California Crazy: What You See Is What’s Being Sold
While idly watching a B-movie late one night, David Alderman was mulling over the design for his new fast-food restaurant. Suddenly, he had a brilliant idea: Why not build it in the shape of a hamburger?
“Something in the old movie must have flipped a switch, and a light bulb popped in my head,” the restaurateur explained. “I grew up in West Los Angeles, and often passed the Tail o’ the Pup hot-dog stand, which is shaped like a sausage sticking out between two buns.”
The result of Alderman’s late-night inspiration is the Burger That Ate L.A., on the corner of Melrose and Stanley avenues. Its facade is shaped like a hamburger, complete with oozing ketchup and painted sesame seeds, set beside a mock-up of L.A.’s City Hall, with a bite missing.
The Burger That Ate L.A. continues Los Angeles’ eccentric tradition of buildings shaped like the things they sell or make. Known formally as “programmatic” architecture, these funky and evocative structures proliferated along the city’s streets in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, making Los Angeles famous or notorious--depending on your point of view--as the world capital of architecture-as-advertising.
The beloved 1926 Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard led the way. It was followed by restaurants, shops, real estate offices, motels and service stations constructed in the form of doughnuts, sphinxes, tepees, chickens, tamales, pianos, ships, planes, chili bowls, dog houses, oranges, ice cream cones, pumpkins, pups, pigs, boots, cameras, igloos, Mexican sombreros--and anything else the owners of the roadside attractions could imagine.
Staging a Comeback
Though programmatic architecture lapsed in the decades since World War II, it is staging a comeback as avant-garde architects look back to the ‘20s for their design clues. The new wave of programmatic designs include: the Shutter Shack, a film developing stand in Westminster shaped like a camera; a smog station on Sunset Boulevard covered in clouds of smog, made of chain-link fencing; a proposed advertising agency on Main Street with a giant pair of binoculars as the entry, and the Space Museum in Exposition Park with a real jet fighter hanging on its front wall.
Architecture as advertisement was “Los Angeles’ gift to America,” declared UC Santa Barbara architectural historian David Gebhard in his book, “California Crazy.” “Humor was an essential element in the audience’s response to these structures. They were meant to startle, shock and amuse.”
In the free and easy Los Angeles era between the two world wars, fantasies quickly became real. Herbert K. Somborn, the founder of the Brown Derby chain and a former husband of Gloria Swanson, apparently responded to a friend’s challenge that, “If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”
Arthur Whizin started his series of Chili Bowl cafes in the early 1930s after an employer tossed him a cracked bowl and said, “Do something with it, Whizin.”
Most of the derbys, chili bowls and doughnuts were built by their owners without any help from architects. But some well-known architects also designed programmatic buildings. The Tail o’ the Pup was designed in 1938 by Milton J. Black, one of L.A.’s leading Streamline Moderne architects. And, in 1931, Welton Becket Associates crafted the lush tropical isle of Clifton’s South Seas Cafeteria.
Fantasy Into Reality
Hollywood set designers, skilled at conjuring fantasy into reality, turned their hands to the evocative field too. For instance, MGM designer Henry Oliver dreamed up Van de Kamp’s Dutch windmill-shaped bakeries as well as the famous Witch’s House that was moved to Beverly Hills from Culver City’s Willat Studios.
Programmatic buildings responded to two powerful forces that have shaped modern life--the car and the visual media. As the automobile became the most popular form of transport, vendors needed to find a quick and vivid way to catch the eye of people speeding along the highway. A roadside stand shaped like a giant pig, say, promised the driver a rib-sticking snack.
The panoramic windshield of a speeding car resembles a film or TV screen in its swift sequence of images. Like post-MTV advertisers, programmatic builders realized the modern eye reacts rapidly to shorthand messages, especially if they are evocative and humorous.
Yet, programmatic architecture had strong philosophical underpinnings. Modern architecture’s favorite slogan, Form Follows Function, was literally followed by programmatic design. In 1936, critic Henry Russell Hitchcock commented, “The combination of strict functionalism and bold symbolism in the best roadside stands provides, perhaps, the most encouraging sign for the architecture of the mid-20th Century.”
But modernist architects were often uncomfortable with the sheer literalness of programmatic’s imagery. In its purest form, modernism forced a stylistic schizophrenia between an elite high-art architecture that was puritanically functional and the populist programmatic style with wide appeal usually scorned by professional designers.
Humor Is Intrinsic
This professional unease lingers today. Bill Mount, the project designer with Solberg and Lowe Architects, which built the Burger That Ate L.A., said he wanted it to be “less literal, and more subtly suggestive--though I appreciate that broad humor is intrinsic to programmatic buildings.”
The low esteem programmatic architecture suffered in cultural circles has led to the demolition or displacement of its best examples. The few that have survived have been relocated without much respect. The original Brown Derby has ended up on the roof of a crude Wilshire mini-mall. The Tail o’ the Pup has been pushed behind the bulk of the new Ma Maison Sofitel hotel.
Yet the Tail o’ the Pup has been adopted as an icon of Angeleno architectural playfulness. “Pound for pound, it is certainly one of (L.A.’s) most spirited architectural works,” declares the Los Angeles guide book, “The City Observed.” The Pup has inspired avant-garde architects to find new ways of elevating the low style of programmatic design into high art.
For example, the jet fighter Frank Gehry hung on the front wall of the Space Museum is perfectly programmatic. “It not only tells you what happens inside,” architect Craig Hodgetts says, “it makes you smile, and provokes you to think about the way in which architecture creates its icons.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.