LAX’s Greatest Upgrade: The New TBIT

Video signs above the Great Hall shopping plaza show videos of travel and movement

LED panels above the Great Hall shopping plaza show videos of travel and movement

Recently, the folks at Los Angeles International Airport invited local residents to a sneak preview of what promises to be the most elegant gateway to the West Coast when it opens later this fall: The Curtis Fentress-designed Tom Bradley International Terminal expansion. At a cost of roughly 4.7 billion dollars, it’s the largest capital improvement project in the history of the city. It’s also being built entirely with funds from airport operations. That’s right, not a single taxpayer dollar went into this massive modernization project designed to welcome travelers to the City of Angels.

Arguably, the best view of this massive steel and glass structure is from a plane that’s taxiing into one of the new double-decker gates that flank the Western side of the structure. From there, it’s easy to make out the graceful array of curves inspired by the crest of the Pacific ocean waves. But as gorgeous as the new building is, I daresay one of my favorite features of the remodel is actually out on the street:


The new LED outdoor lights in front of the Bradley have a fantastic mid-century jet age style that, at least to a local, feels unmistakably Los Angeles. The look is distinctly Googie, a style birthed in the gas stations and restaurants of an age slowly becoming forgotten in these modern times (unless of course, you’re of that particular genus of culture nerd that can’t get enough mod/tiki culture no matter how hard you try). I can’t help but be reminded of the sea gulls that lazily ride the coastal winds at the beach. The real joy here is that they plan to extend this lighting scheme and the new outdoor digital signage across the entire terminal loop over the next couple of years. It’ll be a much needed visual improvement that compliments the iconic Theme Building nicely.

Back inside, it’s worth noting that an impressive amount of large, dynamic video screens were installed throughout the Great Hall area as a way of convincing people to look up from their phones and experience the space around them. I suppose it’s not too surprising that they’d go this route, since they’re basically competing with small dynamic screens in everyone’s pockets for their attention. This is executed rather superbly at the entrances to the Northern & Southern gate areas, where vertical LED panels display semi-interactive video content:

Screens leading to the Southern gate area display destinations you might be departing to, and the trails react to people as they pass by.

Screens leading to the Southern gate area display destinations you might be departing to, and the trails react to people as they pass by.


Screens guarding the Northern gates display a series of “guitars” whose strings are plucked as people move past them.

These are great examples of how digital art can engage people. Unfortunately, I think the architects threw a clunker our way in the form of a serious missed opportunity blinded by good intentions. Behold, a digital waterfall:


I’ll be the first to admit that this photo doesn’t do the grandeur of this installation justice. For starters, you see this as you pass from the security checkpoint into the Great Hall across a bridge that gives you a defining view of the TBIT’s impressive volume (there are at least 3 stories below you and 2 above). It’s a little bit like crossing a crevasse in the Fortress of Solitude. Directly ahead of you is a tall screen showing pictures of people jumping on the beach in slow motion. Don’t even get me started on that. As you cross this threshold, a giant floor to ceiling digital waterfall is on your right. I stopped and stared at it for several moments. It’s practically impossible to not be distracted by its size.

I find myself a little bit shattered that they didn’t use real water. This could have been an incredible sensory experience of sight and sound, but instead it’s well… flat and superficial. Welcome to Hollywood, kids. The display is a bizarre self-referential acknowledgment of Hollywood’s ability to fabricate reality in two dimensions. On the one hand, I get the practicalities of not using real water on such a grand level, but I can’t help but think that it’s the wrong concession to make when you’re trying to create an environment so tangibly close to the sea, one that’s also clearly trying very hard to connect with it.

That said, this place is a wonder, and it’s not even finished. Word is out about the amazing new Star Alliance lounge located on the upper area of TBIT’s Great Hall, which offers guests the chance to lounge on a rooftop deck on the Eastern side of the building and offers views of the entire city. A large-scale model of the terminal on display at the nearby Museum of Flying in Santa Monica gives a good idea of where that deck will be:

northeast view

Wondering what it looks like from inside the Great Hall? Here you go:


The lounge lives in that third steppe and opens to the outside. I don’t know about you, but I hope with all sincerity that I’ll get to explore its contents one day. As it stands right now, my only international travel on the books will happen via LAX’s T2, which is downright depressing by comparison. I guess I have to find a way to get into the good graces of Korean Airlines


Or perhaps SIngapore Airlines


But until I get a call from them, I’m afraid I’ll just have to dream of what it’s like to pass through one of TBIT’s new double-decker gates and onto an A380 headed to points beyond. To those of you heading Down Under, trust: I’m insanely jealous.


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