In order to keep up with building codes and stave off a faintly imagined chaos, buildings taller than 75 feet are required to have a landing spot for helicopters in case of an emergency – hence the preponderance of helipads in downtown Los Angeles. There’s a subtle symmetry to these circles seen from the air. Due to regulation, each emergency landing area requires a touchdown pad of 50 x 50 feet and within each red circle a number– a 5, 10, 12 – designates the maximum weight capacity in thousands of pounds that the touchdown pad can allegedly handle.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation (widely known by its acronym, CLUI) has takenits function quite literally for one of its current projects, The Helipads of Downtown Los Angeles, in which readymade satellite images have been culled from the well-trafficked - Google Earth. Found just one door down from themore outlandish Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, CLUI has long trawled the terrain between the cool rigor of documentation and the properties of landscape as a space for aesthetic investigation. An expanded terrain from the simple snaps of industrial buildings by the Bechers, CLUI founder Matthew Coolidge has created an organization that uses its quiet archive of how humans interact with landscape as a space for us to reflect and project meaning onto space.
For one of its two current exhibitions, CLUI has devoted a small alcove within its modest space to this exhibition-cum-think-tank presentation, dubbed Elevated Descent. A soft van der Rohe-esque bench sits next to a TV with a slide show of “Downtown Buildings That Have Helipads On Them,” while projected on the wall in front of the bench is the Google Earth sequence that takes you overwhat CLUI calls “the geometric terrain of helipads,” Los Angeles’ “second landscape.” Initially as dry as an engineering lecture, the sequence quickly mesmerizes. The world above, absent people and crises, is a serene one. The alternating pads just barely provide respite from the interminable landscape of asphalt strips and rough cement (the cement of the helipads, alternately, is smooth and well-worn when viewed with a zoom).
The combined impact of the dual slide shows – alas, the specific building shown on the small screen bears no correlation to that on the large – nudges us into the role of voyeur-as-co-conspirator. The exhibition sets us up, with a deadpan rigor, to judge the excess – the literal elevated space – of the haves against the have-nots. In line with the current zeitgeist, it’s as if there’s a street level hiss from the economically shafted down below. But the Emergency Helicopter Landing Facilities aren’t necessarily intended for non-emergency use. Except, of course, for the pads that are dually designed for both emergency and ‘non-emergency use’ such which may be marked with ‘PVT,’ for private. As it turns out, CLUI tells us, none of the helipads, in fact, are simply open to the public. Permission must always be sought. That the existence of these emergency helipads comes down to ‘just in case’ (and even the relatively well-trafficked pad atop City Hall is only used by ‘politicians in a hurry’), is a tremendous design and engineering conceit. It’s a conceit that brings to mind another realm of decadence, abstraction and impracticality, perhaps best seen from above: art.