life, spectators said the sound of the Finkenbeiner glass-bell carillon was fuzzy.

The computer that synchronized the lights to the music had to be reprogrammed.

The reflecting pond beneath the tower had to be drained and then lined with $18,000 worth of tile to prevent water from leaking into the shopping mall below.

It was left to artist Joseph Young to defend his work from those who dubbed the Triforium "the Kitsch-22 of Kinetic Sculpture" and "Joe's L.A. Space Launch."

Young blamed the Triforium's initial problems on tampering by city workers. His musical sculpture, he told everyone who would listen, eventually would come to be known as "the Rosetta Stone of art and technology" and the world's first permanent "poly-phonoptic" tower.

The Triforium has outlived many of its critics. So has Young, who at 83 is as passionate as ever about his sculpture.

"At times it was very lonely," he says now of the harsh criticism he and the Triforium were subjected to. "When you do something that affects public tastes, you have to be armed to face the extremes of behavior."

The Triforium, he said, was designed to depict the unfinished, kaleidoscopic nature of Los Angeles and to be a friendly meeting place for its people.

Young, of West Hollywood, inspected the Triforium last weekend while on a visit to nearby Parker Center. He went to the police headquarters to see if one of his murals, which graces its lobby, is in movable condition now that the building may be demolished. The mural is in relatively good shape, he found.

So is the Triforium -- even though its lights and sound system were not in use during his weekend visit. Young rated the sculpture's condition as "seven on a scale of 10."

But, "that seven is enormous," he said, given the lack of attention to the work over the years.

Mayor James K. Hahn broke out in a grin this week when he was asked what he thought of the Triforium.

"What's your next question?" he laughed.

Asked what should be done with the Triforium, he replied: "Was anyone planning to do anything with it?"

But Hahn then quickly recited facts about its Italian glass and "the great L.A. artist Joe Young" and told of a group of Russian tourists who stopped him in City Hall and asked directions to the Triforium.

"I'd like to see it used more," the mayor said.

That could happen soon.

Pat Gomez, the Cultural Affairs Department's new manager of its public art and mural collection, said the Triforium is scheduled to undergo a formal appraisal in April that will determine its condition and any repairs it needs to produce sound and music.

"I think it looks very interesting. I look forward to seeing it in action," Gomez said.

Joi Oubre, manager of Civic Center facilities for the city General Services Department, suggested that putting the Triforium to work might be as simple as flipping a few switches.

"It lights up. There may be some bulbs missing, but it works, we've tested it," Oubre said. "The chimes sound the time. The problem is with the music. About four or five years ago, one of the judges at the courthouse across the street got upset and wrote a nasty letter to our general manager at the time saying it was too noisy. That's why we stopped playing music."

Restoration of the music and light shows would be an improvement, according to those in the local art and preservation community who say they have come to appreciate the Triforium. The area in Fletcher Bowron Square around the sculpture needs a little work, too, they said.

"A little spiffing up would hugely help," said Amy Inouye, a Koreatown graphic artist who describes the Triforium as "the most underappreciated municipal monument we've got." Part of its charm is its "very underdog" reputation, she said.

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