Photos: Lightscape at Los Angeles County Arboretum
A beautiful way to spend an autumn evening
Note: This is a review of Lightscape’s debut in 2021. The 2022 version is reviewed here.
Making its debut this holiday season, Lightscape affords an opportunity to peruse the grounds of Los Angeles County Arboretum by night, the familiar cactus, palms, and other flora enhanced by elaborate lighting displays. With a format similar to Nights of the Jack (visitors taking a leisurely walk through an exterior setting transformed into a visual wonderland), the effect is roughly the outdoor equivalent of installation art, but in this case that transformation is achieved largely through illumination rather than seasonal decorations.
Much of Lightscape consists of painting the L.A. County Aboretum in fluctuating hues of pink, purple, and green. You will not encounter elves, reindeer, angels, or Santa’s sleigh; however, there are several installations scattered along the course, providing a number of memorable sights.
A botanical garden, the Arboretum organizes its plant life according to geographical origin, with separate sections for imports from South America, the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, etc. For much of its length, Lightscape simply illuminates the foliage in beautiful ways.
In some cases the trees are adorned with lights. Most notable is the Singing Trees section, where coiled strings of light pulse in time with recorded choral music. The stereo sound, which centers visitors between trees “singing” on other side, is phenomenal.
In most cases, illumination comes from hidden sources, but there are visible lighting fixtures, often mimicking the Arboretum’s plant life. Of course there is a Christmas tree, but there is also a cactus. A few larger ones stand comfortably nestled next to palm trees. Most impressive is Lightscape’s Jigantics section, featuring a colossal lily forest.
More giant lilies can be seen in the pond next to the Arboretum’s Queen Anne Cottage – one of the most striking visuals on the Lighscape tour.
The Queen Anne Cottage is one of several historic structures in the Arboretum, along with the Coach House. Bathed in pink and blue light, the two old structures seem perfectly suited for a Halloween haunt; all that’s missing are a few ghosts peering out the windows. The tower of the cottage, in particular, seems custom-built to house a creepy character staring down upon unwelcome visitors.
Among the many installations, the most visually arresting may be the Fire Garden, which features framework spheres hosting pots of flame, their flickering lights dancing in the night air. Elsewhere, some imposing figures tower overhead, their colander-like bodies emitting geometrical patterns of light on the path. (No doubt unintentionally, their tripod structure suggests the war machines of the Martian invaders in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but not to worry – no heat rays are emitted.)
At the very beginning of Lightscape is a Geo Forest, whose conical shapes, illuminated from within, suggest colorful teepees but which apparently represent Christmas trees. Later, there is a strange glowing electrode, which probably belongs in Frankenstein’s laboratory, but may perhaps be meant to suggest the magnetic North Pole.
Midway through Lightscape is one section most obviously decorated for the season. Christmas ornaments hang from trees. Boughs of lighted holly encircle rectangular arches, from which dangle mistletoe.
The Winter Cathedral is a lighted archway leading toward the Queen Anne Cottage. At night it is quite eye-catching from a distance. Inside it is mesmerizing. The impression of being in a vast arched tunnel is enhanced by the simple trick of making the exit smaller than the entrance, creating the illusion of much greater length. Only after exiting and looking back is the trick revealed.
Lightscape’s most bizarre installation is Disko Tannsi, which features robotic, alien figures that look as if Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still returned with some buddies. assembled for a dance festival among the forest trees. Expect logjams on the pathway as visitors stop to gape and take pictures of this very strange tableau.
Lightscape encompasses the majority of the Los Angels Arboretum, though some sections of walkway have been blocked off to keep foot traffic moving in one direction along a single, continuous path. Despite the length, the walk is comfortable. Check the weather, dress appropriately, wear comfortable shoes, and you should have no problem.
In some areas, the asphalt itself is part of the display, thanks to projected images. Among other things, the Arboretum is notable for having served as a location for several film and television shoots, which are illustrated in a section of called Hollywood at the Arboretum. Film geeks will note that Jurassic Park III‘s year of release is off by nearly two decades.
The grand finale features a lighted water fountain synchronized with flashing lights on the immense lawn, all timed to music. It’s an enjoyable spectacular display that cycles through at short intervals, allowing visitors to capture the whole experience without undue waiting.
For those who need to replenish their stamina, there are several cafe-bar combos situated along the trek. Menu items include nachos, fries, cotton candy and cookies, plus more nutritious fare such as pizza and chicken tenders. Beverages include cocktails, coffee, water, and sodas.
All things considered, Lightscape is not the sort of event Hollywood Gothique specializes in. There are no overt fantasy elements such Jack Skellington or Marley’s Ghost; in fact, the most fanciful aspect is the tableau of disco aliens. Nevertheless, Lightscape has much in common with events we do cover: it’s a bit like Nights of the Jack without the carved pumpkins – a seasonal overlay in an outdoor setting, emphasizing illumination rather than decoration. Fans of this kind of outdoor experience will find Lightscape similarly enjoyable.
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Lightscape is a beautiful way to enjoy an autumn evening. Just remember that, as its name suggests, Lightscape is mostly an overlay of colorful illumination upon the Los Angeles County Arboretum. There are some spectacular visuals, but the seasonal aspect of the decorations and installations is minimal.
Lightscape continues at Los Angeles County Arboretum through January 16. The address is 301 N Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA 91007. Tickets are sold in fifteen-minute intervals from 5:30pm-8:45pm; show closes at 10pm. Prices start at $30 for adults, $18 for children, and free for children under three. Get more information at the official website.
Photo Gallery: Lightscape at the Arboretum
See our entire gallery of Lightscape photographs, depicting the complete walk around Los Angeles County Arboretum in chronological order…