Originally published May 30, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
Poised in the center of Los Angeles International Airport like a flying saucer that has just landed is the iconic Theme Building. Looking at the graceful lines of its space age architecture summons memories of early Sci-Fi movies, and if you listen closely you can almost hear a theremin play. Welcoming visitors from all over the world since 1961, its vision of the future was as high-tech as it got back then. In fact, the TV show The Jetsons was created in 1962, one year after its construction. In George Jetson’s futuristic animated landscape, all buildings resembled the Theme. A plaque in the entranceway credits a joint venture of three architectural firms, Pereira & Luckman, Welton Becket & Associates and Paul R. Williams, but lately Chinese-born architect Gin Wong, who worked at Pereira & Luckman, has been given the most credit for the initial design.
Inside the odd, 135-foot tall, spider-like building are two elevators, one leading to an observation deck and the other leading to Encounter Restaurant. The elevators themselves are really quite surreal, with space ship overhead purple lights and a button panel that may remind you of a foreboding dream you had about visiting the alien mothership, or perhaps it was the Scientologists.
The elevator on the left leads to an observation deck which overlooks the terminals of LAX. The observation deck had spent the majority of the last decade closed due to terrorist fear after 9/11 and a 3-year retrofit between 2007-2010. I felt fortunate to find it open. With an amazing 360-degree view of the arriving and departing planes, merely the vantage point is a marvel in itself. The original design of Los Angeles International Airport had all of the terminal buildings and parking structures located under a giant glass snow globe-like dome, but when that didn’t seem feasible to build the Theme Building was erected in its place .
Entering the elevator on the right and pushing its button will not only lead you to the Encounter Restaurant, but will give you an unexpected burst of strange music seriously resembling Esquivel. Encounter opened in 1997, re-modeling and replacing the more formal Theme Room restaurant that had been in place since the building’s opening. Its interior was designed by Ed Sotto and Ellen Guevara for Walt Disney Imagineering and they took the futuristic, mid-century modern ball and ran hard with it. Perhaps because the restaurant re-model is already 16 years old it does not look “done” or “Disney-fied.” Instead it looks just tacky enough to have been original and just bizarre enough to fit the building’s motif. With giant working lava lamps, kidney shaped recesses in the ceiling and large multi-colored glass panels resembling giant Shrinky Dinks, this is over the top retro kitsch that somehow gets away without trying too hard.
Whether you stay to eat a meal, have a drink or just play tourist-gawker, you will be rewarded with the experience, even if you typically hate to linger at the airport for long. This building is part of what makes our city unique and that which reminds visitors from all over the world that Los Angeles really does march to its own beat.
The Theme Building: 209 World Way, LAX Airport, Los Angeles, CA 90045. Encounter Restaurant: (310) 215-5151.
*Note: Encounter Restaurant has gone out of business since this article was originally published.