Michael Hayden on revival of his Pershing Square light sculpture

Michael Hayden's Pershing Square light sculpture will be turned on for the first time in years on Thursday

When the International Jewelry Center opened in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1980s, The Times' architecture and design critic John Dreyfuss described the building, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, as an "overwhelming loser." The saving grace? A 270-foot neon sculpture by light artist Michael Hayden, which Dreyfuss described as "beautiful, fascinating and dazzling."

"Generators of the Cylinder," as the installation was called, consisted of a series of rotating cylindrical shapes crafted out of multi-colored argon lights. The piece also contained a series of infrared sensors that read the body heat of the people walking below and reflected their movements.

"If you're standing in Pershing Square, you can see that the sculpture's animation is massaged by the activity of the people beneath the space," Hayden said recently. "The sculpture has a multitude of permutations and combinations."

By the early 2000s, however, the lights had been dimmed. The economic turbulence of the early aughts, along with turnover in ownership of the building, resulted in the piece being switched off. And for more than a decade, it has remained that way.

On Thursday, however, "Generators of the Cylinder" will come buzzing back to life. Hayden, along with Michael Grosswendt of All Coast Construction, has given the work a thorough cleaning as well as a new controller. 

"The piece looks immaculate now," Hayden said. "What's incredible is that everyone assumed it was broken. Then Mike [Grosswendt] got the contract to clean it and we just turned it on. Everything was working. There was only three tubes out of the 54 that didn't work — and one of them was because a transformer had gone. But the piece was still functioning."

Originally from Canada, Hayden was living in Los Angeles back in the early 1980s when he first created "Generators of the Cylinder." (He now resides in Santa Rosa.) At that time, he was already known for creating light works, including a piece in Toronto that responded to the arrival and departure of trains.

"Generators" employs 27 colors and features an estimated 10,000 hours of programming. The sculpture also reflects the artist's interest in math. 

"In high school, I was really good at art and really good at math and sciences," Hayden explained. "When I went to art college, I still had a latent interest in math and science. The sculpture is called 'Generators of the Cylinder' — it comes from geometry. There are three ways a cylinder is generated and this sculpture shows that."

He's done plenty of other innovative pieces since — including a wild, squiggling light installation that greets visitors to O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

Hayden is excited to see one of his early pieces resuscitated: "I was always pushing the limit on what a light installation could do."

"Generators of the Cylinder" will be turned on at a lighting ceremony on Thursday at 4 p.m. at the International Jewelry Center at Pershing Square. 550 S. Hill St., downtown Los Angeles.

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