For travelers passing through Los Angeles, a new destination restaurant is serving up a creative close encounter. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) has redesigned the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as a space-age, out-of-this-world eatery called Encounter. Colorful lighting by Michael Valentino, WDI principal show lighting designer, plays a key role in establishing a fanciful look both inside and out.

Part of an extensive program by the City of Los Angeles Department of Airports to revitalize amenities at LAX, the renovation of the building was overseen by the restaurant's new operator CA One Services, a Buffalo, NY-based food-service company, and joint-venture partner Connie Bass, a Los Angeles entrepreneur. WDI chose a space-age design plan for Encounter to complement the building's distinctive structure, which was designed in 1961 by architect Paul Williams. With its skeletal, flying saucer-like appearance, the building has become a recognizable Los Angeles icon whose daytime image is frequently used as an establishing shot for TV shows and feature films. Valentino set out to create lighting that would make the location's nighttime look equally memorable. "We wanted to light the building in a way that both respected the building's architecture and made a statement about Los Angeles," he says.

"The exterior lighting was basically a separate project from the interior lighting of the restaurant," Valentino continues. "The client for the interior was CA One Services, but the owner of the building is the City of Los Angeles Department of Airports. The project's creative lead designer, WDI senior vice president for concept design Eddie Sotto, asked me to come up with a proposal to light the exterior of the restaurant to give the project greater impact. We took some photographs of the building, made a couple of Photoshop renderings of what the building could look like, then staged a test to illuminate a little over 25% of the building with equipment borrowed from a manufacturer. The staff at the Department of Airports liked what they saw and gave us the go-ahead."

Situated in the middle of the international airport and surrounded by busy circulation roads, parking structures, and air traffic control towers, the Theme Building represented quite a challenge to light along its exterior. Noting the circular structure's many windows, Valentino says he "didn't want to shoot light into restaurant guests' eyes and obstruct their view, so traditional [flood] lighting was not possible." He decided to light the building from the inside out, "as if it were illuminating itself."

Valentino specified 56 Irideon(TM) AR500(TM) wash luminaires for the building's exterior. The fixtures are high-output floodlights with internal dichroic color-changing mechanisms. Forty-four of them are mounted at the base of the building's central core and radiate out, with 12 more mounted on the observation deck to light the uppermost arches. "The lighting gives the viewer a sense that the building is floating and adds to its spaceship look," Valentino says.

Although the building's color at times appears to be static, "the look is actually constantly changing," the LD says. "We programmed between three and five looks for a 15-minute period, and slowly make a transition from one look to the next." Fades between cues are one to two minutes long, making viewers unaware of a change until after it has occurred. "One of the nice things with the fixtures, because they are dichroic, is that when you fade over a minute to two minutes, the building actually goes through a myriad of colors--everything from dark blue to aqua. Even though I programmed up to five looks within the 15-minute segments, you actually see quite a few more.

"Then, on every quarter-hour, there is a quick 30-second show with rapidly changing looks and sweeps of color," Valentino continues. "After the show, the program returns to slow fades, with a new set of cues, until the next quarter-hour. We also have the ability to do sweeps of colors. That changes the color of one leg [of the building], and then sweeps that color all the way around the building, like the way a second hand goes around the face of a clock. The way I start every quarter-hour show is to turn one leg white, while the rest of the building is in one color range, whether it's ambers or purples or magentas. When this one leg changes to white, the white light sweeps all the way around the building, then fades into another color, then another and another. That goes on for 30 seconds and ends in a single color, then a 15-minute slow program begins again.

"The AR500 creates about 80 very distinctive colors--colors that you could easily perceive a difference between," Valentino notes. "We tend to hit almost every color. The building looks good washed in the blues and purples and pinks, but there are a couple of cues with more unusual looks--acid green or amber, for example. The structure of the building allows a certain amount of separation, so that I could light the bottom section with a different color than the upper arches. Because of the color transitions, it was necessary to stay within a single color palette for each 15-minute segment. By design, we wanted to keep within a color range for a certain quarter-hour, then move into the next one. We didn't want to make this look like a disco," Valentino says. "This is a rather elegant building and we wanted to treat it with a lot of respect."

