Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Theme Building Encounter Restaurant - A WDI wonder outside Disney theme parks

For most of us, Walt Disney Imagineering is a Disney company creating wonders for Disney theme parks all around the world. And, at 99% that's right. But sometime, it happens that WDI Imagineers create other wonders, and not for a Disney theme park. The Theme Building Encounter restaurant at Los Angeles airport is one of them.

The Theme Building was part of an overall $50 million " Los Angeles Jet Age Terminal " project which began in 1960, the building itself was completed in August 1961. with giant 135 foot high parabolic arches, the Theme Building was at that time the first structure in the U.S to utilize supporting steel arches of this design. And what a design, it looks like a space ship - or a flying saucer - that just lands on Earth! On December 18, 1992, the los angeles City Council designated the Theme Building a city cultural and historical monument. A Los Angeles icon with a kind of Tomorrowland architecture, may be this is why Walt Disney Imagineers agreed with enthusiasm when they were asked to redesign the Theme Building back in 1995.

And who were the WDI Imagineers who did it? Eddie Sotto - the great Imagineer who was Main Street show producer at Disneyland Paris - the best Main Street of all Magic Kingdoms - led the design team. Ellen Guevara, another WDI Imagineer also worked with Eddie on the Encounter Restaurant interior design. And the gorgeous lighting of the exterior was done by WDI lighting specialist - i should say "wizard" - Michael Valentino.

So, let's have a closer look at this Encounter Restaurant with original Eddie Sotto sketches, model pictures and photos of the real thing. Here is a photo of Eddie Sotto doing the concept sketch of the Encounter "red room" in his office at WDI in Glendale. Below, the "red room" sketch.

With the futuristic exterior of the building, WDI Imagineers must have felt that the best choice was to go space-age design with the interior, and, as you will see, they were right.

The intergalactic theme of the interior creates an out-of-this world "experience". Eddie and his team designed flowing walls sculpted to appear as stone quarried from the moon - here are Eddie's sketches.

Eddie also designed furniture and decor elements of the Encounter.

But one of Eddie's favorite creations were these "lava lamps" that guests can find all over the place whether the lava is "red" or "blue"!

The amoeba-shaped lighting structures embedded in the ceilings - visible from the outside - cast soft shadows on the restaurant. And the customized lava lights add a "lounge" feel to the futuristic and stratospheric atmosphere.

And there is this unique crater-shaped bar - above and below - complete with bar guns that emit lasers lights and futuristic sound effects when bartenders pour a drink!

Los Angeles designer Lisa Krohn created the bar stools and the pod-like chairs that appear to float in the air. The carpeting was designed by Sotto and Guevara and also features flowing lines. No patterns are repeated on the entire floor!

" Encounter transforms LAX into an intergalactic gateway accomodating space flights to and from other worlds " said Eddie Sotto. " the sophisticated sci-fi feel of the interior provides the perfect backdrop for what i call " jet set " dining in a space age atmosphere ". And the space-age experience even starts at the entrance downstairs where a hostess in silver costume directs you to the elevator, saying "Have a nice encounter!". By the way, the elevator was also redesigned and features galactic graphics and sound effects!

The stunning exterior lighting by Michael Valentino - a crowning touch to the space age themed restaurant - play an integral part in setting the unearthly tone. Michael's lighting program bathe the building with constantly changing shades such as magenta and electric blue, in addition to traditional white lights.

The Imagineers also designed special atmosphere music for the restaurant - the sound effects will remind you classic sci-fi movies of the 50's. Click below on the embedded 360 degree picture link. The 360 degree effect won't work probably, but you'll hear the music.

Right now the Theme building structure is under renovation, but the Encounter restaurant is still open. So, next time you come to Los Angeles to visit Disneyland, on your way back home, remember to keep one hour or two before you check-in at LAX airport, and come to have dinner at the fabulous Encounter restaurant. Not only the food is excellent, but it will be your last "shoot" of WDI magic before you go back home!

Artwork and model pictures: copyright Walt Disney Company

Encounter Photos: copyright WDC, Encounter restaurant and Eric Sander


Anonymous said...

