A building can be as simple as one gesture. If that gesture is absolutely right, it will be great architecture.
Take the humble coffee shop called Pann’s that sits at the busy intersection of La Cienega and La Tijera boulevards. It is just a roof, slung low to the ground and rising out of a rubble wall to float over planes of glass. Its cutoff corner gestures triumphantly at the cars whizzing by, while its expansive shape invites you in for a quick cup. Pann’s is all angle, triangle and trap: one geometric line slashed across a chaotic landscape of Los Angeles boulevards.
Pann’s is one of the masterpieces produced in the office of the Los Angeles architectural firm of Armet & Davis. They were the designers who gave us coffee shops and diners, such as Ship’s and Googies, fantasies at the dawn of the Space Age that celebrated the victory of the age of the automobile.
Drawing their inspiration in equal parts from the avant-garde angular forms of Frank Lloyd Wright and the science fiction images of world’s fairs and comic books, they exulted in the newness of a landscape that was full of speed, change and freedom. They felt none of the hang-ups of architects working on civic buildings that had to mean something or on houses that had to respond to people’s ideas of home. They could invent a new kind of building, using new materials, such as steel and plastic, and new technologies, such as air conditioning. Buildings, such as the 1953 Pann’s, were a result of this freedom.
Like all of Armet & Davis’ work, Pann’s is dominated by two elements: the roof and the sign. Both serve to make the place identifiable on the strip.
In this case, the roof is a simple hip, but it is angled up to the east (where it confronts La Cienega Boulevard) and it is cut into along its north face, so that its shape seems to be continually changing as you move around it. The back of this roof is supported by a plain cinder-block box that angles away to face the parking lot. The La Tijera side opens up in a series of plate-glass windows that are shaded by rows of yuccas, banana plants and other exotic foliage.
There is thus no front face to Pann’s, as there would be in a traditional building. There is only the sign of shelter and the picture of people eating in air-conditioned comfort in a kind of enclosed patio.
The sign itself is a blue and red neon affair supported on an angled steel beam thrusting up through the roof and visible from blocks away. The placement of the composition is brilliant. It opens up to the intersection, rises with land, explodes out of the parking lot and, last but not least, turns its open side away from the sun-drenched south.
Inside, you feel almost as though you are underground. The ground rises up around you, the roof slopes down, and the plants keep the traffic away. Here you are safe in a kind of Flintstones’ cave where waitress stations are built up out of low rubble walls.
Lamps are colorful globules descending from the ceiling with plastic ease. A pink line of alternating bands of acoustical tiles and rough plaster hovers over the counter. From the Naugahyde booths to the Formica countertops, everything you touch is artificial, but the jazzy, zoomy forms make you believe that there is a place for plastic--a place carved out in the strip where being new is still a fun idea. And they serve a decent breakfast too: not nouvelle cuisine, just traditional car food served with a smile.
Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture.