Appreciation: Gilbert ‘Magu’ Lujan’s Hollywood and Vine Metro station


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The subway station at the fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine is a Pop extravaganza, but it has much more than empty tinsel to offer hurried commuters. This clever, elaborately over-the-top design of an old movie theater interior asserts something distinctive -- and utterly unexpected -- for a place otherwise as prosaic as a subway station.

Artistically, the design slyly muses, the movies are the most profound form of mass-transit that the modern world devised.


Gilbert ‘Magú’ Luján, the Los Angeles painter, muralist and sculptor who designed the station interior as part of the Metro Art Project, died Sunday at 70. The marvelous station will anchor his artistic legacy.

The station opened in 1998. Like all great Pop, its design plays against type. Public art meets site-specific art.

Luján, working with Altadena architect Adolfo Miralles, conceived a space that subsumes the sleek, up-to-the-minute motif of an epic, technological construction project burrowing beneath the civic sprawl within that of a fantasy movie theater reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age. Never heavy-handed, neither is it just an empty exercise in showbiz nostalgia.

Whether arriving by train or entering by escalator from the transit plaza above, a traveler moves through a station that fuses memories of actual buildings, especially the Chinese and Egyptian theaters just up the street, with flickering imagery. A scattering of tawny gold floor tiles meanders between the entry and the train platform, an unobtrusive evocation of the yellow brick road that led Dorothy to the spectacle of Oz. Lining the train tunnels, a cement pattern of enormous film cels mimics the linear row of windows on arriving trains.

The conceptual connection between movies and movement, imaginative journeys and physical travel, is deftly made.

Among the design’s more inspired elements is the vaulted ceiling, which is ‘tiled’ with thousands of blue-gray movie reels. (A behemoth pair of actual 1930s film projectors stand guard.) Like something out of Piranesi, the 18th century Italian fantasist whose smoky etchings and engravings invented a cavernous Classical netherworld of interlocking labyrinths lurking beneath Rome, the atmospheric space becomes a mythic evocation of a lost civilization.


Who would expect that from a subway station? Especially in Los Angeles, the quintessential modern metropolis ostensibly without any history. The city’s infrastructure holds buried secrets as moving as any in art’s history. Luján, a lifelong Chicano low-rider enthusiast, nodded to the city’s automotive heritage with subway-platform benches designed like fantastic cars. Their whimsical style is cartoon-like, familiar from the artist’s own Technicolor paintings as well as from the mix of live action and animation in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ the 1988 cinematic ode to freeway ruination released while the Metro subway system was on the drawing boards.

Upstairs, the Hollywood and Vine transit plaza was significantly altered from its original, somewhat forlorn design when the huge W Hotel, condominium and apartment complex was built on the site. (It opened last year.) But the inventive station below is the real artistic achievement. The civic project managed to take what could have been merely a groaning assemblage of cheap entertainment clichés and give it surprisingly cerebral heft, all without sacrificing razzle-dazzle playfulness. Luján’s unexpected vision of cinema as mass transit yielded one of the most engaging stations on the Metro Red Line.

Here’s a YouTube video that traverses the entire space. Made by an unabashed fan, it lingers a bit before descending into the station (at about the 50-second mark), but the next six minutes offer a pretty thorough tour of the interior:


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