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Plans to Redesign LAX: Architecture and Anxiety


If you want to peer into the future of post-Sept. 11 America, few projects offer a better lens than the recently unveiled plan for a $9.6-billion renovation of Los Angeles International Airport.

Designed by Landrum & Brown, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in airport design, the plan has been touted by Mayor James K. Hahn as a safer, more efficient transportation hub for the new century. It would require the demolition of four terminals and the removal of all existing parking structures. New parking and ground transportation centers would be located two miles to the east and linked to the new terminals via an elevated train.

The most controversial part of the plan has been its aim to limit the airport's capacity to 78 million passengers a year, essentially by eliminating 11 existing gates. The move would force other regional airports to undergo major expansions to accommodate expected growth in air travel over the next decade.

But the proposal's other focus is security. By stretching out the flow of movement through the airport, it seeks to relieve congestion and increase screening and surveillance options. Relocating parking, city officials say, will also reduce the threat of car bombings.

The new airport is still in the early stages of being designed, and it has yet to attain approval from the Airport Commission, City Council and the Federal Aviation Administration. It would be financed through a combination of increased landing fees for airlines, federal transportation funds, local bonds and a $1.50 surcharge on passenger tickets. If approved, planners expect to finish the master plan by December, with groundbreaking scheduled for 2004 and completion in 2012.

The plan is not without merit. In its desire to link the airport to a broader transportation network, it reflects the region's sprawling character. And its emphasis on security in the wake of Sept. 11 is understandable.

Yet the plan also signals a significant shift in how we view the public realm. It sacrifices freedom of mobility for the illusion of invulnerability and the demands of continual surveillance. As such, it represents a new architecture of fear.

Completed in 1961, the structures that make up LAX do not rise to the level of great architecture. Nonetheless, their layout is a model of efficiency and a celebration of L.A.'s car-culture ethos. Dominated by a horseshoe-shaped roadway, the airport terminals wrap around a series of central, multilevel, concrete parking structures.

The layout allows passengers to sweep right up to the terminals in their cars. And although the airport is functioning at 50% over intended capacity, it retains the charm of its subtropical, suburban context. It can still be a short, pleasant walk from parking to the terminals, even if once inside the spaces are cramped and mundane.

The new design would radically reconfigure that experience. Most travelers would leave their cars at one of the two off-site entry points--essentially parking structures. From there, they would board an elevated train to one of four new terminals that would replace existing parking and then cross the ring road on enclosed bridges to the gates.

The result would transform the airport into a sequence of closely monitored checkpoints. The parking areas, for example, would focus on screening cars for bombs and "passive security," such as using surveillance cameras to spot known terrorists. "Active security"--bag screening, metal detectors and explosive detection--would take place at the main, centralized terminals. Additional screening would occur at the gates.

On a more practical level, the plan calls for the demolition of many of the existing gate concourses and several terminals to make room for safer and more efficient runway layout. The remaining terminals would be converted into gate areas, and a new concourse would be built behind the current Bradley terminal, at the base of the horseshoe.

Hahn's desire to limit the airport's capacity may be politically untenable. The mayor has no control over other airports in the region, and the agencies that run them have made clear that they have no intention of changing the laws that limit their current capacity. As recently as March, Orange County voters quashed a proposal to build a new airport at the former El Toro Marine base.

But from the point of view of planning, Hahn's notion of conceiving the airport as part of a broader, regional network strikes the right chord. The image of a decentralized city as an antidote to the congested metropolis has been a staple of Modernist planning strategies since the late 1920s, when Russian avant-garde architects Moisei Ginsburg and Mikhail Barshch proposed the first "Disurbanist" city, a grid of communal nodes that relegates the dense medieval city to oblivion.

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