For too long, the architecture of most roadside gas stations—with a few notable exceptions from masters like Mies van der Rohe and Albert Frey—has been either purely practical or painfully kitschy. Kanner Architects’ new station for United Oil in Los Angeles once again elevates the gas station to the realm of architecture, although it doesn’t push it quite as far as it could.
The $7 million project stands on the gas-station-lined corner of Slauson and La Brea in Ladera Heights, a zone so car-dominated that the word neighborhood seems a stretch.
The station’s primary move is its swooping and chamfered, white-and-gray canopy that hovers on V-shaped columns and is inspired, said Stephen Kanner, by the area’s nearby freeway interchanges. The element carries off the task of holding the station together, linking disparate parts and creating a sense of airiness and excitement while providing needed shade. The eye swoops around its curves and up in a dramatic gesture that suggests a runway, leading the imagination into the future. From different angles, the station’s unusual shapes change form, each vista capitalizing on the boldness of the design.
The metallic components that make up the station’s parts and echo the canopy are equally graceful and well coordinated. These include stainless steel bollards, gutters, gates, sign posts, light tubes, bumpers, and window apertures, not to mention the steel stations for gas pumping. Its circular, translucent-glass welcome stand echoes the canopy’s lightness and ethereality. A pocket park next door, with its own curved elements, provides much-needed breathing room for the community.
But then the building gets bogged down in overly familiar references and forms. A ramp in back swoops up audaciously, appearing to lead drivers around to the canopy itself: It only wraps around to a ground level carwash. This is a letdown—perhaps a hint that not everything here finishes what it starts. The station’s large block lettering, meant to be contemporary, feels more imitative of 1960’s, not 2000’s, futurist architecture. The curving pump stations and the V-prop columns around them are too noticeable where they could have deferred to the canopy, letting that element dominate and unify the bold thought. Even the canopy, upon closer inspection, seems a little too heavy to be revolutionary. Inside, bright, colored tiles echo a modernist diner, or modern mini-mart.
The owner of the station, Jeff Appel, is known for garish designs like his Western-themed station or his facilities adorned with French tiles or Gaudi-like towers. This design is more effective (if less fun), and a reminder of why architect-designed stations can improve a staple of the American landscape. But it could have swooped us off our feet and really into the future. More to the point, this earnestly futuristic design implies the car is the future, clearly not true (particularly not cars that only take regular gas, as they do here).
Unlike the new “green” BP station not too far away, this United Oil station doesn’t provide any alternative fuels or make any contribution toward a new way of consuming and pumping gas. Perhaps that’s why much of the futuristic symbolism seems dated. Once gas stations were a beacon for our world’s possibilities. That time is long gone in a world burdened by traffic, fossil fuels, and dying car companies. Looking to the future now means looking somewhere entirely different.