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ARCHITECTURE

A Shrine Where Drivers Can Worship the Four-Wheel God

August 26, 1993|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Carwashes are our temples to automotive culture. Although obviously just places of convenience, they manage to have a certain aura about them. Instead of being white buildings faced with columns, they are modernist shacks with fins that march across the front facades. Unlike temples, you enter these precincts of chrome from the back. There you find no solemn space filled with incense, but the silent and slow progression of your car through the stations of cleaning, which you watch from behind glass windows. Finally, there is the polishing of the car, in which you and your fellow worshipers watch as your car proudly basks in its best Sunday suit. For some, it is indeed a religious experience.

The carwash on La Cienega Boulevard and Sawyer Street is typical of such places of automotive adoration. The 10 fins that mark its presence along a curving section of this crowded commercial strip rise up high above the humble little building, so that you can see them up and down the boulevard. Now painted a rather garish pink and green, they still form an elegant counterpoint to the compacted collage of signs that press their messages on passing motorists. I am not sure of the genesis of these steel rods that are a ubiquitous Southern California sign for carwash, but their form certainly seems related to the fenders of certain late-1950s Cadillacs and Buicks. It also represents what has been called "Googie architecture," after the coffee-shop chain that tried to recapture the excitement of new materials, new speed and new spaces in its flashy design.

The carwash is a specialized version of this form of commercial exuberance. It is what one local designer calls "carchitecture," a form of design that seeks to bring the excitement of automotion into the static world of buildings. In this case, the fins are the building. After announcing their presence high above the street, they pierce through the roof, which supports red letters that spell out the business at hand before disappearing into a low concrete block wall. Only a grill screens the cars from the street as they move slowly through the machines. This mechanical ballet offers a slow-motion version of the action on the street, so that you can admire (or sneer at) the lords of La Cienega in close-up. Cars, machines and signs: Nothing else matters. The owners have painted the actual building gray, as if in deference to this fact.

The interiors of this carwash are bland and predictable. You follow your car down a long corridor lit by fluorescent tubes before paying your bill, buying knickknacks or just waiting in a rather grim, low-ceilinged area at the corner. Most customers prefer to wait outside on a low bench that has also received the gray paint treatment. Here, the La Cienega carwash is Spartan compared to many of its competitors, which provide shading pergolas, coffee bars or just a few plants to turn this inevitable wait into a more pleasant experience.

Just as the sign and the mechanisms of washing overwhelm the building, so the expanse of the driveways, vacuum station and cleaning area in the back drowns the low-slung little structure in asphalt. This is a completely formless space that bleeds into the sidewalks and streets around it. Taken together, the whole carwash offers an intensified version of the tendency of all architecture in Southern California. It is right on the verge of dissolving into a commercial sprawl that might be meaningless and seem directionless, but that exemplifies a world of motion, lack of physical barriers and a spectacle whose excitement would be palpable if it were not so much part of our daily lives.

* La Cienega Car Wash: 1907 S. La Cienega Blvd.

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