A Vote to Bring Back Plain Jane

Please scrutinize the drawing a few lines down in this column. Look closely. Today we’re going to have a cultural quiz.

Can you identify the object portrayed? Is it pleasing to you? Or do you find yourself visually confused, wanting to turn the page on its side?

For all the page-turners out there, let me end the suspense. The drawing is right-side up, all right. You are gazing at the latest attempt by the city of Los Angeles to create civic art. This is the design for our new control tower at LAX.

Now, it would be easy to have some fun with this design. You could suggest that its real purpose is to scare away potential terrorists. You could wonder whether the huge awnings were designed to act as a parachute for the controllers in case The Big One comes along and rips away the foundations.


But we won’t do that. Our purpose here is to raise a simple question: why has civic art in California turned out so bad, so often, over the last few years?

You want evidence? I got evidence. In 1988, a blue-ribbon committee appointed by Mayor Bradley spent months studying proposals for the so-called “West Coast Gateway.” This gateway was to be the Pacific Coast’s equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. Cost: $33 million.

Came the big day, the blue-ribbon committee made its award to the winning entry. It was titled “Clouds of Steel,” and looked like it. Picture a big rig that jackknifed and burned on the 405.

“Clouds of Steel” never happened. The Mayor doesn’t talk about it anymore. But just this summer, the same phenomenon occurred up in San Francisco. The city’s arts commission approved a plan to build a series of arches over some downtown streets. In this design, each arch contains one word and together they spell out the sentence, “This Is a Nice Neighborhood.”

There was a huge row in San Francisco, and artists were asked why they had chosen that sentence. No reason, the artists said, it was simply a phrase they heard on the streets.

The origins of our new control tower design are less clear. What we know is this: in April, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed to build a Plain Jane control tower at LAX to replace the existing tower, known to be decrepit and crowded.

Enter the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission. They, along with the Airport Commission, hold sway over any building design at LAX. And the Cultural Affairs Commish said Plain Jane wouldn’t do.

They wanted a new design that would make a statement for the city. This was Los Angeles, after all. So back went the FAA to its architects. Please give us a tower with a statement, they said.


And the above is what we got. When the Cultural Affairs Commission saw the statement version, they loved it. This was the tower that would carry Los Angeles into the 21st Century.

But don’t despair! That still left the Airport Commish, which was never sure it wanted a statement in the first place. And the Airport Commish, bless it, took one look and said no.

And that’s where we stand today. A battle between the commishes, with nothing less than the city’s reputation at stake.

How it will end, nobody knows. But if the statement tower prevails, let’s go all the way with the statement business. Let’s spell out our message in English so people know what we mean. I suggest a huge banner around the tower that says precisely this: