One of the great pleasures in walking through cities is discovering its hidden visual delights. Indeed, the urban setting--a transition zone between the Central Business District and the high-rise office buildings and culture palaces on Bunker Hill--intensifies the unexpected appearance of the mural on PacBell's 16 story switching station.
The unusual but site specific mural mediates between the operations housed inside the building and the pedestrians walking on the adjacent street. As a metaphor of the dramatic way modern communication has changed the world, Europe is placed east of Australia, which is upside down, South America is separated and west of North America, and Africa is north of Eurasia. "This mosaic," Heinsbergen said, "was not intended to be a map. Our objective was to tell the story of worldwide communication by cable, radio, telephone and satellite and do this in a way that would capture the attention and interest of people. A certain amount of artistic license was taken to achieve this end." (1) Near the center of the mural, a brass statue modeled on a human figure used in Bell Telephone advertising during the 1960s, holds underwater cables with one hand and a satellite transmitter with the other. A radio beam transmitted up to a small replica of Echo I, the first Bell communication satellite, is relayed to a receiver located in Russia. Red, green, blue and purple patterns representing different ocean depths in the background mosaic tile bring a welcome dash of color to the streetscape.
The mural stood at the cutting edge of the avant-garde. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, harking back to Marcel Duchamp's "readymades", were introducing found objects into their sculpture. Heinsbergen paid homage to these pioneers by cementing abstract compositions of coils, coin box chutes, relays and capacitors--parts that were widely used in the telephone system at the time--on the tile. These small components reinforce the link of the 300 foot microwave tower on the roof to telecommunications. Numbers are randomly scattered throughout the mural in recognition of their importance in telecommunication. (2)
When Heinsbergen first drove to the site, he noticed a map in his car and instantly decided to include the world's continents in his design. He submitted a sketch of the unusual layout to officers at Pacific Telephone for their approval.(3) Heinsbergen executed the work, which was built concurrently with the construction of the building, in an enclosed workshop he constructed on the street in front of the wall.
James S. Cantlen, vice president and general manager of Pacific Bell, described the mural at its dedication in May, 1961 as illustrating "for all who pass, the scope and breadth of electronic communication in today's shrinking world." (4) For many who do pass, the distorted world is often scrutinized with a mixture of interest and puzzlement. A time capsule called the "Capsule of Communication," was buried when the building and mural were dedicated to be opened 50 years later.
Footnotes:1 "Turnabout Is Fair Play," by Jack Smith, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1973, Pt. IV, p. 1.
2 "Los Angeles Communications Complex," Press Release, Pacific Bell, June 20, 1972.
3 Interview of Harry Sarerus of A.T. Heinsbergen & Co. by Michael Several, February 23, 1984
4 "Art in Business," Pictorial California and the Pacific," Vol. 4, 1961.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, May 1999.
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