Airline Virgin Atlantic has followed its posh-class lounges at Newark and JFK airports with its latest at Los Angeles. After an underwhelming walk through the airport to find it, Johnny Tucker headed into the bright new space, designed by New York practice Slade Architecture.
Walking through Los Angeles airport's Terminal 2 is an altogether quite dispiriting experience. This Eighties' transport gateway is in much need of some TLC and better ceiling heights - were the people really that much smaller 30 years ago?
Then, rounding another corner of seemingly endless hoardings, you chance on a dramatic, white staircase with each step lit on the riser that hints at something much more promising.
It's the start of the new £2.5m Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. At the top of the stairs you're met with smiling faces shining out of bright-red uniforms before being led into an open, vista-filled space unlike everything you've just left behind.
Virgin Atlantic has taken over a rectangular corner plot in this lacklustre terminal and the architect - Slade Architecture from New York - has sliced it in half diagonally, dividing front and back of house.
The customer-facing, right-angle-triangle room features floor-to-ceiling picture windows on two sides, meeting at the 90 degree corner. The view is terrific - panning from the Virgin planes lined up on the apron and the spider-like Theme Building (Pereira & Luckman Architects, 1961) in the south; out across LA - if you have pilot-like vision - to the Hollywood sign in the hills to the north.
That leaves one more wall to deal with. Here Slade has inserted a curvaceous white Corian facade on the divide to pull you through the space, interspersed with warm-copper insets that soften and represent the setting sun against the daytime brilliance.
Two-thirds of the way down, the wall indents for the bar, like a little copper shrine to cocktails.
The top of the main space is broken up with pieces of Slade-designed furniture along with classics from Walter Knoll, Fritz Hansen and, importantly for the locale, Vitra pieces by Ray and Charles Eames, who built their own home in LA (Case Study House #8, 1949). As it narrows toward the bottom vertex, the space gives way to tables for food service, and along one section of the window a laminated bamboo bar with the lines of a surfboard quietly exclaims: 'gnarly waves dude...'
'It used to be an old Air France lounge and it looked like a cafeteria in a factory or something.
It was not good,' says Slade co-founder James Slade. Part of Slade's pitch for this job pictured the practice's staff inside the Stahl House - Case Study House #22 (Pierre Koenig, 1959) - that overlooks LA from on high and has featured in a plethora of films and ads. Californian Fifties' minimalism was a key part of the brief: 'The use of white is a kind of reference to the beautiful minimalist architecture of LA,' says Virgin Atlantic senior design manager, Jeremy Brown. 'It was also about life in California and LA - and we wanted to closely tie what we created architecturally in with the service offer.'
Slade concurs: 'Virgin sent us a brief with a lot of mood boards: surf, beaches, sun, and it also had strong ideas about the kind of food it wanted to serve. We knew the non-glass wall would be really important, and once we'd agreed on the tensile ceiling the form of this came quite naturally.'
This lounge is Slade's third for Virgin Atlantic, after JFK and Newark. The practice has a varied body of work that ranges from a multistorey Barbie store in Shanghai, through zoo architecture to social housing, not to forget a New York slice-of-life movie for a Blueprint Blue Movie brief back in 2012 (see our website designcurial.com).
It has been 25 years since Virgin started flying to Los Angeles, and it took advantage of that milestone to create this new space. By its standards, it's fairly modest at 370 sq m, as opposed to say its Heathrow flagship that sprawls across 2,500 sq m, but then it only has to cater to two daily flights.
Tethering either end of the lounge to both sides of The Pond are two site-specific artworks, from an American and a British artist. The American installation is a video and animation piece by LA resident Diana Reichenbach that evokes the less rapacious side of LA, all bright shimmering sun, beach and sea. 'I focused on isolated moments that encapsulate the experience of the city, the landscape and the environment in the area,' says Reichenbach.
By contrast, at the other end a wall tattoo - a black-on-white pen mural by Vic Lee - links the USA and UK with intricate drawings of places and phrases that epitomise London and LA. Entitled LOLA - to London with love from Los Angeles - Lee says: 'I wanted to create a statement piece that involved both London's and LA's personalities, without being too obvious. The words are poetic statements that are meant to evoke an emotion and association with wit and charm and a light sprinkle of balderdash.'
Brown adds: 'We start with Vic Lee's witty illustration then at the other end the work by Diana Reichenbach has more mystery and intrigue and kind of draws you through the space of this distinctly Southern Californian twist on our clubhouse experience.'
And just for a sense of fairness I should probably mention that LAX Terminal 2 is undergoing a $300m renovation, not before time...
We asked a number of architects to respond to the theme 'Framed' with a short film. Slade Architecture produced this very New York piece for us.