In the Great Hall of LAX's new Tom Bradley International Terminal, time dances – literally – on a giant clocktower.
Every hour on the hour, the Time Tower, a four-sided, 22-metre screen plays Dance Time, a Busby Berkeley-esque dance number in which the legs of smiling showgirls create a fleshy kaleidoscope inside the clock's whirring gears. It's a startling visual interpretation of a travel truth: Our heightened awareness of being on a schedule – of minutes ticking by, carefully monitored and measured – co-opts our perception of time itself.
For years, the Los Angeles International Airport has been avoided by savvy travellers needing a stopover on their way to Asia or Australia. It has become drab and archaic over the decades, and is now a purgatory of curbside snafus, awkward terminal transfers and other faults too numerous to list. At the world's sixth-busiest airport, it has been clear for many years that the hub needed a major upgrade.
Now, in time for holiday traffic, we have it: Tom Bradley International Terminal opened in September, completing Phase One of a $4.3-billion improvement program meant to improve the passenger experience on every level – from traffic flow to shopping and dining options. The Time Tower is just one of the innovations: It is part of the new Integrated Environmental Media System (or IEMS), a set of multiscreen displays incorporated into the architecture of the terminal. The name is complicated but the idea is simple: to restore some of the glamour and excitement to travel by dealing with its most dreaded time suck, the layover.
"There was a sense that we wanted a grand gathering space, and for the terminal to be an attraction in itself," says Nancy Kettner, the IEMS project manager. "We really want passengers to feel like they've landed in Los Angeles, and everything that goes with that."
The IEMS screens incorporate data from the airport's computers and play more than 40 hours of original video content produced by Moment Factory, a Montreal multimedia studio famous for its sound-and-light shows. They've done projections on Barcelona's Sagrada Familia cathedral, and worked with Arcade Fire, Nine Inch Nails and Madonna, but nothing as large-scale as turning a terminal into an ever-changing multimedia experience.
"All our features are designed with the sense of the magic of travel in mind," says Sakchin Bessette, Moment Factory's creative director. "We also designed the features to follow the passenger's movements, so that what they are seeing is a journey in itself: glimpses of different moods, ambiences, locations."
Of the seven IEMS features, the Time Tower, which sheaths an elevator shaft, is the most impressive – and it also happens to tell the actual time. The screen, taller than any in Times Square, dominates the visual space of the Great Hall, where passengers enter the terminal before they head off to their gates.
I am here to take in all 40 hours of content; not an easy task, since, with the exception of Dance Time, the content is programmed so the average passenger never sees the same thing twice. As I set up camp at the foot of the Time Tower, I hardly feel as if I am in a busy transcontinental hub. The natural light, muted acoustics and free WiFi create an executive-lounge vibe. Though people rush past me, I can almost feel time slowing down and expanding. The features that blighted the old LAX have faded away like bad dreams. For better or worse, even the real-life tragedy of the November shooting in Terminal 3 seems far away.
The Concourse Portals, at the outgoing arms of the Great Hall, are designed to propel travellers to their gates with a burst of excitement: 10 8.5-metre-tall LCD screens combine flight info and data about passenger flow (gathered by sensors in the IEMS) with little visual "moments." As I walk by the North Concourse portal, each screen column is strung with one quivering string of a jazz manouche guitar: The next outgoing flight is to Paris.
Keeping an eye on screens is just one way to pass the time. I could opt to window-shop at the first non-streetside Fred Segal store, nosh on caviar and champagne at the food fair's Petrossian outlet, or perhaps pick up a $10,000 Chateau Lafitte 1982 from the DFS wine cellar. It almost seems worth flying through LAX just for the shopping.
But I choose to watch the clock some more. Dance Time is long gone, and the Time Tower is now a four-storey-tall pile of vintage suitcases accompanied by a hot-air balloon and butterflies.
The display intermittently shifts back to an abstract 3-D design of the 24-hour clock, rotating, slowly, as time marches on. If these images are meant to alter my experience of time passing, they're working – so much so that I am actually startled when Dance Time starts playing again, signalling an entire hour has elapsed.
I am not the only one taking notice. At the base of the tower, people take selfies and activate sensors inside frosted-glass panels by touching the walls and entering and exiting the elevators, sending tracers of light streaking up toward the top.
All of the design and architecture elements are meant to contribute to the functionality of the terminal. But the IEMS does more: At its best, it manages something that borders on art.
Moment Factory has even managed to elevate the lowly departures screen. Instead of a flickering, barely legible list of flights, the Destination Board in the Great Hall is large and clear, surrounded by pictures. One of these, Data Cloud, is my favourite thing in the whole terminal. It is created by the combined wind-speed readings in L.A. and at the destination of the next outgoing flight; a recomposing pattern reminiscent of ocean waves, but also global flight paths, or neural readings. It's as beautiful as anything I've seen in a gallery.
If I am already where I want to be, is this really even a layover?