The disappearing roadside hamburger stands of downtown Los Angeles

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The disappearing roadside hamburger stands of downtown Los Angeles
A 33-storey high-rise is planned for the site of the current Ye Olde Taco House / Photograph: Max Podemski
The disappearing roadside hamburger stands of downtown Los Angeles
A 33-storey high-rise is planned for the site of the current Ye Olde Taco House / Photograph: Max Podemski

Los Angeles’ fast-food stands are an iconic part of California’s tradition of car-oriented architecture. But as the city rapidly transforms, the hamburger stands are being erased from the urban landscape

On 8th street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, a single stair leads to a raised, red and white tile platform. This trash-strewn urban ruin is tucked into the corner of a large parking lot within sight of the neon marquees of the Broadway theatre district. It is what remains of Taco House, one of LA’s iconic hamburger stands, which are quickly being erased from this rapidly transforming city.

Los Angeles is, of course, inextricably associated with the automobile, and it was here that many suburban building types – from modernist homes to fast-food restaurants – were pioneered. But it is changing: five transit lines are being built, and cranes loom over the city’s boulevards. The epicentre of this transition is the once moribund downtown, where a denser and wealthier city is displacing, among other things, one of its old, car-oriented icons.

The hamburger stand is part of southern California’s rich tradition of roadside architecture. These buildings are typically 100 square-foot boxes, with an outdoor window to order and pick up food. Next to the structures are rudimentary dining areas, often consisting of no more than a plastic tarp and a few fold-up chairs and tables. To compensate for their diminutive size, the stands sometimes have large signs and, in more elaborate cases, are decorated to resemble everything from a log cabin to a traditional Korean house.

LA’s hamburger stands have held the fascination of visiting critics since the 1970s. Architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi famously coined the terms “ducks” and “decorated sheds” to describe buildings such as these, that use signage or elaborate decoration to signify their purpose. Reyner Banham, in his seminal book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, wrote rapturously about hamburgers as being “a work of visual art” and a “fantasia on functional themes”, comparable to the buildings in which they are sold. […]

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