Mocked by politicians, denounced by art critics, and handicapped by technological limitations, the Triforium has nevertheless survived, if not as one of our city's most beloved landmarks, surely as one of its most recognized. Robert Stockwell, the Mall's architect, commissioned Joseph Young to execute a tall work that would serve as both a focal point and as a symbol for the Mall. Young's first proposal, a bell tower, was discarded after problems arose in the planned sound system. He then designed the Triforium to symbolize the interdependence of the three branches of government. Conceived to integrate art, science and music into a unified physical, visual and audio theme, the work was described by Young as "a bold, confident statement that expresses man's faith in the future." Attached at approximately the midpoint of each of the three two-legged arrow shaped legs, is a bay of 22 vertical steel columns of various lengths containing between 19 and 24 colored glass prisms. Each prism was handblown in Italy and houses a light in its hollow center. The total weight of the Triforium's 1494 prisms is approximately 15 tons. An electronic harmonium, a 79 note glass bell carillon with two octaves of English bells, and two octaves of Flemish bells forged by Gerald Finkenbeiner of Waltham, Massachusetts provide the music for the Triforium. Operated manually from a console, or controlled from a computer, the bells transform sound to color and regulate the intensity of the lights inside the prisms. To avoid audio distortion, loudspeakers hang below the arches of the reinforced precast concrete legs instead of behind the glass bays as originally planned.
Young envisioned laser beams shooting into space from the Triforium, making it the world's first astronomical beacon. He also wanted to create a multi-media dialogue between people, light and sound with sensors that would transform the movement of pedestrians passing under the work into changing patterns of color and music. However, as the initial estimated cost of the Triforium increased from approximately $250,000 to nearly $1 million, City Councilmen attacked the work as a "psychedelic nickelodeon," a "million dollar firefly," and as the "Trifoolery." To control the cost overrun, the laser beams, the electronic sensors and a manually operated dimmer for the prism lights were eliminated.
City officials responsible for developing the Mall responded to the Triforium's critics by claiming it will increase the value of the commercial space by drawing people to the Mall during evenings and weekends for concerts and cultural events.
However, the impact of the Triforium did not match its promise. Young never achieved the effects he wanted because the sculpture was not wired properly and the Mall's physical isolation prevented it from becoming the lively cultural and social center its promoters had hoped.
Two years after its dedication in 1975 by Burl Ives and Eddie Albert, the Triforium was honored by being on the cover of the Pacific Bell central telephone directory. This provoked new complaints about the Triforium. This time, however, they came not from politicians, but from the art community. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, an art consultant claimed that the Triforium was "universally despised by every member of the Los Angeles art community". For the same price, she wrote, Los Angeles could have imported a work from England by Henry Moore or one from New York by Louise Nevelson. There are, however, few people today who believe that sculpture by either of those distinguished artists would have been any more successful than the Triforium in overcoming the detrimental effects of the Mall's physical isolation.
Despite its unfulfilled hopes, the Triforium was the world's first public sculpture to integrate light and sound by use of a computer and it remains one of the few public art pieces that applies modern technology to enrich and intensify its impact.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, August 1997.
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