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As airplanes descend toward the Los Angeles International Airport, passengers are treated to a spectacular vision of light. The LAX Enhancement Project has created a colorful ring of newly installed 100 foot tall pylons that are observable at 3,000 feet in the air. The distinctive columns are part of an overall $112 million construction and landscaping program designed to make the airport more welcoming and convenient for the 64 million annual visitors. The changing hues of the 26 towers create a theatrical effect that adds excitement and drama to the airport while showcasing the lights of the city.

In addition to the gateway columns, the renovation project includes landscaping improvements, enhancements to the second-level roadway and the terminal areas, and bold new 32 foot high signage. "This project is symbolic of all that the City has to offer, while also raising its visibility to travelers from around the world," said Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. "These improvements, and those yet to come, have made LAX a world-class landmark."

Towers of Light

The Gateway LAX Enhancement Project includes the addition of 32 foot high silver signage backlit in blue, along with the installation of 26 columns of light.

The pylons consist of structural steel support frames that are encased in a layer of translucent, tempered glass. They are part of an overall design developed from a team headed by Architect and Principal Designer Ted Tokio Tanaka. "The primary theme of the gateway is aviation and the diverse culture of the City of Los Angeles," said Tanaka. "The pylons are oriented skyward, and the pylons along Century Boulevard are designed to mimic an aircraft takeoff pattern." The 15 towers forming a 560 foot gateway circle at the intersection of Century and Sepulveda Boulevards are an average of 100 feet high and 12 feet in diameter. Eleven pylons along the Century Boulevard median between Aviation and Sepulveda Boulevards are six feet in diameter and ascend in height from 25 to 60 feet. The columns will be lit from dusk until dawn showcasing a variety of colors and sequences.

In addition to Ted Tokio Tanaka Architects, the Gateway LAX Enhancement project required a wide range of professionals to complete such an enormous design/build endeavor. Some of the firms who participated on the design team included IMA Design Group, Inc., Landscape Consultant and Paul Tzanetopoulos, Lighting Artist. Members of the design/build team included Swinerton & Walberg Co., General Contractor; Nadel Architects, Inc., Consulting Architect; LRM, Ltd., Landscape Architect; Helix Electric, Inc., Electrical Consultant; Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design, Inc., Electrical Consultant; Woodbridge Glass, Glazing Consultant; and Scott Wallace Structural Engineers, Glazing Consultant.

The pylons consist of structural steel support frames encased in a layer of translucent, tempered glass.

"There were two landscape architectural firms involved in the LAX Gateway project," explained David Larkins, Principal & Project Director for LRM, Ltd. Landscape Architecture. IMA Design Group, Inc. was the Landscape Architect on the design team, while LRM, Ltd. was the Landscape Architect on the design-build team. "Our firm was selected by the General Contractor Swinerton & Walberg to produce the construction documents, coordinate the overall construction package with each subcontractor and design discipline, and secure all required permitting." In order for the two landscape consultants to work effectively together, a clear line of communication was established early on in the process. "IMA Design Group provided design support throughout the project when owner-driven changes were made from the original performance specifications," said Larkins. "The collaboration between our firms was very satisfying, and we believe, produced a very successful project."

The original design specifications played an important role in the bidding process. "Since this was a design-build project, Los Angeles World Airports created a set of performance specifications from which the various teams based their bid. This set of documents included design criteria which was developed by the Ted Tokio Tanaka Architects and IMA Design Group," said Larkins. The specifications listed for the lighting portion of the project contained some of the most complicated technical aspects of the design. "In my opinion, the biggest challenge for the lighting portion of the contract was the pylon lighting," said Larkins. "Beyond the obvious challenge that Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth had with the method of lighting, (that is, lighting the inside face of the glass evenly,) I think that coordinating the interior structural frame of the columns was quite challenging," said Larkins. "The steel frame, while providing the structural skeleton necessary to reach up 110 feet, had to provide a means to attach the curved glass panels, while at the same time, provide the lighting fixtures an unencumbered beam spread. My hat goes off to Greg Serrao at Nadel Architects, Steve Siciliani at Woodbridge Glass and Scott Wallace Structural Engineers for their terrific job."

Creating a Garden Experience

The Landscaping at Gateway LAX

In order to reflect the City’s commitment to the environment, landscaping upgrades play a key role in the Gateway LAX Enhancement Project. The landscape program revitalizes the three primary arterial entries to the airport, including Century Boulevard, Sepulveda Boulevard, and the Sepulveda/Century intersection. "For the landscape architecture included in the LAX Gateway Project, we found an opportunity to transform the airport into a garden experience," said Ron Izumita, Principal, IMA Design Group. "We wanted to recapture the charm and allure of Los Angeles in the '20s, '30s, and '40s, when the city emerged as a horticultural focal point for the world."

