ARCHITECTURE : Eatery's Poetic Design Counters Tacky Boxes Topped With Signs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

The boulevards and avenues of Southern California present us with a basic problem: Their scale is huge, but the scale of all the activities that take place along them is usually small.

Our endless trips are filled with thousands of small businesses, each competing with the others for our attention. The result: lots of tacky little boxes topped by huge signs, creating a kind of chaotic mixture of objects overwhelmed by constantly changing, always screaming graphic images. Now one small architecture firm has found a way to turn this problem into poetry in its design of a small restaurant in Marina del Rey.

Brix is a tiny fast-food restaurant that has risen out of the ashes of an old Pioneer Chicken outlet on Washington Boulevard. The building is successful because the architects of the renovation, three young designers calling themselves the Central Office of Architecture, took the time to understand the problem. They came to the conclusion that this kind of a building is basically a box whose front is made of glass to attract passersby and whose back is a solid container for the kitchen.

But much more importantly, the building needs to support a sign, an instantly recognizable image. So they stripped the shack down to its basic elements, a glass- and steel-girded little room emerging out of a stucco and galvanized sheet metal back-of-the-house, and then erected a giant sign in front of the building. But instead of saying anything with this sign, they just left it as a perforated metal screen hovering over the sidewalk, with only the name of the restaurant attached in relatively small letters in one corner.

The result is an almost delicate scrim that seems to float through the confused landscape, taking its place among all the other billboards but, by virtue of its abstraction, escaping from the disparity of colors and forms to reveal the nature of the landscape behind it. From both inside and outside, the metal screen softens and blends the forms of commerce into a continually changing game of shadows and shapes.

The subtlety of the design heightens the effect. The sign is supported by a standard round metal stanchion, which is posed like a kind of sculpture right at the entrance. It floats just a few feet off the ground, as if the inaccessible realm of signs had been suddenly brought to earth. Its support reaches across the entrance driveway, serving to unify the little building and the required expanse of parking lot.

Of course, the sign also has a few practical purposes. It screens the glass eating area from the sun, and, by its very abstraction, forms a recognizable face for the new eating establishment. At night, the screen amplifies the light shining from inside. The sign is, in fact, about the only memorable thing about Brix, because the rest of the restaurant is just judiciously chosen gray tile, modern furniture and an acoustical ceiling. But it is all that matters. The Central Office of Architecture has managed to give us a working sign that reveals the innate beauty in even something as seemingly ugly as a billboard.

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