Sunday, July 21, 2013

Roof of the world

Click any photo to "embiggen"
Out there on the broad lawn of the Griffith Observatory, under a cloudless blue sky, the mountains rise around you like a bowl, tinted on this summer evening with the pale gold of coming sunset. Step to the edge of the lawn and you'll see the vast basin of Los Angeles spread out below, the streets line out as though ruled.

The building, whose Art Deco whiteness gleams as though carved from sugar, is terraced and flanked with walkways, curved stairs and parapets that allow visitors to climb all over it, like fascinated children, to view the city from each corner and outcropping.

A three-quarter moon above the dome, and a view of downtown
I've lived in Los Angeles for almost twenty years now, and the Griffith Observatory is one of several iconic L.A. landmarks I'm only now getting around to visiting. I've hiked the hills around it, and thought I knew it, but actually arriving here, walking on this high plaza above the city, is a heightened experience. The distance seems even to diminish sounds, rendering them as tiny as the toy buildings and streets below. Each visitor seems to be walking in an enchanted bubble of his or her own.

The magic continues as you approach the entrance, the faint breeze seems specially charged - and in fact it truly was, on our visit, as a gardener pruned the hedges flanking the front stairs, releasing the intense scent of rosemary into the air.

Bronze doors

The bronze doors open onto an echoing rotunda, centered by a huge Foucault pendulum, a device that demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. School children, fascinated, ring the rim of its pit, watching the brass bob swing from its anchor in a polychromed dome.

Foucault pendulum
The interior halls, with their donor-named spaces like Hall of the Sky and Hall of the Eye, have an old-timey museum feel to them, with galleries of photos of galaxies and nebulae, and of somber men in suits, the revered astronomers and scientists of the past.

Rotunda mural
The real work of astronomy is not carried out at the Griffith Observatory - its telescopes, impressive as they are, reach no farther into space than a modern amateur's instrument. And indeed, it never was intended to be a working observatory - its founder, real estate magnate and philanthropist Griffith J. Griffith conceived the observatory as a public attraction, to educate about science rather than carry out serious research.

The closest visitors get to the stars here is to attend the planetarium show, which has been offered since the building opened in 1935, beneath the central dome. The shows were wildly popular, promoting lunar exploration and debuting the first Laserium show in the 1970s.

Stairs to upper terrace, with moon above

I read an article recounting how after the 2002-2007 renovation, Observatory management revamped the shows, replacing actual astronomers from local colleges who delivered lectures drawn from their expertise with actors, who read the same unvarying script for each show. It seems ironic that the current director, Dr. E.C. Kupp, who spearheaded this effort, first worked here himself as an astronomy lecturer.

In the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, you lean back in a plush reclining theatre seat, eyes fixed on an aqua dome where the digitized images play, as dusk deepens to night and stars wink in the blue void. It's almost as life-like as cloud projections on the plaster domes of the 1920s era movie palaces of John Eberson.

It segues into Pixar-like animation that tracks us through ancient Alexandria or through Galileo's study. No characters, though - I was grateful the show's creators didn't give us a lantern-jawed Copernicus raising a wry eyebrow at a sheepish Ptolemy. An actor holds a glowing sphere like a crystal ball, and intones the script accompanied by a soaring musical score that seems part Aaron Copeland and part John Williams.

It's all predictably in good fun, and when the lights come up again you're ready to funnel out the exit doors onto the stone parapets, still bright in the Los Angeles sun - where the real show can be seen.

The glittering digital galaxies wheeling across the screen you left behind are nothing compared to the carpet of glittering streets that plays out beneath, or the copper-bathed majesty of the San Gabriel Mountains over your left shoulder. The lime-white monument draws camera-laden German and Japanese tourists, while the green lawn invites lovers to recline. Stolid families from Pacoima or Artesia picnic on blankets, young hipsters snap selfies against the views of downtown, and rawhide-tanned bicyclists take a breather at the top of the rise before plunging back down the hills. The whole of Los Angeles is here, orbiting the fixed point of this peak at the roof of the city.

Griffith Observatory isn't really an observatory to watch astronomical phenomena in the skies beyond. It's a place to view all of Los Angeles, laid out before our eyes.


cactus petunia said...

Gorgeous photos! I lived there for a few years too, and never made it up to visit. (but then, I grew up in NYC, and have never been to the top of the Empire State Building, either) Next time I come to LA, I'm going!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

What a pretty place!

smalltownme said...

I haven't been there since high school.

M. Bouffant said...

When I was much younger friends & I would go there & waste quarters on the telescopes so we could spy on the people of Los Feliz below, hoping to see a topless sunbather by a pool. Don't think we ever did see anyone w/o a top though.

Almost went for a hike in the Park this wknd., but lying down until the feeling went away worked again.

Maggi said...

Thank you for another superb post with fine always capture the essence of my old stomping grounds, right down to the Pacoima lollers......I've lived in No. Cal. now as long as the time I grew up stomping around the beloved sites you portray so beautifully, and Always look forward to your work.
I'm headed down to Camarillo to assist with family, no WiFi there so will look forward to catching up with you later. Be well.