The design is high-octane at United Oil, a Los Angeles gas station by Kanner Architects
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 7/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Definitely in Beverly Hills. Maybe in Malibu. But on a dicey corner of South La Brea in Ladera Heights? We're talking about a design-driven Los Angeles gas station that's dramatic enough to, well, stop traffic—and have motorists queuing for a fill-up. Following in the tradition of William Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Albert Frey, Kanner Architects spent four years making it happen.
Not that owner United El Segundo was a stranger to standout stations. Some of the 120 in the family-owned company's holdings tend to the Mediterranean, others are vaguely Antoni Gaudí, and one quasi landmark boasts animal-shape topiaries just a tire-screech away from a freeway's exit ramp. But United Oil on South La Brea is the first ground-up project with an architect on board from the get-go. And, for all its distinction, this is a one-off, not a prototype. Alarmed at the rising cost of gas? How about spending upward of $7 million, not including land, so customers can pump in style at a single location?
True to the spirit of L.A.'s car culture, Stephen Kanner says he was thinking "freeways, interchanges, curvilinear sculpture, and futuristic forms as in the 1964 or 1939 World's Fairs." United El Segundo secretary-treasurer Jeff Appel came to the table mapping out the logistics that would eventually coalesce in Kanner's construction of concrete, stainless steel, and glass. The three main components—pumps, car wash, and convenience store—occupy a ¾-acre site next to an active oil field where, coincidentally, scenes from There Will Be Blood were shot.
First come the pumps, six of them arranged in pairs with a pump set beneath each end of three slim 29-foot-long light fixtures. On top of the fixtures, corresponding to the fill hoses, Kanner placed 1-foot-high stainless-steel numerals in a font, fittingly, called Interstate. Freeway-type green-and-white signage, swinging from a steel arm, signals the entry to the car-wash element. Drivers of everything from fancy imports to American clunkers line up to ascend a rear ramp that hugs the curved end of the building, a metaphor, Kanner says, for oil drums. Then the ramp dips back down to grade and the car wash itself, set behind translucent channel glass. "Soap suds don't look good against clear glass," Kanner explains—the architect is a pragmatist, too. In fact, the ramp's rise and fall are a function of shoehorning standard station amenities onto a relatively small piece of real estate.
His 2,400-square-foot building "has all the punch of roadside architecture," he continues. The rounded "oil drum" end is enclosed in channel glass, like the car wash, so the stoplight-red cashier station inside becomes a vibrant blur to those driving by. However, most of the convenience store has a concave front of frameless clear glass that allows the interior's bright red surfaces and backlit advertising panels to be highly visible from the street—a magnet to increase the owner's revenue stream. This is a finely wrought retail environment, not a mere pit stop for endless supplies of Skittles, M&M's, and Cokes. What to do with all those snacks and beverages? Kanner designed five display islands of acrylic and stainless steel to impose order on the vast array. There's more stainless at the entry portal, framing the ad wall, and at the passage to the rear restrooms, giving credence to Kanner's statement: "We used a huge amount of steel."
Clerestories make the roof appear as if it's floating. Then it truly takes off boomerang-style, morphing into the canopy over the pumps. Its underside is sheet steel, and the sides are finished with smooth white stucco. Supports are gray-painted steel columns slimmed down and canted, Kanner says, "for more drama and movement." What with the roller-coaster car-wash ramp, the setting has all the attractions of an amusement-park ride. (The Kanner kids, age 8 and 14, are always up for a road trip to the station from their Pacific Palisades home.)
Day and night, the station clearly stands out from competitors on the three other corners of its South La Brea intersection. But perception differs according to the hour. One needs full sun to appreciate the subtlety of such detailing as the two shades of concrete that Kanner used for the parking area, as if a portion of it were in shadow. "In daylight, the store and canopy appear equally weighted," he adds. "At night, the canopy is dominant, yet it's perceived as a thin plane, just about 30 inches thick from the LED recess down."
Every bit of the project is custom, of course, including signage with a redesigned United Oil logo that's simpler and bolder: white letters on a background of race-car red. More obvious are the architect's landscaping and his streamlined bollards and bumpers. Still to come are custom cups for beverages. Such was the level of involvement.
Previous spread: A concrete ramp leads to the car wash at United Oil, a Los Angeles gas station by Kanner Architects.
Opposite top: The ramp hugs the curved end of the building.
Below: The canopy combines a sheet-steel underside and stucco fasciae.
Top: Stainless steel frames the cashier window and the entry to the convenience store. Bottom: Channel glass wraps the cashier station's 22-foot-tall tower.
Opposite: Glass tile clads the cashier station, which has a bulletproof window.
Top, from left: United Oil is one of four service stations on this corner of South La Brea and West Slauson Avenues. Highly customized pump islands feature stainless-steel bumpers and LED lighting. Bottom: The store's backlit lenticular advertising panels stand 6 feet tall.
Opposite top: Flowing around five custom display islands, the shop's resin flooring incorporates chips of mirror and mother-of-pearl.
PROJECT TEAM DAMIAN LEMONS; NICOLAS O.S. MARQUES; JAY FUKUZAWA; CLARE OLSEN; JOHN MEBASSER; CLAUDIA WIEHEN; LINCOLN TOBIER; STEPHANE CORBEL: KANNER ARCHITECTS. REISS, BROWN + EKMEKJI: STRUCTURAL, CIVIL ENGINEER. SOUTHWEST GROUP: MEP. JD HUDSON: STEELWORK. RJ PAPALINI: WOODWORK. GIROUX GLASS: GLASSWORK. FIGUEROA STUCCO: STUCCO WORK. FRITH SMITH CONCRETE; RICK SMITH CUSTOM CONCRETE: CONCRETE WORK. ADVANCED BUILDING GROUP: GENERAL CONTRACTOR.
PRODUCT SOURCES FROM FRONT RAINBOW NURSERY: PLANT SUPPLIER (EXTERIOR). BEGA: RAMP FIXTURES (EXTERIOR), RECESSED CANOPY FIXTURES (CASHIER STATION), RECESSED CEILING FIXTURES (STORE). BETA LIGHTING: RECESSED CANOPY FIXTURES (EXTERIOR). STANLEY ACCESS TECHNOLOGIES: DOORS (STORE). ACTIVE GLASS: WINDOW GLASS (CASHIER STATION). BENDHEIM CORPORATION: WALL SYSTEM. VETRO COLORE: TILE (CASHIER STATION, STORE). FUSION FLOORS: FLOORING. DUNN-EDWARDS CORPORATION: CEILING PAINT. SOUTHERN STORE FIXTURES: CUSTOM ISLANDS (STORE). THROUGHOUT PROMOTIONS PLUS: CUSTOM SIGNAGE. FRAZEE: PAINT.