I wish the Imagineers would design something for the the old TWA Terminal (soon to be part of the new Jet Blue Terminal) at Kennedy Airport. The building is basically WDW's Tomorrowland from 1975, so it would be cool to see it reinvented.

It won't happen, but I just want to at least dream of an Imagineered place somewhere close to Connecticut.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the design of the interior has not held up very well. It looks very outdated already. It looks like a lounge in a casino in the mid-1009's. To bad they didn't go for a real retro take on the time period of the building insead of a 1995 version of the time period. I hope they re-design it again soon.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comment on Encounters. I went there when it first opened and it was very trendy. I went recently and it was a bit tired. Not many people there at all. The design was not 'classic' enough to remain timeless and I agree with your comment that it's time for an update. By the way, you had a type-o, I think your mid-1009's was to read 1990's . . . ?

Dr Bitz said...

Looking back a decade later, I too agree that the design does not hold up and looks dated. It would be fun to update and "relaunch" the space. Of course, what we call "mid century modern" now has become "classic" design, went through an "ugly" phase when it lived in the context of the next design idiom. I'm hoping that in time, the room, like the design of it's day (which was the Eighties/Nineties) will find it's place as well. Only time will tell.

We did not try and go literal "Retro", as one of the edicts of being in an historic building is that you don't want people to confuse the original with anything added, so we created our own "Jetson-esque" style to romanticize the past, not copy it. So I guess doing that dates it. It is a space that only can live in an outrageous building like that.

In 1997 the "Encounter" garnered way more attention in it's heyday than you might imagine. The LA, NY and London Times all gave it rave reviews along with Vogue and others as a "must see". Mike's lighting got awards, Lisa's chair that we used was an award winner, and so was the Restaurant, as it made the cover of "Interiors" and was featured in ID (respected design magazine) as well. It became an instant celebrity hangout once John Travolta held his birthday party there, and had Sergio Mendes play live. Fueled by the "Lounge" and "Martini" craze it kind of took off beyond travelers.

No one expected an "Airport Restaurant" to become a hip LA destination and up until 911 the place was packed with locals. After 911, it was shuttered as it's parking was closed and that killed the momentum. It reopened a year or so later but with no spark. Poor upkeep and a parade of chefs slowly eroded one of the hottest places in town. I would not even go unless my kids bugged me!

It was fun to work on and great to drink at your own bar! But like the world before 911, it's popularity is a memory now. We seem to favor the opposite today, a linear, more rectangular aesthetic that makes looking back at all those curves and shapes look like ancient history.

Eddie Sotto

Anonymous said...

This building looks like one created by Brazil's most pretigious architect, Oscar Niemeyer. It's the Contempory Art Museum, in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. You can see some pics here: http://www.macniteroi.com.br/

Anonymous said...

Hey Eddie,
It was a great place. Crazy job too. Some more history Pre Eddie

How did that project get to WDI in the first place? Who Sold it to the Airport and the City?

The idea came to WDI via Stuart Bailey who was an imagineer, and who's father owned Robert Bailey Design in Portland Oregon. RB INC's, client was the group that managed all the food and shops for LAX and every other airport in America, Delaware North/Concessionaire. The CEO John Luthor and Bob Bailey came to LA to review the Pre-presentation to make it to the next round with the Airport and the City of LA. I happened to be available for lunch that day. So drove to the west side and the Daily Grill and In that conversation John basically said they had no idea what the heck to do with the place, figured it to be an albatross, and needed a great solution for it to win the account. The Architects they had hired figured it to be a loss and a good fern bar... and they were not "themed" restaurant designers. FYI it almost became a California Pizza Kitchen. John Luthor was talking to Wolfgang Puck at that time too. Imagine all that broken pottery on the walls YIKES!

