LA Design: Digital Seduction at LAX

The new Tom Bradley International Terminal is memorable as much for its display of vast, constantly changing, digital screens as it is for Curtis Fentress-designed ”Great Hall,” that is packed to its curving gills with high-end shops aimed at Pacific Rim flyers.

Digital art lit up at LAX

The new Tom Bradley International Terminal is memorable as much for its display of vast, constantly changing, digital screens as it is for Curtis Fentress-designed “Great Hall,” that is packed to its curving gills with high-end shops aimed at Pacific Rim flyers. But this digital “Environmental Media System,”  created by MRA International and Sardi Design, is also intended as a novel revenue generator—the first of its kind in a US airport. Guy Horton took a tour with the designers.

Walking through the recently renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX feels like stepping into the visual equivalent to Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. This is what he might have had in mind if the technology had existed in 1978, I think, as I am being shown the building-height media installations comprising the terminal’s new Integrated Environmental Media System (IEMS) (see video here.)

lax, bradley, BV_WW Jumpology 2My guides are Mike Rubin, President and CEO of MRA International, who developed the concept and directed the execution of the IEMS, and Marcela Sardi, President of Sardi Design and lead designer of the system’s seven media features.

The goal behind this first-of-its-kind fully-integrated system was to transform the “non-place” of the modern airport into a destination. “We wanted people to stop, take a moment, and create memories,” says Sardi, of the 12,000 square feet of LED tiles, and hundreds of LCD screens carrying some 60 ultra-high-resolution original images. “It’s nice to visit and see total strangers starting conversations over it,” she adds.

We are standing in the terminal’s Great Hall, a good vantage point to see most of the elements working together. A group of children runs over to what is called the Time Tower, a 72-foot-tall LED-clad secondary structure around the Great Hall’s elevator tower (shown towards rear of hall in image below.) When in range of the motion sensors positioned at its base their waving arms send cascades of shimmering bubbles up the tower.

“It’s amazing,” says Mike Fuller. He and his family are making an international connection from Utah. “The clarity of that picture is just incredible and the fact that you can interact with it…” His 8-year-old daughter, Rita runs back and says, “It’s so cool!”

The tower also displays a clock that yields to a succession of travel-themed imagery and sequences reminiscent of Busby Berkeley or the silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The massive visuals, generated by LEDs, seem made up of millions of pixels that materialize and dematerialize before your eyes.

Great hall3 Features

“We really had to fight hard for this,” says Sardi. The elevator tower is just one example of the opportunities she identified in the terminal’s design and then had to coordinate and modify with Fentress Architects to achieve the best possible media effects.

Other people have stopped to watch the tower dematerialize into a galaxy-filled cosmos. Lynda Zhang says she flew in from Shanghai just to see the system in action. She says she works for IKEA Group China. When I ask if they are thinking of something like this for their stores, she laughs. “Oh no,” she says. “We develop shopping centers and we want to do something like this on a large scale.”

lax bradley Portals_Dubai 18One reason they would be interested is because of the business model developed by Mr. Rubin. Beyond the obvious spatial and entertainment aspects, the immersive environment is intended to help increase revenue generated at the terminal annually, a significant jump over what can be generated from simple commodity-based advertising. And it does so without obvious ads.

As a result, visitors get the impression these installations are a kind of public art, when in fact large-scale, non-revenue-generating public art installations by artists Ball-Nogues, Pae White and Mark Bradford are due to be installed in the coming months.

But the EMS is wiped free of traditional advertising through sponsorship (e.g. Omega Time Tower) and digital activation, or “second screen” opportunities that link the IEMS system with passengers’ hand-held devices. Passengers are intended to interact with the media through “show control” functions.

“Logistics have taken over the experience of flight,” says Rubin. “Here the idea was to create moments of delight through a social medium that people can engage.” And he’s right. Once I got through TSA, shoeless and beltless, all the worldly possessions from my pockets clattering in a plastic bin, I emerged into a different LAX, a different spatial experience altogether, one I look forward to returning to—as a traveler next time.