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Billboard buildings: L.A.'s car-tuned architecture is making an eye-catching comeback.

L.A.'s car-tuned architecture is making an eye-catching comeback

Hold onto your hat, Mr. de Mille, but yes, there is a little magic left in movieland. The Pacific Brim's largest brown derby may have departed for the great haberdashery in the sky, but the idea that buildings can steal the show by assuming the shapes of other things is alive and well and living in Los Angeles.

For proof, head to Main Street in Venice, where a pair of blockbuster binoculars frames the entrance to advertising agency Chiat/Day/Mojo's new headquarters. Coming upon the perlite-coated concrete instrument swelling four stories above the sidewalk might make you think you've stumbled onto the set of Invasion of the Colossal Bird-watchers.

A last-minute inspiration, the binoculars were a collaboration between architect Frank Gehry and sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Originally, the design for the office building looked like two separate structures. But one day, as Gehry and his client Jay Chiat were reviewing the scale model, Chiat said he thought something was missing, especially in the middle. Gehry grabbed a nearby model of a binocular sculpture created by Oldenburg and van Bruggen for Venice, Italy, stood it up at the center of the facade, and said, "Well, do you want something like this?" Chiat said, "I like it!" And--alacazam!--there it stands.

This example of architectural surprise packaging is part of a venerable Southern California tradition. Indeed, once upon a time, during the early decades of this century, Los Angeles resembled a vast prop-closet for Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. Stuffed animals lay everywhere, including a two-story owl full of ice cream and an equally tall puppy stuffed with chili. Zeppelins and locomotives and igloos seemed to dominate every street corner. It was a cartoon landscape where you expected the flowers to sing in silly symphonies and Porky Pig to lean out a window and stammer, "That's All, Folks!"

The business of all this oversize show business was to grab your attention as you drove past, to make you want to park your car and partake of whatever the structure was selling. It was architectural advertising for the age of automobiles and film in a city fascinated with both.

These early examples were created not by well-known architects and artists but by anonymous designers or the owners themselves. Today, the packaging techniques are more sophisticated and self-conscious. Chiat/Day/Mojo's giant binoculars, for example, were selected for their sculptural form, not to advertise binoculars. Yet the desire to attract attention through the use of vivid imagery remains the same.

Two other contemporary buildings-in-costume are worth your double take. At 7624 Melrose Avenue, between La Brea and Fairfax avenues, stands The Burger That Ate LA, a restaurant in the role of an immense sesame seed-covered bun munching away at City Hall. It was signed the way movie sets are--by a team including an art director, an illustrator, and a set designer. The meticulously crafted hamburger resembles a balding version of the Cookie Monster, giving new meaning to "Sesame Street."

Perhaps the ultimate cartoon building is at the corner of Buena Vista Street and Alameda Avenue in Burbank, where you can see the Seven Dwarfs as giants. They're once again playing supporting roles, but this time they've been employed by the classically inspired architect Michael Graves to act as Greek telamones--columns in the shape of male figures. They vividly demonstrate that the building, which houses the corporate offices of the Walt Disney Company, is the true citadel of the Magic Kingdom.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gregory, Daniel P.
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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