Theme and Variation: Manny’s Auto Repair

If you’ve ever driven back and forth on the 5 freeway between L.A. and Orange County, you’ve driven right past one of my favorite buildings and probably not even realized it. There are a lot of really interesting buildings in SoCal by unknown or forgotten architects, and a lot of interesting buildings that probably got built without an architect’s involvement at all. Of the latter group, Manny’s Auto Repair, at 4849 Telegraph Road, is near the top of my list.

If you’re driving south, watch the road to your left just after the 710 interchange. Northbound drivers should keep an eye out to the right as you come away from the Citadel Outlets. You’ll probably be going pretty slow anyway, and it shouldn’t be that hard to spot. Look for the glorious-but-slightly-faded red-orange building with MANNY’S AUTO REPAIR emblazoned across the top in big block letters. (Click the images to embiggen and open in a new window.)

Parson Architecture Blog #concreteblock
Manny’s Auto Repair

What makes this building so great? Two things.

First, the building is made of an inexpensive material, used in a most unusual and creative way, to create patterns. Second, the two patterns are related but distinct, which is an example of theme and variation.

Let’s have a look. The building is made up of simple concrete block, also called CMUs or Concrete Masonry Units. These blocks, however aren’t stacked in the typical fashion, they’re laid at alternating right angles to create a three-dimensional checkerboard. This patterning gives the building a distinctive look; a unique identity. You could call this a pattern language. Here are closeups of the sections of wall to the left and to the right as you see it in the picture above:

Parson Architecture Blog Mannys Auto Repair Closeup

Notice how the two sides differ? That’s what I mean by theme and variation. The theme, common to both sides, is something along the lines of, “block pattern created by this particular stacking technique.” The variations are in the use of solid block in alternating rows on the right, the size of the blocks, etc.

The great Southern California modernist Rudolf Schindler wrote in 1926 that “Each house needs to be composed as a symphony, with variations on a few themes.” This little building doesn’t quite rise to the level of a symphony; perhaps it is more like a simple sonatina. Nonetheless, this is theme and variation on full display. I can think of few things as exciting as the idea of using this kind of sculptural concrete block wall, with multiple variations, as the basis for a lively wood, block, and glass modern house.

Parson Architecture Blog Mannys Auto Repair-6

There’s a third thing I really like about this building, which is the way the sunlight plays upon the textured surface of the patterned block walls. Throughout the day and throughout the year, the depth of the block relief will always look a little different in the sun. Sometimes it will be very flat, other times rich with shadow and highlight; all set in motion because someone had a neat idea about an interesting way to use a simple concrete block.

Check out Manny’s Auto Repair on Google Street View here – it should open in a new tab and go straight to the building. Do you know of a good example of creative concrete block? They’re all over if you look for them. If you find a good one, please share it in the comments!


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