top of page

Programmatic Architecture in Los Angeles: A Journey through the 1900s

Programmatic architecture, also known as novelty or mimetic architecture, is a distinctive style that emerged in Los Angeles during the early 1900s. This architectural movement was characterized by the use of buildings designed to resemble everyday objects, often in the form of giant representations of products or structures relevant to the commercial purpose of the establishment. Let’s explore the evolution of programmatic architecture in Los Angeles throughout the 1900s, highlighting its cultural significance and impact on the city's urban fabric.

The roots of programmatic architecture can be traced back to the increasing influence of advertising and the advent of the automobile culture in early 20th-century Los Angeles. With the rise of consumerism, businesses sought creative ways to attract attention and differentiate themselves from their competitors. The architecture became an innovative medium for businesses to capture the imagination of passersby and create a lasting impression.

One of the earliest examples of programmatic architecture in Los Angeles was the Brown Derby restaurant, constructed in 1926. Designed by architect Robert V. Derrah, the building took the form of a giant derby hat, an iconic symbol of Hollywood glamour. The Brown Derby became a popular destination, catering to both locals and celebrities, and set the stage for future programmatic structures in the city.

Another notable example is the Tail o' the Pup, a hot dog stand built in 1946. Designed by architect Milton Black, this unique building was shaped like an oversized hot dog, complete with mustard and relish. The Tail o' the Pup became an instant landmark, attracting visitors with its novelty design and serving as a quintessential representation of programmatic architecture in Los Angeles.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a proliferation of programmatic architecture in Los Angeles. With an expanding economy and a growing population, businesses competed for attention by embracing the whimsical and eye-catching designs that programmatic architecture offered. This period saw an array of fascinating structures that blended creativity, functionality, and commercial appeal.

One prominent example is the Formosa Café, built in 1945. Designed to resemble a Pacific Electric Red Car trolley, this restaurant catered to the city's film industry clientele. The Formosa Café encapsulated the spirit of Old Hollywood, attracting famous stars and serving as a backdrop for many movie scenes. Its distinct programmatic design transformed it into an iconic landmark that still stands today.

As Los Angeles entered the late 20th century, the architectural landscape began to shift. The rise of modernism and a changing cultural landscape led to a decline in the popularity of programmatic architecture. Many original programmatic buildings were demolished or repurposed, succumbing to changing tastes and urban redevelopment.

However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in programmatic architecture. With a renewed appreciation for the city's architectural history and the desire to preserve its unique character, efforts have been made to revive and restore programmatic structures. Additionally, contemporary architects have reinterpreted programmatic principles, incorporating them into new designs that pay homage to the past while embracing modern sensibilities.

Programmatic architecture in Los Angeles throughout the 1900s played a vital role in shaping the city's architectural identity and cultural landscape. It offered a distinctive and playful alternative to conventional design, capturing the imagination of Angelenos and visitors alike. Though the heyday of programmatic architecture may have passed, its legacy remains embedded in the city's architectural fabric. As Los Angeles continues to evolve, it is essential to celebrate and preserve these unique structures, ensuring that the spirit of programmatic architecture endures for future generations to appreciate


Pic 1: Sphinx Realty on Fairfax. Built in the 1920s, it sat across from Fairfax High for about two decades before disappearing. Photo from the Huntington Archives.

Pic 2: Barkies on Beverly and Westmoreland - 1928. Photo from the Bison Archives.

Pic 3: The Bulldog Cafe on E. Valley Blvd. in Rosemead ca. 1930s. Photo from the Water & Power Archives.

Pic 4: The Chiat/ Day Building aka the Binoculars Building - early 90s. Photo by Attilio Maranzano.

Pic 5: Steven Spielberg's Dive! restaurant at Century City Mall - mid 90s. Photo from Pinterest.

Pic 6: Probably the most famous of them all - the Wilshire Brown Derby (seen here in 1939). Photo from the USC Archives.

Pic 7: The @tailothepup in its original location on La Cienega. Photo from their own collection.

Pic 8: The KFC on Western - mid 90s. Photo from the Jeffrey Daniels architecture firm website.

Pic 9: The Pig Cafe on La Brea and Rosewood - built in 1934. Photo from the USC Archives.

Pic 10: The Igloo at 4302 W. Pico - built in 1928. Photo from the USC Archives.

View this post and more on our TikTok and Instagram!


L.A. Explained Blog

bottom of page