BY MATT STROMBERG
After laying dormant for the better part of a decade, an iconic piece of public art came blinking back to life last night in downtown Los Angeles. Michael Hayden’s Generators of the Cylinder originally made its debut along the exterior façade of the International Jewelry Center, across from Pershing Square, in 1982. Upon the building’s completion, LA Times architecture critic John Dreyfuss panned the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill structure, but called Generators its “saving grace,” remarking “All that saves the building from almost total offensiveness is a remarkably beautiful and exciting neon light sculpture by Michael Hayden.”
The installation consists of a 270’ long sequence of polycarbonate semi-cylinders that house argon tubes hand-painted in a rainbow of colors. 27 infrared sensors detect the body heat of people walking below, sending this data to a computer hidden in the building’s parking garage. The lights flicker and dance in thousands of programmed permutations that reflect this pedestrian activity. 3,000 square feet of stainless steel paneling mirrors the action. Finally, the semi-cylinders are holographically etched to create a rainbow effect when hit by the sun from a certain angle, one of the earliest uses of holography in an artwork of this scale.
After more than two decades, the sculpture eventually fell victim to insufficient maintenance, coupled with economic woes and changes in building management as Carolina Miranda notes, and was shut off in 2008. That is until last fall, when Michael Grosswendt of All Coast Construction was chosen by the building’s new owners to restore the piece. After a thorough cleaning and refurbishment involving everything from replacing fuses to overhauling motherboards, the work was ready for a reboot.
Last night just before dusk, a crowd gathered outside the Jewelry Center to witness the re-lighting. They listened to remarks from Hayden, Grosswendt, and others, including a Canadian cultural attaché (Hayden was born in Canada). Dressed in a tux with long silver hair spilling out from under his black hat, Hayden recalled how he was responsible for the palm trees planted in front of the building in the early 80s. Arguing that the proposed deciduous trees would have blocked the view of the lights from nearby Pershing Square, he had threatened to cut them down.
In the intervening years since the work was first installed, Hayden has produced a number of public art works – most notably a 1987 mile-long neon piece in Chicago’s O’Hare airport – that enliven and transform mundane spaces. His original intention with Generators, he said, was to create a work that everyone could enjoy, not just “card-carrying gallery goers,” as he put it. Then, as the sun began to set, a switch was thrown somewhere and the sculpture flashed to life, casting a rainbow glow on all those assembled.
Generators of the Cylinder is now on view 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the International Jewelry Center, 550 S. Hill Street in Los Angeles.