However, me being a big fan of that building and Paul Williams the Architect, an Imagineer with some vision for what it really could be, an awesome destination bar/restaurant, like what Eddie and I used to party in in France, I wanted to go drink a martini in the damn place, not bad coffee and pea soup, so I said "what if you made a really cool hip LA distention"? keep it hopping rather then hope a coffee shop would keep it financed, described what it could be, and pitched the idea to them, brainstormed some over a few make that several drinks, and the idea was hatched, one that I would present it to WDI management a week later.

Being young, and not at the level Eddie or Kathy M and the rest of the gold coast were I had no idea I couldn't just walk into Marty Sklar's office without asking someone for permission. So a fews days later, I had an appointment and asked him directly.. if WDI could even do it. Marty thought it was possible, that he would get back, and seemed genuinely intrigued by the idea. A few months later the project was approved internally for concept developed and presented with CA's presentation to the Airport Board of Directors and LAX, including all the CIty county commissioners, the Mayor and them some... for a final presentation. CA figured that it would really blow them away that they had an LA institution _WDI doing a design for a building that had everyone stumped— it did.

A month later, concept boards and inserts ready a team that didn't include Eddie, presented it to the board that being: Concept Dev — Stuart Bailey, Tom Mullaly, John Bruce for Disney Development, with additional work developed by Owen Yoshino on graphics and Vince G doing illustration work.. and .. If you think presenting to ME and JK was tough, this group was scary as hell.

In the end it wowed them, they OK'd the project., DN/CA got the 50 million dollar account, we had loads for drinks in celebration.
John L called Marty and me directly that they had the job, and WDI was now in charge of the project. Which was a very wild ride E-Ticket for sure
And off I went to another project — Disney store flagship in NYC and Vegas, Eddie took over LAX, and LA got a really fabulous restaurant.

It's always interesting to know what went into a process, how great design got the job, and great design finished it up.
I think the work done by Eddie, Ellen, and Michael was absolutely wonderful. I think what we did was very powerful too.



Anonymous said...

I don't care what anyone says, we LOVE Encounter! I live by the north runway, in Playa del Rey and used to take everyone there for dessert (the wonderful "Stratoshere", a photo of which was featured in a magazine and brought me there in the first place) and coffee or for drinks, if not for dinner(about $100 for two!).

Waiters would send you up to the 360 degree viewing platform on the roof and they'd let you in on the not-so-secret fact that you didn't have to feed the meters in the (very convenient) parking lot. Just driving down Imperial or Westchester parkway, it was a visual treat to see the building change colors.

I agree that overnight, after 9/11, without the easy parking, we stopped going so often. Then they quit letting customers on the rooftop. And since some of the panels fell off and the lengthy renovation began, there isn't even the pull of the light show to draw customers in.

But still, after our wedding ceremony at the Airport Courthouse this March, Rob and I could think of no more appropriate restaurant to have our first dinner as husband and wife! Unfortunately, we found out that the Stratosphere is no longer on the menu. Rats! Evidently, the supplier couldn't deliver them with regularity...

I remember our first dinner at Encounter, in 1995. I overheard three men and a woman (it must have been the four of you),sitting at a booth and talking about the design, and since I worked at Disney Feature Animation across the street from Imagineering and visited often, I had to introduce myself. I remember that the woman (Ellen?) told us that she designed the one color combination that blended from red to yellow and she called it "Tequila Sunrise".

Anyway, I'll always remember our first trip up the elevator (what a nice surprise!), seeing that wonderful interior, and meeting you! And I can't wait until the renovations are over and the lights are back. We'll still be devoted customers!

Kim Burk

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markscosmiclight said...

I've always enjoyed the Encounter when traveling though LAX, especially as an astronomer and award winning visual-astronomy artist.

I just wrote a favorable review in the Yelp column to inform others about the entire Encounter experience including the elevators. I know that music is a secret visitor from afar but I tried to do a little research.

Thanks again Eddie for the great environmental enhancement of the Encounter at LAX.

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Information about Lipitor said...

The Theme Building is an iconic landmark structure at the Los Angeles International Airport within the Westchester neighborhood of the city of Los Angeles. It opened in 1961, and is an example of the Mid-Century modern influenced design school known as "Googie" or "Populuxe."