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Airport restaurant provides an unearthly lighting challenge

Built in the early 1960s as part of an overall $50 million "Los Angeles Jet Age Terminal Construction Project," the LAX Theme Building was a vision and symbol of an optimistic future with its skeletal, flying-saucer-like appearance.

Now, more than 30 years later, Buffalo, N.Y.-based CA One Services Inc.; joint-venture partner Connie Bass, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur; and Walt Disney Imagineering have created an extensive night lighting program for the exterior and transformed the building's interior into Encounter restaurant.

The restaurant's numerous windows, which allow patrons a spectacular view of the airport and the city, made the project a challenge to light, says Walt Disney Imagineering lighting designer Michael Valentino. "We didn't want to shoot light into the guest's eyes and obstruct their view, so traditional lighting was not possible," he says.

The night lighting program uses Dallas-based Irideon Inc.'s wash luminaires that "bring the building's parabolic arches to life," he says. The lighting bathes the building with constantly changing shades, such as magenta and electric blue, in addition to traditional white lights.

"The fixtures are mounted at the base of the building's central core and radiate out. It gives the viewer a sense that the building is floating and adds to its spaceship look," Valentino says. "We programmed between three and five looks for a 15-minute time period, and we slowly transition from one look to the next." The fades between cues are one to two minutes long, making viewers unaware of a change until after it has occurred. On every quarter hour, according to Valentino, there is a "quick 30-second show with rapidly changing looks and sweeps of color. After the show, the program returns to slow fades with a new set of cues until the next quarter hour."

Inside the restaurant, the design merges the 1960s vision of the future with retro 1990s chic, featuring curved walls and furniture as well as molded structures that create intimate coves within the restaurant. Other design elements include a crater-shaped bar countertop and bar guns that emit laser lights and futuristic sound effects when bartenders pour a drink.

"The sophisticated sci-fi feel of the interior provides the perfect backdrop for what I call 'jet set' dining in a space age atmosphere," says designer Ed Sotto, who led the design team at Walt Disney Imagineering.

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