LOS ANGELES — If there's any lesson in the $1.9 billion spent on the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, it's that big architecture can't make your city a destination. Not anymore.
You can build yourself a bit of pleasure, beauty even, in that brief moment before a jet takes off or lands, and you can make security less of a hassle on your next trip to Singapore or Sri Lanka, but even a great building won't get people to fly to you, only through you.
In a world gone virtual, physical spaces are outdated even before the plans are drawn. We'll always need buildings to keep the rain off our heads, but they're no longer mass magnets for our convening or communing. There will never be another Bilbao, the Spanish city the world flocked to because of single building, Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum. Never a second St. Louis, able to develop a tourism industry off Eero Saarinen's giant arch.
It took a building as large as Bradley to make this clear because there were high hopes it would it be a landmark, and the project, the largest in Los Angeles County history, did everything possible to make that happen.
The terminal didn't have a superstar architect in Denver-based Curtis Fentress, but the guy has serious cred, especially in transportation, where he remains a hero for his iconic 1994 design of the playful, white-peaked Denver International Airport. Fentress' 2001 Incheon International Airport, in South Korea's largest city, is revered as a model of efficiency and for spawning the aerotropolis movement, which aims to make airports into cultural centers. The complex is sleek and optimistic, with a golf course, bath house, museum and ice rink.
L.A. let Fentress fly, and his firm developed a scheme with a soaring roofline that repeatedly rises, crest and falls, reflecting the swells of the Pacific Ocean nearby. Inside, it offers the kind of space air passengers long for. The grand hallway, massive with row upon row of check-in counters, is tall with enormous skylights, clerestories and walls of windows that keep it bright and airy. It's a grand piece of Western construction, sprawling and free, and wide enough to haul around your carry-ons.
Fentress allowed the roofline to define the interior, too. The ceiling, all white, arches upward, supported by a skeletal framework of structural ribs. In some corners it feels like you are in the belly of a giant whale.
But locked in the center of the giant "U" that is LAX, it's hard to see the building from a distance, and its exterior attributes are nearly impossible to appreciate. The Bradley terminal had this going against it from the start, though the architectural model looked promising and the sheer power of the pricey project made you believe the building's outline could become the stuff of legend and building tours, and postcards.
In some ways, the idea that an airport could be a design leader is rooted in another place and time, in that era when air travel was glamorous and boarding a plane meant taking a ride toward the future. Saarinen captured it best in the exuberant curves of 1962's TWA terminal at JFK, and scores of airports, from D.C. to San Francisco, Beijing to Dubai, have taken their cues from his ideas. Fentress imitates it with flair at Tom Bradley.
That said, the LAX disappointment may be less about the fact that air travel has become such a drag and more about how we see the world these days, which, by and large, is via computer screens. You used to have to go places to be places; now you can Skype and save the jetlag. You can get to know a foreign culture by looking at its Facebook pages and YouTube posts, hold your business meeting by video conference, see the best work from the world's top museums online at the Google Art Project.
Using your iPhone to share facetime with mom at Thanksgiving isn't the same as eating her green bean casserole, but we're getting accustomed to the convenience. It's less important to be there, or to be anywhere, and that affects our regard for buildings.
You can see a desperate recognition of this at the Tom Bradley Terminal, which overcompensates by turning the place into a shopping mall. There's an L.A. bent to it: Officials invited the major retailers from upscale Rodeo Drive to open outposts in the terminal, and it is crammed with Burberry and Gucci and the like. There are oversized billboards inside, like you see on Sunset Boulevard.
Unfortunately, this is the stuff of bad casinos, not good airports, and it's easy to resent stores most people can't afford, especially when they're out of England or Italy in the first place.
The airport does better with its public art, a series of L.E.D. screens spread about the terminal that show continuous videos, including a full-fledged black-and-white tribute to the golden age of Hollywood musicals that kicks off every hour. The pieces are well done and consumable whether you have 30 seconds or a couple of hours to kill.
This is the moment where the airport seems to truly understand its own time period and geography. The technology is whiz-bang and the inspiration is local. More important, the art is digital and replaceable and it can grow and change as the way people experience art changes.
Good moves like that may be where the real future of architecture lies because they respect its essence. All buildings should be handsome, positive assets to their community, but the thing that separates this art — the very thing that defines it even — is its balance of function and good looks. Presenting art is a noble purpose, just like getting travelers to their gates.
So are all those other things architects have come to focus on in the new millennium. The profession, with its green buildings, practically started the neo-environmental movement and it continues to lead the world to a better place. Today's architects are designing novel public housing projects that bring dignity to their inhabitants, creating healthy work spaces that make labor less a task, preserving history and helping regions define who they are.
There's no shame in designing a tourist attraction, though more and more it seems like a waste of time, a folly for oil states and rising powers with something to prove. The flashy building had its day, but it was never all that noble, and it never made the world a better place.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, email@example.com or twitter.com/rayrinaldi