Sightseeing at LAX

Times Staff Writer

Because when you travel by air, you often have time to spare, we offer a guide to the signature sights -- and mini ones, too -- at LAX, the city's much beloved, much derided hub of takeoffs and landings.

In spurts and starts, LAX has grown from a dinky dirt runway surrounded by beans and barley to a 3,600-acre marvel, or snarl depending on your experience, of transportation. After its launch in 1928, the airport took two giant leaps forward, in 1961 when it took on its distinctive U-shape and in 1984 it added a second level. Currently being debated are proposals for a $10-billion makeover.

As they say, if you've seen one airport ... you've seen one airport. Unlike the grand, single-vision schemes you'll find at many others, LAX is a brew of design ideas, art and architecture that's been simmering for 75 years.

Entrance: Now there's a there

Whether you're approaching from Century Boulevard or 3,000 feet above, you can see a forest of multicolored pegs that announce the entrance to LAX. Part of a $112-million art project, the 26 columns sprouted quickly -- in time for the 2000 Democratic Convention. Architect Ted Tokio Tanaka calls the installation an "electronic Stonehenge." Call it what you want, but if you miss it, you've missed the turnoff.

Center stage: A space ship and a tower

As identifiably L.A. as City Hall and the Hollywood sign, the Theme Building, designed by a joint venture of architects, is a stucco-and-steel flying saucer levitated by parabolic arches that meet 135 feet in the air. It's topped by an observation deck loved by plane spotters until it was closed after 9/11. In the center is the Encounter Restaurant, which battles two myths: that it once revolved (sorry, but it's hard to spin 900 tons of structural steel) and that it's a private club (never, but it was a jacket-required steakhouse when it opened in 1961). It was redecorated in 1996 by Disney Imagineers. Next door, air traffic controllers perched in the top of a 277-foot-tall control tower watch over the Theme Building and everything else. The tower, built in 1996 and designed by architects Kate Diamond and Adriana Lovinescu, is the newest of five in the life of the airport. Clinging to its L-shaped exterior are the giant steel letters A and X spelling out the final portion of the LAX airport code.

Terminal 1: Heavy metal

Tony DeLap's sculpture, "Floating Lady IV," is an 11-foot rusted steel column bisected by a wedge of clear acrylic. The illusion created is that the upper part floats above the lower one. The piece was commissioned by the city for the nation's bicentennial but got lost in the shuffle of constant renovations. Rescued from a scrap heap by a workman who realized what it was, it was moved to the departure level in the newly built Terminal 1, which opened in 1984.

Terminal 2: Strong memories

Huge inflatable tents (with airlocks at the exits to keep the whole thing from collapsing) covered international passengers for years in what was a disjointed one-story terminal and, across the tarmac, gates for the planes. In 1989, the new terminal -- with an A-frame exterior -- was completed. Today, Northwest Airlines' ticket holders walking on terrazzo floor tiles to the security checkpoint pass by the Wooden Quilt Project, which is a collection of 300 wood blocks marked with drawings, photographs and sayings ("Make art, not war") to honor the victims of Sept. 11.

Terminal 3: '60s time capsule

Alaska Airlines inherited a 40-year-old terminal from TWA, complete with cottage-cheese ceilings, columns wrapped in carpet and corrugated steel window valances. There are also bands of purple, lime and olive mosaic tiles on the walls. They were meant to make the 400-foot-long walk from the gate to the passenger meeting area seem shorter. Other terminals with underground walkways had moving sidewalks. Near the terminal's escalator to the concourse is a giant propeller, a replica from a Ford Trimotor plane used for TWA's first transcontinental service.

International Terminal: Every which way

Tom Bradley International Terminal, or "Tib-it," as it's pronounced around the airport, was built in time to handle the '84 Olympic Games. Long after the athletes went home, it remains the busiest and largest of the terminals. Triangles of steel and glass cover five levels and its once open-air escalator got a glass roof after too many rainy days in sunny California. To entertain you? A bust of Tom Bradley bigger than the man himself.

Terminal 4: Cover-ups

When American Airlines completed its remodel in August, the murmurs of approval turned to gasps when artist Susan Narduli unveiled her series of buff naked guys sandblasted into the granite floor. Today, the images are mostly covered by screening equipment and barriers. Watching over the scene is a 12-foot-tall blue neon Eagle, built in the 1950s for an American Airlines hangar.

Terminal 5: Losing their marble

When Western Airlines was taken over by Delta, its new owners got a newly remodeled terminal and the $85-million bill. The 1986 expansion included wider walkways, marble floors and enough palm trees lining the concourse to impress the Sultan of Brunei, earning the nickname the Oasis Terminal.

Terminal 7: Under glass

United Airlines -- LAX's busiest carrier -- upgraded three of its terminals in 1999. United knocked down columns to make Terminal 7 more open (business passengers were complaining about congestion) and now there's a glass walkway to connect it to Terminals 6 (which still has 1960s-era outdoor atriums for smokers) and 8. Tucked into greenery that overlooks the ticketing area is a glass starburst sculpture called "The City of Angels."

Terminal 8: Flying past

It seems fitting that from the last terminal you can see the airstrip's first building. When LAX was dusty Mines Field invaded by barnstormers 75 years ago, its first hangar was built of adobe topped with green Spanish tile. Hangar No. 1 could shelter 18 Jennies and other biplanes in its glory days; today, a medium-sized aircraft would have to bend its wings to enter. In 1991, it was named a National Historic Landmark.

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