Gateway Pylons (Sepulveda/Century Intersection)

Rows of palm trees reminiscent of early California reinforce the circular pattern established by the Gateway pylons. The center circle has a 60-foot wide ring of Agave masses with the interior center providing a splash of color through the use of Bougainvillea, Camellias and red lava rock.

Trees: Brahea Palms, Purple Orchid

Shrubs: Camellia, Agave, Bird of Paradise, Bougainvillea, Star Jasmine

Century Boulevard Median

The formality of the Canary Island Palms, Tipu, and Mexican Fan Palms provide a strong rhythm accentuating the pylons along the median. Informal drifts of "California Garden" plant materials soften the structured appearance.

Trees: Canary Island Palms, Tipu, Mexican Fan Palms

Shrubs: Century Plant, New Zealand Flax, Bougainvillea, Lantana, Rosemary, Rockrose, Annuals, Gazania Groundcover

South Side of Century Boulevard (50-Foot Wide Buffer Zone)

Hundreds of flowering accent trees are located along the south side of Century Boulevard. A mosaic "California Garden" with numerous varieties of flowering plant materials were selected to provide color from early spring through late fall.

Trees: Deodar Cedar, Jacaranda, Purple Orchid, Gold Medallion, Chinese Flame,

Crape Myrtle

Shrubs: Peruvian Lily, Blue Hibiscus, Kangaroo Paw, Rockrose, Jade Plant, Crinum, Dragon Tree, Red-Hot Poker, Lantana, French Lavender, Horsemint, Fountain Grass, Sage, Santolina, Sedum, Lamb's Ear, Yellow Oleander, Princess Flower, Verbena

Source: Los Angeles World Airports

Reflectorized Light

The performance specifications set up by LAWA outlined the design intent of the project, but the actual engineering of the plan wasn't fully realized. For the companies hoping to work on the project, a tremendous amount of research was required in order to create an appropriate bid. In particular, the lighting design companies involved in the bidding process had to define some details that were not part of the specification information. "There were a lot of details that were undefined," said Dawn Hollingsworth, LC, Principal of Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design, Inc., the Electrical Consultants hired by Helix Electric, Inc., the Electrical Contractor on the design-build team. "The glass itself was not defined. There was just a concept of internally illuminated glass towers that were required to change color. So it was pretty open as a specification in terms of the source that was used."

Written under the direction of the master planning team, the performance specifications contained requirements for the brightness of the columns and suggested that the light source be fluorescent, cold cathode, or neon. The rest of the specifications were written around those potential sources, including the requirement that red, green, blue, and white source colors be available in order to create hundreds of new colors from those primary hues.

The Gateway LAX Enhancement Project has created a colorful ring of newly installed 100 foot high pylons visible to airline passengers at 3,000 feet in the sky.

"We did a number of tests on various sources with sample glass that we got from the Nadel Architects," explained Hollingsworth, winner of the Architectural Lighting Designer of the Year Award from Lighting Dimensions International 2000 for her work on the LAX project. "We found in our analysis that those sources weren't bright enough to meet the specifications. So we tried to find a different light source for the pylons." Once tests showed that the team would have trouble getting enough fluorescent or cold cathode into the pylons in order to create the right brightness, the designers diverged from the linear lighting solutions proposed in the master specifications toward a more theatrical reflectorized lighting source.

An additional reason for the change concerned the proposed plan requirement for the absence of structural shadows. "We knew we would not be able to get smooth illumination on the glass with a linear source because you would see the source right through the glass," explained Hollingsworth, adding, “and we did not have enough room to pull back the source." The potential costs involved also influenced the source change since expensive electrical and dimming ballasts, along with thousands of lamps per pylon, would have been required if the team had chosen fluorescent lighting.

The towers of light showcase a variety of changing colors and sequences from dusk until dawn.

Once it was determined that reflectorized light would be the best source for the pylons, the team developed a better way to light the towers. "In essence, we needed to graze the glass, and if we used a diffusing material on the back side of the glass that had a strong matte finish, we could use that material to catch the light and move it vertically up inside the tower," explained Hollingsworth. "We knew the more diffuse we could get into the interior surface glass, the better our chances that the glass would catch the light and appear luminous." Working with Woodbridge Glass, the material ultimately used was three-eighths of an inch clear glass, with a layer of safety film, and two layers of diffusion inside.

The research used to determine the best lighting option was completed before any contracts had been secured. "Part of being on a design-build team is that we're contracted by the electrician who wants to submit a bid on equipment and labor, as well as design," said Jeremy Windle, LC, Associate, Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design. Extensive research is a pivotal tool in determining the best design approach needed for the project. "In order to determine what the equipment and labor is going to be, we figured out what the design needs to be, so that the company we're working for can put together the rest of the bid."

After completing mock-up tests using the glass supplied from Nadel Architects, Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design also generated computer modeling and simple calculation techniques. Once the bid was awarded, the team created full-scale mock-ups of the pylons with the glass contractor. The sheer scope of the project proved to be very motivating and energizing for the team. "We looked at the rendering provided by the master plan team, and by its very nature, we knew that this was going to be a phenomenal project to be involved with," said Hollingsworth.

