The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Elevated Descent


Google earth photo of helipad

CLUI photo
The CLUI exhibit portrayed this elevated terrain primarily through close-up images of individual buildings with helipads, cropped from GoogleEarth. The flat vertical view of the buildings from this perspective, the prolific and transformative “google-view,” renders them as archigraphic forms, each building depicted as a shape, labeled with the repeating, standardized markings on the helipads. GoogleEarth photo

A SECOND LANDSCAPE OF LOS ANGELES is exposed when seen from above: the geometric terrain of helipads. This staggered plateau of rooftop space has arisen as if buildings push the land they displace skyward. The CLUI generated an exhibit about this landscape, Elevated Descent: The Helipads of Downtown Los Angeles, which was shown at the Center’s Los Angeles space in May, 2009.

No American city comes close to matching the number of helipads that are found in downtown Los Angeles. There are more than 75, and that’s just in downtown, not including the rest of the city. This is because of unique local building codes that require new buildings higher than 75 feet to have provisions for emergency landing by helicopter. (80 feet is the general limit of fire truck ladders.) The establishment of this code in 1974 has had a dramatic effect on the look of the city: there are no Postmodern pyramid-topped buldings, no neo-Gothic or Moderne spires, topped by an antenna mast. All major buildings in LA built after 1974 have flat tops, to accommodate the required 50 x 50 foot touchdown pad, surrounded by an obstruction-free Peripheral Area of 25 feet. It’s a local idiosyncrasy that no developer or architect has tried hard enough to challenge.

And its not like LA is some futuristic city where helicopters move VIPs around from place to place, high above the common man on the city streets. Most of the rooftop pads in the city are Emergency Helicopter Landing Facilities and are not intended to be used outside of emergency situations. Though there has been no case where lives have been saved by the existence of the helipadsyet.

Some of the rooftop helipads downtown are designed for both emergency and non-emergency use. They have different design and markings from the Emergency Helicopter Landing Facilities. This type is generally identifiable as having a square outline, inside of which is a triangle with the letter H or other lettering or logo, which indicates the preferred direction of approach. In some cases the word “private” or “PVT” is sometimes used, indicating that this helipad is not for everyone. But this is redundant, as all of the helipads in downtown Los Angeles are Prior Permission Required (PPR) helipads, requiring the permission of their owners or operators for their use. So park it elsewhere.

Google earth photo of helipad

CLUI photo
Emergency-only pads are marked by a large number inside a red circle. This number is the maximum weight capacity of the pad, in thousands of pounds, and is usually oriented in the preferred direction of approach. GoogleEarth photo

Scanning the helipads of the city, encountering a truly anomalous marking is usually an indication that it is a government pad atop a government buildingcounty, state, or federal. Though the FAA has guidelines for the design of helipads and helistops, they do not enforce the implementation of the designs, and the government seems to do what they want. Heliportsairports for helicoptersare another matter, and have FAA guidelines that are enforced. There is only one such true heliport downtown, the LAPD’s main helicopter facility, the Jay Stephen Hooper Memorial Heliport. Located at the edge of downtown, next to Highway 101 and the LA River, the LAPD heliport can accommodate more than one helicopter at a time, and is active day and night. With the second largest civilian air force in the country, the LAPD is the lord of Los Angeles’ skies.

a helipad viewed from the street

CLUI photo
From the ground, there is little to identify a helipad. Sometimes the peripheral safety netting is visible, or a red windsock. CLUI photo

The exhibit at CLUI included projections, sound, text, and images of every helipad atop a downtown building, as seen from above, as well as the name and image of every downtown building with a helipad, taken from the ground looking up. 

Bonaventure Hotel helipad, Los Angeles

CLUI photo
Bonaventure Hotel helipad, Los Angeles. Google Earth photo