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Let there be lights -- again

The much-mocked Triforium, which debuted in '75 but has long been dark, flashes once more after repairs. The music's not in sync yet, but that's in the works.

December 14, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Like that "American Idol" contestant who just keeps marching back to the microphone despite all of Simon's barbs, the city's most maligned piece of public art took center stage once again Wednesday.

A flash of psychedelic lights and the sound of a 1958 recording by Frank Sinatra signaled the return of the Triforium, the 60-ton, three-pronged concrete and crystal tower at Temple and Main streets in Los Angeles' Civic Center.

"Artist Joseph Young said it would outlive its critics, and it has," said downtown-area City Councilwoman Jan Perry before the strains of "Come Fly With Me" drowned her out.

"Love it or hate it, it's part of the unique history of the city," she said.

And what a history the Triforium has.

Young's $925,000 sculpture was touted as the sparkling crown jewel of the $30-million Los Angeles Mall subterranean shopping and restaurant plaza. But the six-story structure with its 1,494 hand-blown Italian-glass prisms quickly turned into more of a lightning rod than a towering symbol of culture.

Critics called it "Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey" and "the Kitsch-22 of Kinetic Sculpture." When its colored lights pulsated to the glass harmonium music generated in a control room in the mall, some dismissed it as "the Psychedelic Nickelodeon."

From the start, the Gerhard Finkenbeiner glass-bell carillon had problems. An electrical snafu delayed the music system's debut at the dedication ceremony Dec. 12, 1975.

Legend has it that complaints from a federal judge in the courthouse across from the Triforium that the noise interfered with his trials prompted city officials to shut down the music.

The primitive computer system that synchronized the pulsating lights to the music had to be reprogrammed. Leaks in a reflection pond beneath the sculpture forced city workers to drain it. Pigeons soon took up lodging among the prisms.

Over the years, various attempts to keep the Triforium in working condition were unsuccessful.

Waving off the skeptics, Young predicted that his artwork would eventually become known as "the Rosetta Stone of art and technology." It was, he bragged, the world's first "poly-phonoptic" tower.

"At times it was very lonely," he recalled four years ago. "When you do something that affects public tastes, you have to be armed to face the extremes of behavior."

The Triforium, he said, was a tribute to the unfinished, kaleidoscopic nature of Los Angeles.

Young was said to be too frail to attend Wednesday's Triforium resurrection. But a handful of its fans were there.

Highland Park graphic artist Amy Inouye, who several years ago started Friends of the Triforium, praised it.

"Most people think it's tacky. People roll their eyes when they hear about the group, but it's not a joke," she said. "I say the more disco, the better. This is a perfect disco jukebox."

Susan Ingman Hopkins, whose late father, Robert O. Ingman, was assistant city administrative officer at the time, remembers meeting Young when she was a girl. She still has a copy of the blueprints for the carillon system.

She described the Triforium's original pulsating lights as magical. "It was ahead of its time. That's part of its problem," said Hopkins, of Pasadena.

The city's $7,500 refurbishing of the tower came at the suggestion of Central City East Assn. executive Qathryn Brehm. She buttonholed Perry during a visit by the councilwoman to skid row.

"It's an instrument that has never reached its full potential. It's the largest public art in Los Angeles. It was before disco -- it was the first sculpture utilizing sound and lights. It's something everyone can enjoy," Brehm said as she watched the colorful lights dance across the gathering dusk.

The Triforium is still out of sync -- the old computer system must be replaced before the 1,494 bulbs pulsate to the music once more. But Perry promised that inexpensive new technology would allow that phase of the restoration project to take place next year. Hours of the Triforium's operation are yet to be determined.

For now, music from CDs played in the control room will be accompanied by random flashing lights. The tunes themselves are being played by workers at the Quiznos and Sbarro eateries in the mall beneath the Triforium, Perry said.

But don't bother making musical requests at the restaurants' order counters.

"We have a key to the Triforium room, but that's all," said Sbarro manager Jeff Jackey. "We don't pick the music."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Everyone's a critic

Here are some of the not-so-flattering nicknames given to artist Joseph Young's Triforium over the years:

* The Psychedelic Nickelodeon

* Trifoolery

* Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey

* Kitsch-22 of Kinetic Sculpture

* Joe's L.A. Space Launch

Source: Times reports

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