When Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee Jack Wilke was looking for ways to update his 25-year-old Western Avenue restaurant, he decided on a radical move.
"I challenged the notion that all KFC franchises should have the same standard design of fake mansard roofs (and) outsize Colonel Sanders bucket," Wilke said. "Why not do something radically different for a change?"
Wilke, a noted local art collector, turned to architect Elyse Grinstein for help.
"I knew Elyse from the art world, and liked the strong (Frank) Gehry influence in her work," Wilke said. "I turned the design over to her, and let her have her head."
The result of Wilke's bold departure is the first architecturally avant-garde Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in the United States, and the famous franchiser's first break with its own rigid formal tradition.
Designed by Jeffrey Daniels, Grinstein's partner in the Culver City-based firm of Grinstein/Daniels Inc., the Western Avenue KFC is an artful pileup of architectural play blocks in the Gehry manner.
Situated on the corner of Western and Oakwood avenues, amid a typical L.A. strip of mini-malls and small stores backed by single-family houses, the new KFC is as radical in layout as style.
To make room for a large parking lot and a drive-through window, the business is crammed into a two-story structure on the edge of Western Avenue.
Walk-in customers place their orders at the ground-floor counter and then march upstairs past a big picture window to an airy, high-ceilinged dining room lit by a large skylight. Here they wait for their food to be delivered by a dumbwaiter.
The 50-seat dining room, lit by a big curving glass wall shaded by tapering solar fins, is the largest block in the KFC's architectural pileup. From there patrons may munch their dinners while watching the busy Western Avenue scene below.
The bearded image of Col. Sanders with his black string tie beams down from a skewed perch on the topmost building block, signaling to the neighborhood that this strange structure is, indeed, the home of his popular finger-lickin' food.
"We wanted to make the whole operation look as theatrical as possible," Daniels said. "From outside, passers-by can see customers climbing the stairs to the dining room or seated at their tables eating. From inside, patrons can watch the theater of the street."
To emphasize the theatricality of the design, Daniels clad the building in a vivid mixture of materials. Light gray and green stucco and ribbed metal siding are capped by sloping zinc roofs painted in primary reds and blues. Exposed ventilation ducts and bright yellow balcony railings emphasize the makeshift muscular mannerism made famous--or notorious--by Gehry in such local landmarks as Santa Monica's Edgemar complex.
Daniels says that the KFC's style is also inspired by the famed 1950s L.A. coffee shops that once dotted the urban landscape from the Sunset Strip to Long Beach. Known as the "Googie" style from the cafeteria chain of the same name, the coffee shops, with their dramatic, sweeping roofs, tilted glass walls and glittering neon design made Modernist architecture popular.
"Jack (Wilke) wanted to do an updated Googie KFC," Daniels said, "but we convinced him to take it one step further and reinterpret the 1950s diner style in a more sophisticated 1990s idiom."
Grinstein and Daniels have created several well-known upscale L.A. eateries, including the Chaya chain and the new Chaya Venice restaurant in the Venice Renaissance complex on Main Street.
"All restaurants, whether posh or popular, are essentially a form of theater," Grinstein said. "People go out to dine to see and be seen, whether on Western Avenue or Main Street. We try to set the stage with appropriate scenarios that are dramatic without being intrusive, to achieve a balance between the private act of dining and the public act of people-watching."
Known as L.A's architectural odd couple, Grinstein and Daniels have made a quiet reputation for their small practice since they formed a partnership in 1980.
Short and plump, Grinstein is a coiled spring of energy. She came to architecture late, receiving her degree from UCLA in 1978, 30 years after completing a degree in education at USC.
A founding member of the Contemporary Arts Council and the Museum of Contemporary Art, she helped husband Stanley Grinstein establish the influential Gemini G.E.L. Fine Art Lithograph and Multiples Publisher, which mounted many shows that helped establish the reputation of several local artists.
While working in Gehry's office, Grinstein met Daniels. A recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the sleepy-eyed, intense Daniels had also been a teaching assistant to noted Princeton Postmodernist Michael Graves and to architect Charles Moore at UCLA.
"This tour of the masters of Postmodernism, from Gehry to Graves, gave me a lively sense of the possibilities of the style, with its ironic use of historical reference and Populist influences," Daniels said.
Grinstein sees architecture as "an art form with a function." She said she "reveres Frank (Gehry) but we have no wish be copycats. Our approach is less intrusive and more lighthearted, more like David Hockney's 'Splash!' paintings in sentiment and style."
Grinstein and Daniels remodeled the British artist's Mulholland Drive hideaway, transforming a standard California Bungalow into what Grinstein describes as "a three-dimensional Hockney" with vivid primary colors, generous skylights and eccentrically angled walls and ceilings.
The firm's distinctively urbane playfulness shines through more sober projects, such as the Mosauer apartment building in Van Nuys and the proposed Beach House Inn on Santa Monica's Main Street.
The Beach House Inn design is enlivened by wraparound balconies and undulating glass-block walls. Together, they conjure up images of Caribbean seaside architecture and L.A.'s 1930s Streamline Moderne while fitting gracefully into the fashionable avenue.
"The context in which one of our designs is set is always a major factor in the style of the building," Daniels said.
"In the Western Avenue KFC we honored the commonplace commercial vernacular of the surrounding strip and gave it both a literal and a figurative twist.
"A formally graceful design, such as Chaya Venice, would have been too polite for the district, and wrong for a fast-food outlet. By accepting the jumbled architecture of the area and heightening its theatricality, we hope we've enhanced its attraction."