The lights of Los Angeles are visible as far east as Palm Springs, Calif., with a brightness that builds in a steady crescendo with your proximity to the Pacific coast. On approach into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a cluster of color-changing, illuminated pylons marks arrival at the airport. These pylons, which were installed in 2000 to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, have become an identifying feature of the airport and are, in part, serving as design inspiration for a new series of improvement projects that are currently underway.
In recent years, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the authority that runs LAX, which serves 63.7 million passengers annually, has proposed a series of enhancements to upgrade the airport’s dated facilities. From the centrally located 1960s-era Theme Building to the general passenger experience, LAWA will spend approximately $4.11 billion on airport modernization projects over the next five years.
As part of these improvements, a team made up of AECOM, which is headquartered in L.A., and the Culver City, Calif., office of Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design (HLB) executed the first phase of lighting upgrades outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), components of which will be rolled out across the rest of the terminals in phases over the coming months. These kit-of-parts upgrades include new canopies at the entries to TBIT, new light poles to illuminate two levels of circulatory roadways, and a polychromatic horizontally oriented light ribbon to tie all of these elements together.
When the gateway pylons were first installed, each of the cylindrical towers—which range from 30 feet tall along Century Boulevard to 100 feet tall at the entrance to the airport—was outfitted with 32 exterior-rated color-changing luminaires. In 2006, another initiative to upgrade the airport facilities and reduce maintenance costs, timed well with evolving lighting technologies and saw the switch to LEDs from fluorescents, which had been falling into disrepair. (See “LAX Pylons Undergo Makeover,” Jan/Feb 2006.) The current effort, dubbed the Central Terminal Area (CTA) Curbside Appeal Project, aims to extend the iconography of the gateway pylons through the rest of the airport using a light ribbon—LED strips mounted behind a glass fascia that sits at the edge of the upper roadway bulkhead and the canopy—that syncs with the changing colors of the entry pylons to create a cohesive lighting experience.
Along the roadway itself, 91 new light poles, lit with LEDs, replace the existing high-pressure sodium fixtures. These light poles—inspired by the ’60s style of the Theme Building and taking their sculptural form from airplane propellers—illuminate both the lower departures level and the upper arrivals level to create what designer Carlos Madrid calls “a celebratory procession moving through the airport.” (Madrid was with AECOM at the time of the first phase. He has since joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.) HLB senior principal Teal Brogden describes the design process as emanating from “an aesthetic desire to create something that feels uplifting or upward-reaching, but also speaks in the vocabulary of the Theme Building.”
One of the challenges that the light poles presented was finding a fixture that would fit within the length and slender profile of the arms. The lower arm of the pole houses a nine-foot-long fixture with nine 12" LED boards. The upper arm of the pole holds two, 9-foot-long LED fixtures, or 18 LED boards. As Brogden tells it, LAX has embraced solid-state lighting, so there was never any question about the use of the technology, just a question of fit. “There’s a very nuanced detail of how the wires are managed,” she says. “Changing the way the wires are managed to the edges of products, rather than directly behind the LEDs, gives us a little more room to set the LEDs further into the sculptural form, to make the experience of the cut-off a little more gradual.” HLB found an existing 1-inch-wide roadway component which would fit—when oriented 180 degrees from how it would normally be applied. The pole arms themselves serve as heat sinks, and modifications by the manufacturer allow for end-to-end placement of the linear LED arrays for uninterrupted lines of 3500K white light cast on both levels of the roadway.
Now that the installation of the first phase is complete, Brogden says that the team is planning a few modifications to the LED components for the next phases, which will deploy light poles around the rest of the airport’s horseshoe-shaped circulation artery. “We’re working alongside maintenance at LAX to make sure [the fixtures] are a little more plug and play.”
Brogden also credits the pole fabricator and the manufacturer of the pole LED fixtures for ensuring that their products would work in this environment. The designer–manufacturer relationship has taken on an even more collaborative approach in the second phase. “It’s been the kind of work environment that I think everybody dreams to be able to work in,” Brogden says.
