Faces of Elysian Valley (The Riverside Roundabout)

Faces of Elysian Valley

(The Riverside Roundabout)

A series of nine egg-like sculptures featuring random faces of area residents keeps vigil over the first true roundabout in Los Angeles.

Faces in Eggs

This eye-catching piece of public art, consisting of nine stone sculptures ranging from eight to 12 feet in height, decorates the first real roundabout installed in Los Angeles. The colloquially named Riverside Roundabout sits at the intersection of San Fernando Road and Figueroa Street, at the base of the Riverside-Figueroa Bridge, where it marks a confluence of roads, rails, and rivers.

The unusual art installation was dedicated in February 2017 after more than eight years of planning. The project was conceived and designed by Greenmeme, the Cypress Park-based art studio of Freyja Bardell and Brian Howe, in collaboration with world roundabout experts Ourston Roundabout Engineering.

Riverside Roundabout
Faces of Elysian Valley in 2018. Photo from the author’s collection.

The sculptures feature the faces of residents who live and work in the neighborhoods bordering the roundabout — Elysian Valley, Cypress Park, and Lincoln Heights. The pattern for each face was generated with 3D scanning technology, allowing for eerily accurate facial features.

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The faces used were randomly selected from 200 people who volunteered to have their faces scanned, and there’s a different face on either side of each egg. So as a whole, the sculptures include 18 distinct faces.

Riverside Roundabout
Roundabout in action: the Faces of Elysian Valley from Point Grand View. Photo from the author’s collection.

Each of the eggs is made up of between 70 and 88 layers of cut granite, depending on the height of each piece. The individual layers were cut from three blocks of Academy Black granite sourced from a quarry near Clovis, California. Coldspring, a fabrication company in Minnesota, used a cutting technique reminiscent of Russian nesting dolls to cut each statue, layer by layer, with a CNC waterjet saw.

Demonstrating the layers of Faces of Elysian Valley. Photo from the author’s collection.

Using this Matryoshka-inspired technique, each block of stone provided enough layers for three of the sculptures. This significantly reduced the amount of off-cuts and waste. In addition, the cutaway material was used to create a jagged outer ring that served as a protective barrier.

If you look at the ring up close, in a few places you’ll likely notice more stretched faces incorporated into the design. It’s unknown whether these elongated visages are different from any faces featured in the eggs.

A face in the ring. Photo from the author’s collection.

Once cut and shipped to Los Angeles, the pieces were installed onsite by Cleveland Marble. The placement of these eggs might seem random to drivers roundabouting their way through the intersection. But thanks to input from Ourston Roundabout Engineering, the monoliths have been carefully positioned to help drivers remain aware of how traffic is moving through the roundabout around them.

In addition to the sculptures, the 100-foot-wide roundabout is landscaped with plants native to the L.A. River ecosystem. All these elements are designed to work together to help reduce smog and the negative impact of exhaust fumes on the people living and working in the area.

All told, the project, which was commissioned by a joint partnership between the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Engineering, cost $92,000.

Stormwater Confluence

The Riverside Roundabout is considered to be part of Confluence Plaza, a rather nondescript concrete patch that sits across the roundabout road from where the eggs stand vigil.

Faces of Elysian Valley is part of Confluence Plaza. Photo from the author’s collection.

The city once thought Confluence Plaza would be a destination for families to come and watch the dancing waters in an $800,000 fountain (designed by Wet Design, the same firm who devised the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas as well as those at The Americana and The Grove) as traffic on the 110 roared overhead.

But today, there’s no sign of the magic fountain. Instead, it’s made up of flat, boring concrete with three lonely, graffiti-covered metal picnic tables off in the corner.

The blandness of Confluence Plaza. Photo from the author’s collection.

But the roundabout and the park together include an additional feature — underneath the whole thing hides a 25,000 gallon cistern, designed to capture runoff stormwater before it flows into the adjacent L.A. River.

The native plants of the roundabout and the sculpted structure of the landscape, in addition to an apron of vegetated pavers around the installation’s circumference, are designed to mitigate up to 500,000 gallons of water. That kind of rainfall happens only once every decade or so in Los Angeles, but the effects the resulting deluge can be devastating to the surrounding environment.

Egghead Stonehenge

Although it shows up on Google Maps as the “Riverside Roundabout Egg Sculptures,” the whole sculpture is commonly called “Egghead Stonehenge.” However, as far as world monuments go, it’s much more reminiscent of Tongariki, the famous display of giant moai on Easter Island.

A lot of planning and collaboration went into bringing this project to fruition — and it paid off. Faces of Elysian Valley won a prestigious Pinnacle Award in the Commercial Exterior category by the Natural Stone Institute in 2017.

We Can’t Have Nice Things

Almost immediately after they were installed, the surfaces of the eggs were near-constant targets for graffiti. Then, in late 2019, the sculpture suffered serious damage when it was struck by a car that couldn’t figure out how to drive in a circle (so much for that protective ring).

To this day, the damaged sculptures have still not been repaired.

Damage done in 2019, still not repaired. Photo from the author’s collection.

The installation also includes a series of sun-tracking solar panels that power both the site’s irrigation system and a series of LED lights that illuminate the faces at night. This lighting is a key element of the overall design, and it morphs the faces from benign guardians to spooky, ghost-like visages. But the lights haven’t been operational for years.

This, coupled with the broken and shattered fragments of granite lying throughout the roundabout — and the nondescript concrete park across the street — lends the whole area a feeling of neglect. Which is unfortunate, because this is one of the more interesting pieces of public art to come along in recent years.

Riverside Roundabout, Faces of Elysian Valley

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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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