Like cars in a freeway pileup, art and reality will collide spectacularly in downtown Los Angeles if Luther Thie gets his way.
Thie is an Oakland-based sculptor who wants to construct a 100-foot-high fountain at a major freeway interchange that will pay simultaneous homage to Los Angeles' car culture and to victims of California traffic accidents.
The fountain's spurting column of water would be electronically programmed to change height and color, reflecting the severity of accidents under investigation by the California Highway Patrol.
The higher and darker the spurt, the more serious the accident, Thie said.
A large digital signboard listing details and the location of the incident would be incorporated into the fountain and flash information in real time, he said.
Thie wants to build the fountain in the middle of a large loop formed by curving connector ramps that link the 110 and 10 freeways near the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"This would be a real-time memorial. It would really try to be respectful in honoring those who have died in traffic accidents. But there is a Ballard-esque fascination with highway catastrophes," said Thie, referring to author J.G. Ballard's controversial 1973 novel that centers around car crashes.
"I don't want to be flippant about it," Thie said. "I think there could be a spiritual element to this."
The fountain would also serve as a constantly changing reminder to motorists to slow down -- even though the 531,000 vehicles that funnel through the interchange each day often move at a mere crawl.
Thie, 45, grew up in Los Angeles. He lived in the Mid-Wilshire area and taught third grade at Norwood Street Elementary School a few blocks from the interchange before moving to Oakland in 1990.
It was traffic congestion that chased him out of Southern California, he said.
"I moved to Oakland to get away from commuting. In Los Angeles, my life was constantly commuting," Thie said.
He began drawing up plans for the fountain -- which he calls "L.A. Interchange: A Real-Time Memorial" -- about seven years ago. He has built an 8-foot functioning prototype, complete with spurting water, colored lighting and a small CHP incident readout sign.
During frequent visits to L.A. to see his family, Thie has scouted for an appropriate site for a full-size installation. He became enamored with the elevated 110-10 interchange after driving surface streets beneath its transition ramps and elevated traffic lanes.
"The interchange has the shape of a figure eight. It's where the oldest freeway in California meets the one that connects the Eastside with the Westside. It's the hub of L.A," he said.
"The L.A. mentality has created the modern freeway concept, an interactive, spreading organism. Los Angeles was built as a car city, and now all the traffic has negated that original benefit. The world is experiencing what L.A. already has experienced."
Thie has explored the area beneath the interchange on foot. Near Venice Boulevard and Wright Street, he found half a dozen privately owned buildings -- some unoccupied -- that are surrounded by one of the connector loops. A CHP office sits within the figure eight's second loop.
"When I saw the CHP office there, that made it perfect," he said.
Under Thie's proposal, the structures beneath the ramp would be removed and the fountain would be installed in the center of a park that would be dedicated to victims of traffic accidents.
The fountain's computer and its digital sign would be connected to the CHP's real-time incident website. The computer would automatically evaluate the seriousness of each call, ranking the severity on a scale of one to five and determining the height of the spurting water and the color of ground-level lights that illuminate it.
"It would be incredibly dramatic at night. I think it would be very contemplative and reflective. People will think about slowing down, about the fragility of life," he said.
It would be expensive too.
Thie estimates that the fountain would cost several million dollars. Land acquisition and development of the park would cost millions more. He doesn't know where he will get the money but hopes it will come from a variety of public and private sources.
"I know that relocation of businesses and tenants there now would be quite costly. But I think it could be well worth the cost," he said.
Thie has contacted some of the property owners directly about the availability of their land and plans to use county assessor's office records to track down the others. He said he hopes to involve the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. "I know they're doing a lot of redevelopment along Figueroa between the Staples Center and USC," he said.
CRA spokeswoman Kiara Harris said her agency has plans to develop several new parks near downtown with the use of Proposition 84 funds. She said she will alert the CRA board to expect a call from Thie.
Although two small apartment buildings at the proposed fountain site are for sale and several other industrial buildings there are unoccupied, at least two business owners said they are reluctant to vacate their centrally located properties.
"We're not interested in selling," said Gui Patusco, manager of City Fare Catering at Venice and Wright. His company employs more than 30 people.
Neighbor Robert Read's digital printing supply firm has 15 workers. His 73-year-old, third-generation family-run business might be willing to relocate if the price was right, Read said. "We're not going to be donating our property," he said.
At the CHP office on the other side of the interchange, Sgt. Doug Young said his agency appreciates anyone who recognizes the work that its officers do. But he predicted that a thorough study of the fountain's environmental and safety impact would be required before it got his department's endorsement.
"I can see it being distracting to motorists. But that's something engineering studies will have to address," Young said.
As to the appropriateness of using CHP real-time accident data to cause the fountain to dance: "That's for the artist and for society to determine," he said.