Lighting Challenges

The Gateway LAX project presented a unique challenge to the team responsible for lighting the 26 pylons. "This project is different than anything else we've worked on," said Windle. "Imagine your toughest lighting challenge and then multiply it by 26." The size of the pylons had already been determined by the time the firm was hired, leaving the design team little input in terms of being able to change the dimensions of the pylons in order to accommodate light sources.

The varying sizes of the pylons presented the biggest challenge for the lighting design team. The 15 towers located at the Sepulveda location, and 11 pylons located along Century Boulevard, are each slightly different from the next. For example, the pylons at Sepulveda range between 88 and 110 feet because of grade conditions, but they all top out at 210 feet above sea level. Their elevations and internal structure are not identical. These variations created the need for additional adjustments to the original design as the project progressed. "The steel core superstructure is actually square with the circle of the glass cylinder around it, so the distance between the glass and the steel structure varied across each face," explained Windle. "But in order to maintain uniformity, the light fixture had to be the same distance away from the glass. Now you're cantilevering a 100 pound light fixture and 30 pound bracket, eight inches off a two inch steel structure." A structural engineer was brought in to provide the necessary expertise in dealing with issues of dimension.

Gateway LAX Lighting Fixture Schedule

Century Boulevard Median Pylons

Altman Outdoor PAR CDM with Wybron Mariner CXI color changer

Lamp: 150 watt T6 MasterColor metal halide from Philips Lighting, 4000K

Gateway Pylons at Sepulveda

Martin Professional Exterior 600 automated color-changing washlight

Lamp: 575 watt MSD 575 metal halide from Philips Lighting, 5000 K

Gateway L-A-X Signage

Kim Lighting AFL10 Architectural Floodlights with fixed hoods, various beampatterns

Lamp: 100 watt ED17 MasterColor metal halide from Philips Lighting, 4000K

Kim Lighting AFL20 Architectural Floodlight with fixed hood, spot distribution

Lamp: 250 watt ED28 Designer Color metal halide lamp from Venture Lighting, Blue Deluxe


Lumiere Coronado in-ground luminaire

Lamp: 70 watt PAR30 MasterColor metal halide from Philips Lighting, 4000K spot distribution

Hydrel 7000 Series exterior floodlight, tight spot distribution

Lamp: 70 watt T6 MasterColor metal halide from Philips Lighting, 4000K


Martin Professional ProScenium DMX512 lighting playback controller

Four synchronized units customized to include astronomical time clock, over 2000 channels running on six universes of DMX

Source: Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design, Inc.

Adding to the challenge was the fact that the project is located in the heart of Los Angeles. "That particular area of Los Angeles is on three earthquake faults. That was another issue structurally. Obviously, lighting came secondary to the structure," explained Windle. “We knew we had roughly 110 foot pylons and that we had to put lights in them. But it was all based on steel driven by the California seismic code, as well as vortex shedding, or wind loading."

In addition to the pylons, another important part of the Gateway LAX Enhancement project was the creation of bold new signage. The striking image of illuminated letters delivers an exciting focal point to the airport. The silver L-A-X letters are approximately 8 feet deep and 32 foot high. Designers used architectural floodlights 8 feet off the face of the letters. The top of each fixture is even with the bottom of each letter. Backlit in blue, the letters contain 5 or 6 fixtures per structure. "The backlighting idea that Windle thought of really helps to sculpt each piece and give dimension to the inside faces of the letters," said Hollingsworth.

Gateway LAX Pylon Information

Century Boulevard Median Pylons

Number of Pylons:11 (of 26 total)

Height:25 feet to 60 feet

Diameter:6 feet

Materials:Steel truss structure with curved translucent glass cladding

Glass Thickness:3/8 inch with protective film on inner face

Gateway Pylons

Number of Pylons:15 (of 26 total - forming a circle 560 feet in diameter)

Height:Average of 100 feet

Diameter:12 feet

Materials:Steel truss structure with curved translucent glass cladding

Glass thickness:3/8 inch with protective film on inner face

Lighting Capabilities

Colors:300 color variations

Programs:15 different programs

Program Duration:3 hours of each program

Lighting Concept

“For the Gateway LAX Project, aviation and the diverse culture of the City of Los Angeles are the primary themes. The pylons are oriented skyward, and the pylons along Century Boulevard are designed to mimic the takeoff pattern of an airplane,” according to Architect and Principal Designer Ted Tokio Tanaka. The pylons are lit from dusk until dawn in a variety of vivid colors and sequences.

Source: Los Angeles World Airports

Adding dimension to the airport is one of the most important results of the recent enhancement project. The distinctive new signage, along with the drama of the gateway towers, will help the LAX airport light up the City of Los Angeles for many years to come. LASN

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February 16, 2019, 6:31 am PST

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