Triforium

Los Angeles Explorers Guild: The Triforium

Triforium

Near a dying mall in Downtown Los Angeles you can visit the world’s first polyphonoptic sculpture, an odd-looking, multi-colored tower of concrete and glass known as the Triforium. Unveiled in 1975 to wildly mixed reviews, it’s a conceptual creation well ahead of its time.

The Triforium is a 60-foot-tall concrete-and-glass sculpture that stands at the corner of Temple Street & Main Street smack in the middle of Fletcher Bowron Square in Downtown Los Angeles. This square, named for the 35th mayor of Los Angeles, also marks the southwestern edge of the underground Los Angeles Mall (quite possibly the city’s world’s saddest mall) and sits across the steet from Los Angeles City Hall.

The mall was completed in 1975 and its architect, Robert Stockwell (on behalf of the City of Los Angeles), commissioned the sculpture from Joseph Young, an artist well-known for creating a mosaic mural for the lobby of Parker Center and a mosaic map of the Los Angeles water system in the Hall of Records. The end result was The Triforium, and it cost taxpayers $925,000 (almost $4,600,000 in 2021 dollars).

The Launch

Young’s sculpture, unveiled on December 12, 1975, consists of three sweeping A-shaped concrete arches, painted white, adorned with 1,494 pieces of multi-colored, hand-blown Venetian glass prisms covering an equal number of light bulbs. To enhance the effect of the lights at night, the whole construct stood over a small reflecting pool.

The Triforium. Photo from the author’s collection.

When initially built, the sculpture also incorporated a Finkbeiner Carillon (produced by G. Finkbeiner, Inc. of Waltham Massachusetts) comprised of 79 glass bells. This device was connected to a central control board, located inside a room in the mall below, and could be programmed to play different pieces of music in synchronicity with the illuminated prisms. The music was broadcast from three large, oval speakers — these were eventually wrapped in colored coverings lending the speakers a ladybug-like appearance.

Detail of the Triforium on March 12, 1976. Photo by L. Mildred Harris. Via Los Angeles Public Library Los Angeles Photographers Photo Collection. Note the plain speakers.

Young had high hopes for his sculpture. He designed it “to reflect the unfinished, kaleidoscopic nature of the city” and called it the world’s first “poly-phonoptic kinetic tower,” bragging it could play “everything from Beethoven to the Bee Gees.” He referred to the sculpture as the “Rosetta Stone of art and technology” and ultimately wanted it to be an astronomical beacon, blasting “Los Angeles” in Morse code into the sky with giant lasers. He also thought it would be an ideal place for the mayor of Los Angeles to greet visiting dignitaries. He even predicted it would be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Stockwell’s plan for the Triforium wasn’t quite as lofty as Young’s. Rather, the architect’s singular intention was one of pure marketing. He saw the Triforium as a means to draw people into his mall — the idea being that people would come down to see the music-synchronized light show, then visit the mall for dinner or shopping. But it didn’t really work out that way, primarily because everyone hated The Triforium.

The Decline

From day one the Triforium was almost universally reviled by both art critics and city officials (except San Fernando Valley Councilman Louis R. Nowell). Over the years it’s been referred to unflatteringly as the “Schlockenspiel,” the “Trifoolery”, the “Million Dollar Jukebox,” the “Psychedelic Nickelodeon,” and “Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey.” It’s been said that when the carillon played, the sound of the bells blasted out of the speakers so loudly that officals working in City Hall complained.

By 1980, the Triforium only played on weekends. In the years that followed its playtime was reduced to special events, and, eventually, none at all. The reflecting pool, which had been leaking into the shops in the underground mall beneath it, was drained. While the Triforium still stood in Fletcher Bowron Square, it remained dim and silent, all but ignored.

The Revival

The Triforium experienced a bit of a revival in December 2006 when it received a $7,500 renovation that cleaned up the prisms and replaced the burned-out bulbs. Due to the carillon’s high maintenance costs, the glass bells were removed and swapped out for a CD player.

Upgrading the sculpture’s ancient computer system was too costly, so the lights and music couldn’t be synchronized. Instead, the prisms just flashed randomly as Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” played at the ceremony marking its renewal. For a few years, this small restoration limited the Triforium to two hours of playtime each night.

In 2018, 43 years after it was first unveiled, a group of Triforium appreciators headed up by Claire Evans of Yacht, with the help of a $100,000 grand from LA2050, started a major, albeit very brief, Triforium revivial. And for three Fridays in October and November of that year (known as Triforium Fridays), the sculpture played host to live musicians like Reggie Watts, electronica singer Juliana Barwick, world-whistling champion Molly Lewis, and more.

But after this short renaissance period, the Triforium once again sits unlit and quiet (except for the occasional swarm of bees building a hive in the prisms), keeping vigil over Fletcher Bowron Square. Despite the fact you can’t take in the light and music show these days, the Triforium remains a rather interesting piece of public art that was conceptually a half-century ahead of its time.

Photographs don’t really give the sculpture its proper context, so if public art is something you’re interested in, the Triforium is definitely worth visiting in person. After all, it may not be around much longer.

The Uncertain Future

The Los Angeles Civic Center Master Plan, dating back to 2017, calls for the demolition of the Los Angeles Mall below the Triforium. The entire site will then be developed as a 545,000 square foot office tower and retail complex.

This master plan, which is slated to be completed by 2032, was backed by disgraced former city councilman Jose Huizar and was developed pre-pandemic, so it’s uncertain if the city will be revising it in the wake of the fallout from these events. In the end, though, what this all means for the future of the Triforium remains unknown.

For more details about the Triforium, visit the Smithsonian’s Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture and for infrequent updates about the revival of the Triforium, visit the The Triforium Project on Facebook.


Triforium


Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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