You can still spot programmatic architecture in L.A., if you keep your eyes peeled.
By Renée Soucy
"There is a certain kind of freedom in Los Angeles, a freedom from the rules and expectations of the rest of the world." - David Hockney
Perhaps it is only now in our present moment when contemporary aesthetics are increasingly computer-driven and terms like “deep fake” are part of everyday language, that the joyful artifice of our mimetic architecture, also known as programmatic or novelty architecture can be fully appreciated.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ARCHITECTURE THAT DOESN'T CONFORM TO CONVENTION
Born from a blend of sunshine and dreams, Southern California’s architecture has never conformed to convention, evolving over the past century into a vibrant tapestry woven with unconventional threads. While neoclassical and modernist lines hold their space in the temples of financial and cultural life, the icons of mimetic or programmatic architecture testify to the exuberance and ambition which have shaped our region.
Whether we refer to this architectural style as novelty, mimetic, or programmatic, these buildings aren't just structures—they are living testaments to the L.A.’s creative spirit. Often criticized for their artifice, it could be argued that novelty architecture is in many ways one of the most honest approaches: what you see is quite literally what you get—be it a giant coffee pot serving your morning joe, a leviathan donut to pick up a dozen glazed, or a larger-than-life hot dog to stop and have lunch at.
HOW PROGRAMMATIC & NOVELTY ROADSIDE ARCHITECTURE CAME TO BE
Though its earliest examples are the follies and gardens of 17th century Italy and Britain, there is no other place on earth where programmatic architecture comes alive like it does in the sundrenched streets of Southern California. It all began in the early 20th century, when the city fell under the spell of two revolutionary technologies: the moving picture and the automobile. With fewer pedestrians, attracting the attention of passing cars and buses became essential for businesses to survive. Enter programmatic architecture. Before long, buildings became billboard advertisements. The Brown Derby, shaped like a giant hat, became an instant icon, luring diners with its playful whimsy roadside architecture. Especially up until the Second World War, city streets sprouted a fantastical bouquet of architectural oddities: a tamale shaped like its namesake, a camera store with a lens-shaped window, and of course, those iconic donuts and hot dogs.
The rise of programmatic architecture wasn't without its critics, considered by some to be more problematic calling it kitsch, carnivalesque, and vulgar. While the opinions vary, the style was and is undeniably democratic. These whimsical, fantastical structures speak to everyone—even the illiterate—by mirroring the familiar. A hot dog stand shaped like its sizzling product isn't mere marketing—it is a knowing wink to the everyday Angelenos as they drive past and a playful nod to the possibilities of living the American dream.
COMMERCE TO CONSERVATION
Although many of the legendary mimetic buildings of Los Angeles have been lost to the wrecking ball or the ravages of time, there are a few icons still standing thanks to savvy management who recognize the lure of nostalgia for SoCal’s golden age (when encountering an unconventional building could inspire surprise and delight), and in some cases, the efforts of conservation groups. What is left of these buildings are snapshots of an era's optimism and ambition, telling the story of a sun-drenched city on the rise, where anything seemed possible. In this bright new world, even your neighborhood lunch counter could be inside a giant shoe or the mouth of a playful puppy.
In 2010 the City of Los Angeles designated The Idle Hour (1941) a Historic-Cultural Monument. This enormous whiskey barrel–shaped bar, which had long since fallen into disrepair, was purchased in 2015 by The 1933 Group and the conservation-focused hospitality company (who also own and operate the legendary Tail of the Pup, among other noteworthy landmarks) not only lovingly restored it, they also paired it with another legend of programmatic architecture: a replica of the 1928 Bulldog Café (salvaged from the Peterson Automotive Museum) that was installed in the beer garden.
Like that tapestry woven from unconventional threads, few architectural situations could be more SoCal than the Idle Hour—a restored and landmarked original programmatic building being paired with a replica of a destroyed mimetic building. At this busy intersection of history, artifice, egalitarianism, and imitation exists what just might be the most classic of Hollywood endings.
WHAT MAKES IT MIMETIC OR PROGRAMMATIC ARCHITECTURE?
Visual Representation:the building actively imitates something through its shape, materials, colors, or textures.
Thematic Connection:the imitated element usually relates to the building's purpose or the location's context.
Humor & Whimsy:the architecture often aims to be playful and surprising, engaging the viewer's imagination.
Functional Integration:although playful, the imitated element can sometimes serve a practical purpose, like shade or shelter.