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Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: THE ARCHITECTURE OF AMERICAN CHAIN RESTAURANTS by Philip Langdon (Knopf: $30, hardcover; $19.95, paperback; 222 pp., illustrated) : A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. INDUSTRIAL BUILDING AND EUROPEAN MODERN ARCHITECTURE by Reyner Banham (MIT: $25; 266 pp., illustrated)

September 14, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan is The Times' design critic and author of "L.A. Lost & Found," to be published by Crown next spring. and

The architecture most people experience is not architecture with a big "A," the heralded, often singular structures, but architecture with a little "a," the ubiquitous places where most people live, work, shop and eat.

Yet it is the singular structures--the great cathedrals, the exceptional office towers, the atypical houses--marching in succession through history that tend to be the focus of most academic and professional architecture studies.

Further narrowing this view is that many of the studies also tend to focus on the styles of the structures, treating them as monuments and not necessarily places of human activity or products of a particular economic, political or social climate.

Generally ignored until recently as suitable material for study has been the great mass of commonplace and crass, arbitrary and vernacular architecture, such as the varied designs of the restaurants and fast-food outlets that mark America's roadside.

Among the more ambitious studies of late of this environmental phenomena is Philip Langdon's "Orange Roofs, Golden Arches." It surveys the development of the more distinctive chains, from the first Harvey House at a Santa Fe depot in Topeka, Kan., established in 1876, to the present day and seemingly ever-present fast-food outlets, including Howard Johnson's, Dairy Queen, Denny's, Burger King and McDonald's. Langdon correctly contends that the designs of these eateries cannot be ignored, forming as they do so much of the everyday experience of the built environment.

In this respect, Langdon is continuing and expanding a theme first struck in the landmark "Learning From Las Vegas" by Robert Venturi, with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. But while the architect-authors celebrated the "messy vitality" of the Strip and its glitzy casinos, billboards and marquees, arguing with a good bit of irony that the design profession had much to learn from the success of such places, Langdon is all business.

"The men (and hardly any women) who set out to make money establishing multiple eating places have ended up making entire environments in communities throughout the nation," declares Langdon. Though his focus is on the design and decoration of the establishments, Langdon also delves into the various finances, ownership patterns and business philosophies, and the shifting fads, fashions and life styles, that shaped the designs.

As in his chapter on the futuristic, flamboyant coffee shops that descended like space ships on California in the roaring 1950s, Langdon demonstrates well the point that the seemingly arbitrary designs of the outlets were something more than a whim of an architect or a client. Rather, he notes that they were quite consciously pursuing what a restaurant management magazine described at the time as the ABCs of good design--"Always Beckoning Customers."

But while thorough, Langdon does not particularly enlighten or entertain. He presents balanced, well-documented portions of chain restaurant history, which read as if they were prepared from recipes right out of a management cook book. The results are filling, but bland. Missing is the salt of perspective and the pepper of critical comment. Also bland is the design of the book itself, not helped by the quality of the photographs.

Langdon has written a definitive history of a colorful, flavorful aspect of America's built environment, only to serve it curiously cold.

Conversely, Reyner Banham in "A Concrete Atlantis" has taken an obscure aspect of that historical environment, in particular the decaying grain elevators in Buffalo, N.Y., and serves it up with a questionable passion and curiously hot.

In an engaging, personal style that has marked him as a sort of Hunter Thompson of architecture history, certainly an intellectual force, Banham contends that "there is a casual, cultural and conscious connection between such masterworks of explicit architectural modernism as the Cite de Refuge or the Villa Savoye and the utilitarian structures of a certain period and type of North American industry."

Simply stated, the British-born and educated American-philiac argues that the much severe International Style of "form follows function" fame developed by the heralded Bauhaus movement in the 1920s really had its roots not in design-conscious Europe but in select, inspired Midwest structures, principally grain elevators and warehouses.

While these structures indeed followed the honest simplicity of design the Bauhaus was to revere years later, Banham's leaps of logic go beyond his usual artful academic acrobatics and into the fanciful. Other, more detailed histories, including the recent "Inside the Bauhaus" by Howard Dearstyne and edited by David Spaeth (Rizzoli), make it clear that the famed school's design vocabulary was based on a much wider variety of models, including both industrial and artistic.

Still, it is a pleasure to follow Banham as he roams with unbridled enthusiasm through the relics of "the concrete Atlantis," a phrase the author uses to describe an impressive, industrializing America and which he borrows from the title of a dated utopian tract by Francis Bacon. And though reluctant to accept the relics as the principal foundations of modern architecture, one can better appreciate them as historical structures.

As for Atlantis, it remains a fabled island west of Europe that was swallowed up in the sea.

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