Last Friday, the always interesting blog CurbedLA offered a post (via retro_futurism) about the strange and captivating architectural delight at the center of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) known as the Theme Building (photo at left from the UCLA photo archive—see recent post). I grew up so close to LAX that I could hear the aircraft take off and land and sometimes smell the rubber from the tires hitting the landing strip. The ambient light emanating from the airfield is so bright that an eerie glow was constant at night in our neighborhood. I didn't see many stars in the heavens during my childhood. What I did see were aircraft lined in the sky to the east, approaching to land.
Living that close to the airport, we were always asked to shuttle friends and family to and from LAX. Thus, I was quite familiar with questions and comments about the Theme Building. Does it rotate? No. Is it supposed to resemble a spider? Maybe, but probably not. Is it a movie set? No, but its exterior has been seen in probably dozens of movies and is rumored to have inspired the buildings on the TV show "The Jetsons." What's in there? A restaurant and maybe some offices and catering operations. Most people assume it's an air traffic control tower, but never served that purpose. LAX recently built a new tower that's more obvious, so this mischaracterization will be less common. The Theme Building is tall, but it doesn't provide a view high enough for air traffic control, especially at an airport prone to runway mishaps. The view it does provide is quite compelling. How do I get inside? Oddly, it isn't convenient from any part of the airport. A visitor has to leave a terminal, walk across many lanes of dangerous traffic, then find the elevator entrance. I've read that the original intent was to provide walkways to the structure from each terminal, and the building would have served as a hub. I'm sure that expense prevented that idea to take hold. At present, the building is closed for renovation. According to a LAWA press release, "a 1,000-pound, 5-foot-by-10-foot piece of the stucco 'skin' was discovered to have fallen off the underside of the east upper arch," and repairs are expected to keep the restaurant closed for a while. The press release also notes some design information and history. The tops of the arches aren't structural (which is also why the damage mentioned above isn't too serious). The release also notes that the "Theme Building was completed in August 1961 at a cost of $2.2 million. Architects Pereira & Luckman Associates, Welton Becket & Associates, and Paul R. Williams designed the building's 135-foot-high parabolic arches to symbolize the optimism of a futuristic Los Angeles in the space age. In 1992, the Los Angeles City Council designated the Theme Building a cultural and historical monument." Have you been in there? Yes, but not until I was in high school on a date. What's it like in there? Well, when I went there the first time, it looked different than it does now. Some entity that operates the restaurant hired Disney Imagineering designers to create a futuristic decor. The photo at right (from the retro_futurism blog) shows the results. It is a little too much to stomach, and I wouldn't suggest subjecting your rods and cones to this scene before a long flight to Hawaii or Beijing. I do wish that when I was there that I had taken the elevator to the top observation deck. In the UCLA archive photo above, you can see the fenced observation area near the roof perimeter. It's now off limits due to post-September 11 security concerns. Bummer. What kind of food do they serve? It's California cuisine, for the most part. What's that? Some kind of Pan Asian inspired vegetarian health food? Not exactly, but that's a good question for another post perhaps. Can you drive me to LAX for a 5:35 AM flight to Amsterdam and then pick me up at midnight next week? No. Call Super Shuttle.
For more information about the building and its history, visit the Encounter Restaurant website or read a bit more about the development of the design and some of the architects at Wikipedia. Also, more links to photos here and here.