As soon as you leave baggage claim, the apologies begin. "We are in the process of building a world-class airport for Los Angeles," one announcement offers by way of explanation for the discomforts, delays, or other hassles you'll soon endure. The increasing frequency with which I use Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX, has inured me to many of its difficulties, but that specific mitigating promise has stood out since I first heard it. You'd expect a city as future-oriented as Los Angeles to keep its main point of entry up to date, but how can it have put off making its airport truly "world-class" until now, solidly into the 21st century, over eighty years after it first opened?
In his essay "Where Worlds Collide," Pico Iyer finds LAX "a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place, certainly not adorned with the amenities one might expect of the world's strongest and richest power." Almost twenty years on, parts of it still come off, like much else in Los Angeles, as inexplicably unfit for a city of such undoubted economic and cultural prominence. Underneath the speakers promising that bright future, arrivals have one of the least appealing ground-transportation experiences in all the major airports of North America; the endless scrum of private vehicles weaving in and out of one another's paths — a system that works haltingly in practice and surely not at all in theory — must look sadly familiar to those coming from, say, a struggling Latin American country.
They emerge to find, in Iyer's words, "a Van Stop, a Bus Stop, a Courtesy Tram Stop, and a Shuttle Bus Stop (the shuttles themselves tracing circuits A, B, and C)," "the All American Shuttle, the Apollo Shuttle, Celebrity Airport Livery, the Great American Stageline, the Movie Shuttle, the Transport, Ride-4-You, and forty-two other magic buses waiting to whisk them everywhere from Bakersfield to Disneyland," "Koreans piling into the Taeguk Airport Shuttle and the Seoul Shuttle, which will take them to Koreatown without their ever feeling they've left home" and "newcomers from the Middle East disappearing under the Arabic script of the Sahara Shuttle." They see a showcase of how Los Angeles' perhaps unexpected brand of unromantic pragmatism, one that casts the illusion of every man for himself and nobody in particular taking responsibility, tends to produce such inconvenient, confusing situations with surprising regularity.
Yet this near-utilitarian sensibility also produces a landscape, both inside and outside LAX, punctuated by curious things settled poignantly on the line between beauty and ugliness. One sign welcoming newcomers as their escalator delivers them to street level depicts a casually dressed Mayor Eric Garcetti standing before Watts Towers. Then, when they exit, they glimpse in the middle distance the airport's Theme Building. Completed just a few years after Simon Rodia's backyard cement spires, the Theme Building projects a similarly unfathomable set of intentions. Designed originally by its all-star team of mid-century modern architects as the airport's very hub, it eventually opened, after retooling, down-scaling, and various constraints had taken their toll, as little more than a striking Space Age container for a tricky-to-access, poorly regarded, now-closed restaurant. Even its design, still beloved of die-hard Googie fanatics, came out badly compromised, involving support from both four majestically wide-set legs and a thick central column, making for what Charles W. Moore calls "belt-and-suspenders futurism."
Spend enough time at the airport, and you feel tempted to take everything as representative of everything else. Iyer finds the forlorn Theme Building "the ideal symbol of LAX," and LAX itself "almost too easy" to call "a perfect metaphor for L.A., a flat, spaced-out desert kind of place, highly automotive, not deeply hospitable, with little reading matter and no organizing principle." And in its far-flung location, unintuitive layout, arrogant grayness, and apparent demand for both endurance and optimism (my own hope for a rapid-transit connection, the likes of which I use in nearly every other city, springs particularly eternal), the place does rigorously present all the arguments against Los Angeles well before you've left its perimeter.
Yet the elaborate miracle of civil aviation persists on its grounds; an airport — and a close-to-pure expression of everything we've come to associate with the very concept of an airport — it remains. "I've got an idea, or rather a place, a setting," said Tintin creator Hergé, contemplating the possibilities for what would become the boy reporter's final adventure. "I want the whole story to take place in an airport, from start to finish. An airport is so rich in human possibilities, a meeting point for different nationalities: the whole world on a reduced scale can be found at an airport! Anything can happen there, tragedies, jokes, exoticism, and adventure." And I daresay this holds not just somehow truer for LAX than for the world's more glamorous airports, but truer for Los Angeles than for the world's more functional cities.
Both the city and its airport have launched serious modernization schemes in recent years: the former's expansion of rail, for instance, or the latter's construction of the slick new brand-intensive Tom Bradley International Terminal. These add a certain appeal, but at its core, Los Angeles has never needed anything more to recommend it than a fact you can see illustrated at LAX, the world's busiest origin-and-destination airport, all day, every day: people simply keep coming. They came before 1930, when the future LAX humbly entered service as Mines Field. More came in 1961, when the Theme Building opened; many more came, from all over the world, in the mid-1980s, when Moore dismissed it. Iyer writes vividly of the even more diverse flow of international, culturally hybridized humanity encountered there a decade later. If it surprises us that LAX, or indeed Los Angeles, has failed to attain the trappings of the "world class," it surprises us because, even without them, it's come to contain the world itself.
Photos by Colin Marshall.
This concludes KCET Departures' year of essays excerpted from the upcoming book "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City." You can keep up with publication updates at colinmarshall.org. Thanks very much for reading.