See L.A.’s Strangest Sculpture Shine Bright Once Again

Built in the 1970s, the Triforium was designed to sync light and music but the costly venture was ahead of its time

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Chances are you’ve never heard of the Triforium, a hulking piece of retro-futuristic public art installed in Downtown Los Angeles' Civic Center. But, as Sarah Laskow reports for Atlas Obscura, later this week, the towering work will be unmissable as it blinks and clangs for the third and final night of “Triforium Fridays.”

The “polyphonoptic” tower, created by sculptor Joseph Young in 1975, was an ambitious work of art, sound and sight ahead of the technological realities of the day. The sculpture was designed to play music on a 79-bell quartz carillon with 1,494 multi-colored lights to blink along with the music. The problem was, the weak-sauce computers of the 1970s just couldn’t keep time with the music. It often sounded weird, the lights kept breaking, and the whole project turned into a much-maligned boondoggle, especially as its budget ballooned from $250,000 to just under $1 million.

According to Bianca Barragan of Curbed LA, the three-pronged sculpture was mocked as “three wishbones in search of a turkey,” “Trifoolery,” “Schlockenspiel” and the “Psychedelic Nickelodeon.” Eventually, the carillon bells were removed, its lights were allowed to burn out and the whole concept was mothballed. There’s a rumor the plug was finally pulled when a judge complained that the sculpture was interrupting proceedings in a courtroom.

Despite its technical difficulties, the 60-foot-tall work has stood its ground in DTLA for the last four decades. Some locals have even developed a soft spot for the sculpture. Tom Carroll, host of an L.A. travel guide on YouTube, who was first introduced to the sculpture in 2005, even made a video about it in 2013. “I loved it, really fascinated by it," he tells Doug Smith at the Los Angeles Times. “It was sad, this weird, strange beacon.”

In 2015, Carroll and his friend, the musicians Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt of YACHT, who also run an app that curates things to do in L.A., were behind a 40th birthday party thrown for the Triforium. There, they realized that lots of other people wanted to see the original vision of the sculpture fulfilled.

The group began working with city council member Jose Huizar and several arts nonprofits to find a way to turn on the Triforium again. They received $100,000 worth of funding from a Goldhirsh Foundation grant, which gives out money for projects to improve L.A, to go forward with their quest, and have spent the past two years thinking up a plan to execute it.

It’s no an easy task. The bells are gone, and it’s almost impossible to rewire the lights since the cables are embedded in the concrete pylons. Instead, the team had the idea of placing LEDs on top of the old lights connected to a computer. They also found some of the dusty 8-bit paper tapes used to play the original sculpture and translated them into modern software to recreate the Triforium’s original performances. They also invited local musicians to play near the sculpture for the series of Friday night shows, while a technician in the room below the Triforium syncs the lights with the music.

It wasn’t hard getting people signed up to play on the unique instrument. Comedian and musician Reggie Watts, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and composer Jherek Bischoff kicked off the first performance. Last week, electronic musician Julianna Barwick, the L.A. Opera, performance artist and composer Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs and the DJ Yacht took the stage. For the final performance, which will be staged this Friday, November 2, songwriter Thao Nguyen, the Taikoproject drummers and world champion whistler Molly Lewis and Dublab DJs will light up the night.

“I’ve always been fascinated by yesterday’s visions of the future,” Evans tells Laskow of Atlas Obscura. “Young was a utopian thinker and idealist. He thought art and music, light and sound, would be mediated into one art form, thanks to technology. I feel a responsibility as a member of his future to be as cool and as civically engaged as he imagined.”

For Young, who died in 2007, the failure of the sculpture was always a sore spot. “I get very upset when I see it,” he told the L.A. Times in 1996. “It’s like a baby who was never born.”

He did, however, get to see the work briefly restored in 2006. The bells were disconnected, reports Smith, and a CD player was hooked up instead. Employees from a nearby Sbarro would walk across the L.A. Mall to start and stop the music, though we’re guessing that wasn’t quite the utopian, civically engaged future Young was hoping for.

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