Elliott + Associates Architects

Elliott + Associates redefines an American icon on Route 66 with Arcadia, Oklahoma’s POPS.

On the flowing Oklahoma prairie a little height goes a long way. A little light too, especially on deep dark nights when the only illumination comes from stars and firefies. This is a landscape with no middle distance, only near and far, where a gas station with a big sign stands out like the Eiffel Tower. 'It's so flat here, you can see for two days,' locals joke.

POPS fits right in.

Located on a long, straight stretch of Route 66 in Arcadia, Oklahoma (population 1,618)'where the main attractions are a Washington Irving memorial, a pizza parlor, and a speed trap'this combination gas station, restaurant, and convenience store gives nostalgia a 21st-century spin. The gas pumps, sleek and sculptural as iPods, sit beneath a fl oating canopy that forms a large outdoor room; the restaurant is a streamlined blend of glass, stainless steel, white walls, and black leather booths; and out front stands a 66-foot-tall, LEDlit pop bottle with a crimped straw that beckons like a neighborly wave. 'Give me your tired and your thirsty ''

This is the 'mother road' of John Steinbeck's Joads, and Woody Guthrie'two lanes, hundreds of small towns, and every imaginable sales gimmick to separate travelers from their money. Yet POPS isn't meant to be kitschy or tongue-in-cheek, says architect Rand Elliott, who grew up on Route 66 and designed a museum to celebrate it in Clinton, Oklahoma. 'It's about the place and the landscape.'

It's also about the romance of the road along with the innocent longing for fast cars, fast food, and a long cool drink that goes with it. POPS sells burgers, milk shakes, ice cream sundaes, and 700 kinds of soda, chosen as much for their bold colors and funky names (Brainwash, Dog Drool, Unknown Dread, and DOA) as for their taste. Its shelves are stocked with key rings, bottle openers, monogrammed golf balls, and other tacky souvenirs. It also sells a bit of beer and wine, but because Arcadia'situated 20 miles northeast of Oklahoma City'has few gathering places, the owners decided to make POPS a family destination. Soda is its most profi table item, followed by gas and food. In its fi rst year, POPS attracted more than 800,000 customers'remarkable for a tiny backwater town that's miles from the nearest interstate. 'It's a phenomenon that I can't explain,' says the architect. 'It's part architecture, part soda-pop memory, and part roadside attraction.'

What Elliott has done is reimagine the gas station, a building type that is rarely designed well, without destroying its basic character or enduring romantic appeal. Instead of a scattering of utilitarian elements, POPS is three tightly integrated zones under one big roof.

The pump area, protected by the 110-foot steel cantilever, is mainly a work zone, with cars, motorcycles, and pickups zipping in and out. Yet it is also so spacious that families gather there on busy nights while waiting for a table. Occasionally, the gas pumps are even turned off for events such as car shows, live bands, and a farmer's market'the gas station as community recreation center.

Inside, the restaurant and store form a more relaxed social scene, with a jukebox, a soda counter and booths, historic photos of Route 66, and 10,000 bottles of pop lining the walls and windows. At any time of day it is a blaze of color and refracted light, like the inside of a pinball machine without the bells and whistles.

Out back is a quiet patio with picnic tables, a grassy play area for kids, and long views of an adjacent tree farm, which in a brown tabletop landscape seems like a mirage. Pink sandstone walls extend the sides of the building, anchoring it to the earth, while four massive steel pipes, 16 inches in diameter, act like guy wires to keep the canopy from tipping over or lifting off in a high wind.

But it is the glowing soda bottle out front'a slice of Las Vegas transported to the High Plains'that pushes the project beyond the obvious and the familiar into the realm of metaphor and art. The bottle consists of concentric circles made of painted steel attached to a central column, plus a sophisticated LED lighting system programmed with thousands of color variations. Initially, the bottle was to be glass or cast resin and the straw set at a 45-degree angle, as straws in bottles usually are. But the fi rst proved too expensive and the second too structurally dicey, so Elliott opted for the steel rings and an upright straw, which at the last minute he crimped at the top.

The end result is both witty and impeccably crafted, an homage to the past using the materials and technology of the future, a part of a dreamscape as well as a landscape.