Can a $100,000 grant revive the Triforium, L.A.’s ‘weird, strange beacon’?

Jona Bechtolt, left, Claire Evans and Tom Carroll are heading an effort to restore the neglected kinetic sculpture called the Triforium in downtown Los Angeles.
Jona Bechtolt, left, Claire Evans and Tom Carroll are heading an effort to restore the neglected kinetic sculpture called the Triforium in downtown Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Through its first 41 years, the concrete tripod with the rainbow swirl across from Los Angeles City Hall has done nothing so well as inspire clever putdowns.

The 60-foot sculpture, christened the Triforium in 1975, was soon mocked as the “Trifoolery” and “Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey.”

Its zany shtick — a light show of 1,494 colored glass cubes interpreting music played by a hidden keyboardist on 79 amplified glass bells — engendered even sharper barbs.


The Triforium became the “Psychedelic Nickelodeon,” the “Million-Dollar Firefly,” the “Schlockenspiel,” the “Kitsch-22 of Kinetic Sculpture,” the “Electrician’s Nightmare“ and “Joe’s L.A. Space Launch” — the last a slight aimed at its creator, artist Joseph Young.

Young’s “poly-phonoptic kinetic tower” was commissioned to anchor the Los Angeles Mall, which opened that year. It became as forlorn as the mall itself, which today awakens briefly each lunch hour only to shutter as city workers head home.

Over the years it played only intermittently. Embedded sensors to let pedestrians compose on it never worked properly.

Yet Young, whose works adorn buildings across Los Angeles, died in 2007 still believing that one day others would see the Triforium as he did: a vision of the “unfinished kaleidoscopic nature of the city.”

Now, his creation’s day of redemption may finally be near. A plan is in the works to renew the Triforium, not only by restoring its original luster but by reviving its light and sound with digital technology.

The impetus comes not from the city or even advocates for historic preservation or the arts, but from a trio of L.A. aficionados who had become enthralled with the unloved tower.


Tom Carroll, the Tom behind the quirky YouTube series “Tom Explores Los Angeles,” was introduced to the Triforium in 2005 on a tour led by Occidental College lecturer James Rojas

“I loved it, really fascinated by it,” he said. “It was sad, this weird, strange beacon.”

Carroll made the Triforium the subject of his third video episode in 2013 and started taking out-of-town friends downtown to “marvel at it, wonder about it, be confused by it.”

He began to wonder if it could become an attraction, like Chris Burden’s “Urban Lights” at LACMA.

“If we could do that to Civic Center,” Carroll mused. “That’s what the Triforium provides, an interactive urban light. The idea was special.“

He began to discuss “activating” it with two friends, Claire Evans, also an Oxy graduate, and Jona Bechtolt. The Oregon transplants have a band called Yacht and have created the free website “5 Every Day” that highlights things to do in the city.

They nursed the idea for a couple of years.

Last year they held a 40th birthday party for the Triforium. A city worker opened the control room and turned on the electricity. The lights still worked, at least those that were not burned out.


“Then we just hit a brick wall,” Carroll said. “The project stagnated. We didn’t have any money to work with. Private funders didn’t come through.”

So they took a long shot, applying to the MyLA2050 grants challenge. Every year the Goldhirsh Foundation, the legacy of a magazine magnate, awards $1 million for innovative projects to realize the goals of the city’s LA2050 report.

Grants of up to $100,000 are given in five categories, Learn, Create, Play, Connect and Live. Winners are chosen from among those who can muster the most support by online voting.

“It helped that a couple of us have platforms to broadcast from,” Carroll said.

They pitched a $100,000 grant in the “Play” category. The Triforium was a hit with the online voters and the Goldhirsh judges.

“Joseph Young’s vision for the sculpture was imaginative, pairing technology and arts in a way that was well before its time,” Goldhirsh Foundation president Tara Roth said announcing the award. “Triforium Project is going to help Los Angeles breathe new life into a piece of our cultural history.”

The Triforium Project’s three entrepreneurs were no less rhapsodic.

“Restored to its intended grandeur,” they said on their fledgling website, “it can shine a light on public artwork itself — and signal the flickering of a new movement, one that encourages people to reclaim and celebrate public artworks in their cities.”


The magic will be in the control room, below the Triforium in the underground mall. A primitive computer there once converted hand-keyed notes from the 79-bell carillon — now long removed — into the synchronized light show.

The refrigerator-sized computer would be replaced by a small processor with an internet connection.

Musicians and students around the city would use a smartphone app to compose music for the people, Evans said. And, sensors would finally allow pedestrians to compose with their feet.

But the three activists still must navigate the hurdles that confounded the project 40 years ago.

From the day of its debut, the Triforium was caught in a struggle for control between bureaucrats and artists — a struggle won by the bureaucrats, Young believed.

In a letter to The Times 18 months after the Triforium’s debut, Young said the city’s “catatonic management” had “systematically aborted its immense creative potential by brazenly converting it into a ‘million-dollar jukebox.’ ”


History doesn’t record exactly when or why the bells stopped ringing.

Young blamed the city for poor maintenance that dogged the operation from its first day, when an electrical malfunction delayed its dedication by half an hour.

Reports from the 1980s noted that the tower had been dark and silent for many years.

But a manager for the city’s General Services Department told The Times in 2002 that the city shut down the music a few years earlier after a judge in the federal courthouse across the street wrote a letter complaining that it was disturbing his courtroom.

A 2006 restoration led by then-Councilwoman Jan Perry brought the music back, after a fashion. The bell carillon was disconnected and a CD player set up. Employees from the Sbarro restaurant walked across the mall to start and stop it.

Felicia Filer, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs public art division, which owns the Triforium, said she learned about the renovation plan through news reports and has not yet met with the team.

“We’re happy to restore it,” Filer said. “It’s a great piece. But we’re at the pre-conversation phase.”

Inevitably, the future of the Triforium will be tied to the future of the Los Angeles Mall, which may turn out to be its gravest threat.


Today, Fletcher Bowron Square, at the mall’s north end, is frequented primarily by homeless people who seem untroubled by its broken pavement and dying landscaping.

City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents downtown, has asked the city staff to prepare a plan to “make Civic Center a more engaging, pedestrian friendly, active and dynamic space.”

Though the Triforium is part of the city’s art collection, it has not been designated as a historic-cultural monument, leaving it vulnerable should the council decide to raze the mall.

Carroll worries that its fate could be dictated by the decades of ridicule captured by Los Angeles Times commentator Patt Morrison in a 2006 riff that didn’t exactly call for its demolition.

“I want it there, where city officials can see how permanent and public their screw-ups can be,” Morrison said.

But Huizar has come out strongly in its defense.

“It’s not just that its design was ahead of its time,” a statement from the councilman’s office said, “but also the designer’s goal to have people engage it as pedestrians, something that we’re really promoting now more than ever.”


Twitter: @LATDoug


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