The Octane coffee shop on Marietta Street used to be a run-of-the-mill Standard Oil filling and service station (at least back in 1954, the year Burger King was founded—see photo). Today it is home to a trendy coffee shop that offers a variety of palatably divergent types of coffee French-pressed to order. Similarly, Cottage Ethiopian Cuisine on Piedmont Road is another example of an independent enterprise inhabiting a disused, ubiquitous chain edifice—in this case a former Burger King. Considering each building’s analogously mass-market heritage (and associated mass-market architecture), we were left wondering: How is it that Cottage Ethiopian appears as an odd novelty, while Octane epitomizes hallowed indie-chic?
During the intervening half century since it was built, the identity of Octane’s edifice varied from the vacant (it probably did time as an empty warehouse) to the equine (it was purportedly the staging area for the mounted police during the 1996 Olympics). Eventually the area’s oscillating economic cycles, between gritty success and neglected decline, imbued enough patina into its utilitarian structures to warrant a transformation from clanging industrial crankshaft to a new Atlanta arts district. Octane subsequently emerged to host the requisite latte art throwdowns and designer slideshows.
This transition sounds like the typical counter-culture fairytale of a ramshackle industrial zone transformed into a bromidic venue for all things artsy. What’s interesting to us about the building, however, isn’t the particular story behind Octane and its neighbors.
Here is the observation that inspired this article: Octane is attractive and hip because it is popularly perceived as physically and historically different from coffee shops that continue to spring up in new developments throughout our city and others. Architecturally, this distinction strikes us as ironic. However uniquely patina-ed it may be today, this place was entirely generic when it was new. After all, what could have been more standard than a Standard Oil service station in 1954? Octane’s unique character fundamentally derives less from its specific material entropy than from the fact that so few of its architectural peers were so artfully neglected without being torn down entirely.
We need to divert briefly from our mugs of Ethiopian fair trade and turn to a favorite source for Ethiopian wat and sambusas: Cottage Ethiopian Cuisine on Piedmont Road. Just like Octane, Cottage inhabits a once-ubiquitous chain store that has recently gone independent without significantly changing the architecture. Outside, corporate emblems were removed and the windows were deeply tinted, but the drive-thru remains (albeit boarded over), and the roof still screams “BK!” Inside, ethnic décor dominates (tibs are injera-plated where the fryolater once stood), but the spatial organization has hardly changed, and the Whopper®-stained, square floor tiles conjure fast-food nostalgia.
There is a fundamental difference between the ways these two refurbishments make us feel: Octane inspires an archetypical, post-industrial hipness; Cottage conjures bizarre, post-monoculture weirdness.
At Cottage we can’t help but constantly recall memories of Burger King, because we’ve lived through Burger King’s ubiquity and thus still involuntarily respond to all of its architecturally distinct brand cues: the trademark roof, the fast-food tiles, the standard floor plan, and so on. On the other hand, the building type for Standard Oil’s Hopper-esque 1950s filling station lost fashion in favor of the beefed-up, multi-pump gas station/minimart complexes that were introduced in the 70s, which historically places its disappearance before our births. Thus, if there are any distinctive visual cues that were specific to Standard Oils of yore remaining in Octane, their presence is lost on us (although we’ve no reason to believe they’ve been removed). If we brought our grandparents into Octane, would they find it as bizarre as we find Cottage? Taken a step further, might we conject that the Octane of tomorrow will inhabit a Chevron of today?
Though they both spawned from generic architecture, Octane exudes “cool” and Cottage exudes “peculiar.” Is this simply because Octane’s generic heritage preceded our existence while Cottage’s remains glaringly apparent? Would the taxi drivers at Cottage take issue with our projected notions of “cool” and “peculiar?” Does the peculiarity (or the coolness for that matter) fade after repeat visits, replaced by something else?
What else are we missing?
This column is the first in a series of observations on the built environment by Jeff Sauser and Josh LeFrancois, a couple of 21st century architecture students looking for answers.
For more examples of “post-monoculture” transformation of former chain stores, check out this Flickr photo set.