Controlled by an ETC Expression 2 lighting console, the exterior lighting encompasses two hours of programming--eight 15-minute shows. "We have used some beta software for the astronomical time clock," Valentino says. "When we told ETC what we wanted, they had been planning on coming out with it, but this is actually the first installation." The programmer for the exterior lighting was WDI's Paul Beasley. Valentino's WDI assistant lighting designer for both exterior and interior lighting was Lesli Bjork.

Inside the restaurant, the interior design theme is "a look back at the 60s while wearing the sunglasses of the 90s," Valentino says, borrowing a phrase from Sotto. The design team also dubs the look "Space-Age Dining for the Jet Set." The building was built as a symbolic gateway to Los Angeles, "at a time when the world was more optimistic about the future," Valentino says. "This building symbolizes that optimism about the Space Age, and we wanted to go back and tap into that."

Playing off the space's circular floor plan, the restaurant is filled with curvaceous, amoeba-like shapes, cast-glass "moonrock" walls, wedge-shaped banquettes, and themed features such as an ironic, lounge-lizards-meet-Star Trek music soundtrack and a bar gun that dispenses glowing drinks with sound and fiber-optic effects. Almost all of the furnishings and finishes in the restaurant are custom. "We wanted a distinctive look and liked working as much as possible with local artisans," Valentino says.

Like Valentino's exterior magic-making, the interior lighting plays a key role in setting the scene. "We spent a lot of time on the ceiling design to draw people into the space," the LD says. "Amoeba-shaped neon domes and the incredible sweeps and ellipses edged with neon pique people's curiosity. It was very difficult to devise a good ceiling plan because of the architecture of the building. We were dealing with an existing structure and had to design the ceiling around I-beams, air-conditioning, plumbing, and everything else." Neon, fabricated by Neon Solutions, accents the ceiling's domes and ellipses in hues of purple and blue.

Ardee Lighting MR-16 luminaires are used to downlight the curving bar. "The lamps are almost flush with the trim ring, so it makes this nice little sparkling addition to the bar," Valentino says. The balance of the downlighting in the room is accomplished with Prescolite MR-16s. To highlight a patterned glass wall near one seating area, the lighting team employed Prescolite framing projectors rather than typical wall washers. "The glass wall could really only be lit from one side," the LD says. "If you lit it from both sides, it tended to kill the effect. The framing projectors reflect off the dichroic mirror inside the wall, and no spill light drops down on the tables."

For a signature look to top off the bar, Valentino placed 2'-tall (60cm) lava lamps outfitted with flying saucer dishes. Customized by Rinaudo's Reproductions, the fixtures are off-the-shelf lava lamps for which WDI designed new shroud bases and the flying saucer tops of stainless steel.

Although the lighting of the restaurant appears colorful and in keeping with the futuristic theme, Valentino points out that "the lighting, for the most part, is extremely task-oriented. There aren't any extra lights in there. The entire restaurant has a lot of incredible reflective surfaces. I worked with WDI interior designer Ellen Guevera to carefully plot the fixture positions. We really didn't want to detract from anything with the lighting, other than to showcase the ceiling, which is in itself a huge showcase element of the entire look."

Architecture editor William Weathersby, Jr., is the co-author with John Radulski of Pleasure Paradises: International Clubs and Resorts, a book just published by PBC International.

Clients CA One Services, City of Los Angeles Department of Airports

Interior and Lighting Design Walt Disney Imagineering

Design Team Paul Beasley, Lesli Bjork, Lloyd Bressler, Chris Florin, Ellen Guevera, Eddie Sotto, Michael Valentino

Architect Steven Langford Architects

Equipment Irideon AR500 luminaires ETC Expression 2 lighting console Ardee Lighting MR-16s Prescolite MR-16s Prescolite framing projectors Neon by Neon Solutions Customized lava lamps by Rinaudo's Reproductions