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Fast Food Develops Fancy Plumage

A Kentucky Fried Chicken discards its traditional revolving bucket for eccentric design. ARCHITECTURE

`I HAD to try something a little bit different and it was an ego trip for me to see if I could do it,'' says Jack Wilke about his new two-story, high-tech Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. The impressive emporium sits on the corner of Western and Oakwood Avenues in Los Angeles, Calif. This 3,200-square-foot, corrugated-metal, concrete-and-glass structure in a Korean neighborhood across from Launderland Coin Laundry is not your average KFC. The traditional revolving red and white bucket is gone, and the Colonel is featured on a cube-shaped cupola atop a curved green stucco wall.

``This is the first time anyone has done serious architecture for fast food,'' says Jeff Daniels, the Culver City-based architect who designed the building with partner Elyse Grinstein. Ms. Grinstein and Mr. Daniels also designed artist David Hockney's Hollywood Hills home and a handful of upmarket restaurants in Los Angeles.

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``Our intent in this case was to create a piece of urban architecture and fuse that with fast-food requirements. KFC is not serious dining,'' Daniels says with a smile. ``So we wanted to make it playful'' with an industrial feel, he adds.

``I already had a KFC on this property,'' explains Mr. Wilke, who owns three others in Los Angeles. one of which he claims is the most successful in California. The Los Angeles native has been a franchise owner for 25 years. But the building was part of a strip shopping center and Wilke had visions of a drive-thru and more adequate parking. So he bought the corner property and ripped everything down.

``I'd seen renderings from people who'd done two stories before but never from scratch,'' says Wilke, who knew he had to build up and not out to fit everything onto the 8,000 square feet of space. The average KFC is on 30,000 square feet. So Wilke hired architects Grinstein and Daniels.

An avid art collector, Wilke knew Grinstein through the art community and was also aware of the firm's work.

``When Jack came to me with his idea I was a little bit skeptical,'' explains Daniels, a Manhattan native who graduated from Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Daniels met Grinstien while apprenticing with well-known architect Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, and in 1982 they formed Grinstein/Daniels Inc.

``When Jack started talking about old coffee shops of the '50s and the ``Googie'' style [from the Los Angeles cafeterias of the same name], I realized he was open to doing something imaginative. So I discarded any preconceived opinions I might have had and dealt with it as a pure design problem,'' says Daniels.

The building took 11/2 years to complete, and not without problems. ``One was the curved wall'' with the fins, says Wilke. ``No one understood how to do that - structural steel that meets wood that goes back to steel studs. There wasn't a clean line between building trades, and that's why it was so difficult. The carpenters didn't want to do it and the steel guys didn't want to do it. There was a lot of discussion,'' he says.

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Another setback arose when toxic soil was discovered on the property where an old gas station had been some 25 years before. ``By the time they excavated, took out the bad soil, found a place to put it, and put more dirt back onto the site, it was about four to six months,'' says Grinstein. ``And it cost a lot of money,'' she adds.

How did they clear the unconventional design with KFC corporate headquarters? ``Jeff built a model,'' explains Wilke, a lean man with a tentative smile who feels more comfortable working the counter than being interviewed. ``I showed it and a floor plan to the man in charge of the real estate and construction department in Louisville, and he gave us his endorsement.''

Greg Reynolds, vice president of Public Affairs for KFC, says he hasn't seen Wilke's new establishment and KFC doesn't have an official statement about the design. But, he says, ``We wouldn't encourage it particularly. We try to present a standard image to consumers so wherever we may be we recognize it as a KFC restaurant.''

STEPPING up to the first floor counter at 340 N. Western Avenue, you're asked for your order. The food is the same as is found in more traditional KFCs. Should you care to dine, you ride the elevator with the big red door or take the steps up to the next level.

``Dining on the second floor was my idea,'' says Wilke, who plans to open the second floor any day and is currently doing take-out business only.chk on this with author. see if it's opened up now. The dining room seats 50, and an adjoining outdoor patio surrounded by a bright yellow railing seats another 20.

Daniels particularly likes the stairwell with the bright blue handrail. ``Using some of the primary colors as little touches gives it playful accents here and there,'' he says of the d'ecor. The stairwell overlooks 16-foot high windows with a view to Western Avenue.

``The staircase is like a piece of theater with the people going up and down and looking out. It makes the process of going up and down the stairs a little more fun. Too bad it looks out onto the laundromat,'' he adds.

Once upstairs, customers will sit in spiffy stainless-steel chairs. ``We found these in a fast-food furniture catalog but no one ever orders them,'' says Daniels.

The tables have bright red tops, and the food will be transported by dumbwaiter to an attendant who will make sure that customers and their food rendezvous.

``The upstairs dining room consists of very structural spaces,'' explains Daniels. ``There's the curved wall, a sloping roof, the shafted skylights. A lot of things to give it life.'' A giant pair of beams formed into an ``X'' sit atop the corrugated steel elevator wall. ``That's earthquake bracing,'' Daniels explains.

The building is also energy-efficient. Natural light floods this KFC, ``so we only need artificial illumination at night,'' says Daniels. The giant fins facing west block the strong afternoon rays.

``Dozens of architects have come through here and they all like the place,'' says Wilke. ``And I think the neighbors like it, too. Business has been excellent,'' he enthuses. ``I only had one strong reaction: an elderly lady said she wanted the old building back.''

``We've taken something that most people associate as being banal and uninteresting and given it a life and a vitality,'' says Daniels. ``Because it's so different from what's been done before, people get a kick out of it.''

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