In addition to modifications to the entry landscaping, AECOM and HLB have established a new series of entry portals into TBIT. What was a sunken plaza has now been filled to be level with the sidewalk. Above, a continuous, 800-foot roadside awning replaces steel-and-glass space frame canopies from the 1970s. Three entryways into the terminal feature 16-foot-diameter skylights with perforated screens that filter natural light during the day and are backlit at night.
AECOM was careful in its efforts to make these simple, blade-like structures appear weightless. “While they all seem quite simple; they’re quite complex,” Madrid says. “It’s all kind of concealed on top of the canopies, so you can’t see it from the street level. But there’s been a lot of modeling.” Beneath the canopies, 5W-per-foot 3500K dimmable LED fixtures provide an ambient layer of light to make the space feel more welcoming.
Brogden speaks about influencing passenger experience through subtle details like materiality and surface finishes. “The intent was to have an environment that felt softly luminous, but had enough specular components to have a little bit of glitz,” she says. Using specular finishes on white surfaces and matte finishes on silver surfaces was a way of “catching the light and reflecting it back to you in that softer muted way that feels a little bit like the glisten from a receding wave.”
Expanding on that metaphor of the ocean, the light ribbon—synced to the gateway light pylons—will also feature color shifts that mimic waves. The HLB team captured video of the beach at sunset and fed it into a scrambler for the DMX control system, which abstracts the images across the broad pixels of the light ribbon to emulate an understated sense of motion.
In addition, from the same earlier project that brought the entrance’s gateway pylons came a roadside planter installed along the upper roadway edge. “That’s just been a maintenance issue for them … and it was never very lush with plants,” Madrid says. “So that is coming down, and will be replaced with the light ribbon that runs through the whole CTA on the edge of the roadway.” The light ribbon, now installed along the upper roadway bulkhead, will also be extended to both ends of the terminal roadways in upcoming phases, merging the experience with the gateway pylons.
HLB and AECOM conducted luminosity tests from the LAX control tower to ensure that their lighting enhancements would not disrupt visual sight lines and the day-to-day activity of aircraft landings and takeoffs. “We were excited that we actually got to go up into the tower and take measurements, so that we could then give them some predictive luminous mapping for new schemes,” Brogden says. “Everyone was on board with not only creating a more forward-looking experience, but also enhancing the safety with full white light. We’re glad that they were curious, because it would be unfortunate if anything along the way was to be an issue and we hadn’t studied it ahead of time.”
The spirit of curiosity inspired the entire team. With AECOM, HLB, and the light pole manufacturer all located in the Los Angeles area, drop-in meetings to discuss the design became routine. “I was fortunate to be in the city in which the manufacturer and engineering team sat,” Brogden says. “I made arrangements to just stop by and show the project to them. … If the folks that are working on the project can get excited about the vision of it, you usually have people’s buy-in, and you can encourage their partnership in the process and honor their expertise.”
Now that the first phase is complete, the team is focusing on finding the best solutions for rolling out the next of its kit-of-parts improvements. Already, the collaborations between designers and manufacturers have yielded a more customized, more maintenance-friendly solution for the LED light poles. When complete, the entire airport will reflect the glow of the gateway light installation, pulsating with the vibrancy of the city it occupies. “L.A. is a city that’s very spread out,” Brogden says, “but there are always bits of L.A. in motion.”
Project LAX Central Terminal Area (CTA) Curbside Appeal Project, Los Angeles
Client Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA)
Architect AECOM, Los Angeles
Lighting Designer Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design, Culver City, Calif.
Project Size 15,350 square feet (roadway and light ribbon); 28,750 square feet (canopy)
Project Cost Withheld at Owner’s Request
Watts per Square Foot 4.11 (light ribbon); 0.409 (other areas)
Energy Compliance California Title 24 Manufacturers/Applications
Acuity Brands/Winona Lighting linear LED fixtures at the canopy
Bega-US 22W LED spotlights uplighting the light pole
Cooper Lighting custom LED fixtures for light pole
ETC light ribbon lighting controls
Lutron Electronics lighting controls
Penwal Industries light pole fabricator
Philips Color Kinetics color-changing LEDs for light ribbon