The ominous shadow first appeared over the city of Los Angeles in 1961. A few years earlier, in 1958, the architectural firm Pereira & Luckman—which would later design the Otis College of Art and Design, the Los Angeles Zoo, the old Disneyland Hotel, and several wings of the brand-new Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among dozens of other structures spread across Southern California—had been contracted to bring the Los Angeles International Airport into the modern “jet age.” The original plan called for a tangle of terminals, parking structures, and other buildings to be linked at a central point by a giant steel-and-glass dome. But the plan proved unworkable, and instead at the center of LAX (as it became known) was constructed the Theme Building.
By the 1970s, the futuristic, space-age Theme Building had become both a key symbol of the L.A. Dream—a Disneyesque fantasy of fast, cheap, and plentiful transport moving constantly along sleek rails and roadways, through parabolic tunnels, and driven by atomic-age magically clean energy—and a civic symbol of Los Angeles itself. But to a nervous, suburban kid the Theme Building was something else. It looked less like a civic symbol than it did a marauding spaceship from Mars, perched atop groping mechanical legs that spread out over the landscape. This may have had much to do with the times. Growing up in the wild decade of the 1970s, surrounded by a constant churn of freeway traffic, forever enveloped in a foggy haze of polluted air, and ever menaced by growing hordes of people, energy crises, gas lines, economic uncertaintly, and the constant threat of world annihilation, the Theme Building seemed strange and frightening—the vortex of a looming alien invasion. Except the aliens in this case weren’t creatures from Mars, but people from elsewhere looking to horn in on the (increasingly overcrowded) local good life.
Or such was the message that this kid got—from my suburban-based, inner-city-averse family. Today, the building is less a menace than it is a quaint bit of Googie architecture—not quite as well known as Seattle’s Space Needle, but, as one of the few airport buildings still remaining from its era, a pretty enduring relic of another, more stressed out, all-but-forgotten time.