Airport Urbanism: Cultural Drivers at LAX

Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 02: Buzz or Noise?
Fall 2012
by Katherine Harvey and Michael Pinto


The airport is both autonomous and hyper-connected. Separated from the city it serves, the airport provides connections to an array of destinations, near and far. Yet its remote and generic qualities result in an indistinct character lacking both temporal and geographic contexts. For a traveler, the space of the airport is one of transition and displacement. Disorientation is a given. The LAX Cultural Planning Study proposes a counterpoint to this turbidity by introducing tangible connections, with renewed cultural engagement and a traveler’s lens for discovering art. It incorporates art and culture into the airport, while simultaneously situating the airport within the larger landscape of the city.

In 2010 Osborn was commissioned to embark on a cultural planning study for the LAWA Art Program, a collaboration of the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). This entailed a series of day-hikes through the eight domestic terminals of LAX where we made observations from the perspective of an outsider. As we were not departing to any destination, we were free to witness the strange social spaces of the airport. Our charge was to discover how the LAWA Art Program could attain a more significant presence within the amalgam of sanitized waiting areas and commercial avenues that dominate the terminals. Major airlines developed whole or partial terminals, defining their territory through branding. Conversely, terminals serving multiple airlines, which were typically developed by LAWA, remain relatively clear and brand-free. The airport came to represent a microcosm of the city, although more privatized and less comfortable. It was clear that creating a focused presence and breathing room for art was a challenging mission in this environment.

Four Layers

The proposal for the LAWA Art Program will act as a strategic plan, implementable over time, on a terminal-by-terminal basis. The plan was conceived as a series of layers superimposed on the existing airport facilities to create a network for art and cultural engagement. However, art alone would not create a cohesive presence. The art had to be supported by new programming, public awareness, and a vigorous pursuit of overlooked opportunities within the airport. The plan outlines fixed elements that act as the armature for fluctuating exhibitions, programs, and an active web presence.

One of the first steps in the strategic plan was identifying existing art space typologies and creating a corresponding site catalogue to locate these typologies within the terminals. Many of these spaces had already been appropriated for the display of art. However, many more opportunities could be converted. Once identified, these typologies were categorized to define what they would most fruitfully exhibit; for instance, sound, video, or kinetic installations. From this foundational base, we developed three other layers, each intended to enhance cultural interaction between passengers and the LAWA Art Program. Proposed elements take the form of graphics, spatial interventions, and interactive digital and downloadable bits. The airport’s existing architecture is modified to accommodate these cultural exhibits and events.

The four layers, attractors, knots, strings, and art space typologies, each support the strategic plan. The attractors act as cultural living rooms, carving out places from the conventional terminal space for new programming. These places offer divergent experiences separate from the airport’s extensive waiting areas. As iconic pavilions inserted throughout the terminals, they accommodate mixed programming ranging from cooking demonstrations to performance art. Such conspicuous insertions invite travelers into a unique and surreal displacement while at once introducing the cultural life of the actual city. The strings act as connective tissue. Taking the form of graphics or mobile exhibitions, they provide a cohesive narrative of art and culture. The knots are fixed and distributed nodes, in the form of maps, mobile applications, or interactive screens. These punctuate the travelers’ flow and provide a guide for navigating LAX’s cultural amenities. Art space typologies exploit the existing airport spaces to accommodate any of the aforementioned layers or simply provide a wall to hang art. The superimposition of the layers reinforces a new grain for navigating LAX and perceiving the city beyond its walls.

Case Study

Terminal 1 was elected for a case study implementation plan. As the busiest terminal for regional travelers and with the greatest number of gates, it guarantees an abundance of participants for an experiment in cultural activation.

The case study anchored attractors around two neglected landscaped areas within the terminal in order to force a reconsideration of these un-programmed spaces. A new symbiotic relationship between the new cultural living rooms and the dull landscaped zones can develop. In such a way, the juxtaposition of the cultural rooms and their extended gardens inspire new projects, events, and dialogue between the old and new layers of the airport.

We scoured Terminal 1 for similar opportunities to imbricate the new layers with the old and to redefine these spaces with a fresh sense of purpose. Unused baggage alcoves are display cases, soffits are embedded with sound or lighting installations, columns are outfitted with graphics, and atriums are curated with sculptures.

Beyond the Airport

The role of art in any airport is typically peripheral to the predominant mission of airport operations. By treating the airport terminals as extensions of the city itself, the relationship between airport and city becomes paramount. The strategic plan seeks to unify the airport’s environment for art, while highlighting Los Angeles’ cultural offerings. And a feedback loop from city to airport and back to city is possible. Exhibitions at LAX are opened as virtual windows at the Barnsdall or Watts Towers Art Center, with the work of these and similar cultural institutions featured within the airport. The strategic plan’s multiple layers provide countless possibilities for connectivity and expand the city’s cultural territory in both physical and virtual terms. LAX holds rising cultural potency and offers a new urban network of cultural tourism.

See the complete project in strategies

Michael Pinto (AIA) is partner in the role of Design Principal at Osborn where he steers design toward an expressive functionalism: his work is influenced by the realities of program, structure, and building technology while aspiring to beauty, simplicity, and harmony with nature. His projects consistently advance sustainability in architecture and urbanism and he has received seventeen American Institute of Architecture awards in the past ten years.

Michael is currently an adjunct professor at Woodbury University and has taught at Art Center College of Design. For ten years, Michael was the director of SCI-Arc’s acclaimed Community Design Program, which engages students in research and construction of socially relevant projects for nonprofit and civic agencies.

Katherine Harvey (ASLA, LEED AP) leads the Landscape and Urban Design Studio at Osborn. Her professional work includes the design of the Miraloma Park for the City of Anaheim, master planning for the Olmsted Parkways in Louisville, Kentucky, and conceptual planning for a water reclamation park in Madrid, Spain. Katherine led Osborn’s award-winning team for the competition “A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions for Los Angeles,” which proposed implementation strategies for L.A. County Measure R funds. Katherine is currently an adjunct professor of architecture at Woodbury University. She received her Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning.

All images by Osborn.

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