HEADING NORTH FROM the Santa Monica Freeway, Los Angeles' Western Avenue is a blur of storefronts, offices and mini-malls. Only the green corner tower of the Wiltern Center and a few lesser examples of Art Deco architecture catch the eye. Suddenly, at 1st Street, Col. Sanders appears, smiling like the Cheshire cat from what seems to be a lantern floating above the street. The building beneath him comes into view piece by piece: a corrugated metal box, a boldly curved sweep of pale green stucco, a recessed tower. Until the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign went up, passers-by guessed that this was to be a church.
Two years ago, owner Jack Wilke decided to upgrade one of his franchises. He knew architectural designer Elyse Grinstein from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Modern and Contemporary Art Council and remembered that she and her partner, Jeff Daniels, had worked with Frank Gehry, whose architecture Wilke admired. "Would you like to design a chicken shack?" he asked her. "I said yes in a minute," Grinstein recalls. "I knew Jack had an educated eye and the confidence to go far-out."
At their first meeting, Wilke asked for a version of a '50s coffee shop. Grinstein and Daniels pushed for something up-to-date, more "playful and crazy." They agreed that to attract added attention from the bustling street, the building would be built two stories high on Western, with the parking lot and drive-through in the back.