Want to know your structuralism from your deconstructivism, and your neo-gothicism from your classical rococo? Need a small refresher, or perhaps interested in learning a little more about architecture? Try our crash courses in architectural styles! This week: Googie architecture. Sometimes known as ‘Doo-wop’, ‘Coffee House Modern’ or ‘Populuxe’ architecture, Googie was an iconic style from the 1940s to the 1960s, and is particularly associated with 1950s US pop culture. The unusual name ‘Googie’ stems from 1949, when architect John Lautner was asked to design a coffee shop called ‘Googies’, situated at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles. The distinctive, eye-catching style he created was termed ‘Googie Architecture’ by Douglas Haskell, editor of House and Home magazine, following an article written in 1952 that was based on the coffee shop.
Following the bitter experiences of World War II, the 1950s was an era in the United States that saw an explosion in youth pop culture, space age technology and capitalist ideals. As the economy hit a boom period, optimism for the future grew, and the pop culture of the period firmly reflected this in music, film and the mass media. Innovative new materials, such as Formica, PVC, vinyl, melamine and aluminium, started to be used widely in interior decoration, particularly in bright colours that contrasted with the stark drabness of the 1940s. Neon, kitsch designs became extremely popular with the general public, particularly in shades of bubblegum pink, pistachio green, pale blue, lime green, yellow and black. This echoed the innocent optimism of the age. The birth of the space age also fuelled this feeling, with futuristic technology and space rockets entering the public consciousness. As America grew as a superpower, challenging Russia for dominance over space, the public fully embraced images of this exciting new technology, with starbursts, rockets, atoms, flying saucers and other science-based iconography appearing across a wide range of media. Googie tapped into this excitement, utilising bright colours, science themes and new materials and technology to maximum effect.
Mel’s Drive In and Bob’s Big Boy Broiler – photos by Flickr7500
As its humble coffee shop beginnings suggest, Googie’s origins are rooted firmly in suburban commercial enterprise in the USA, following the rise of car ownership in the 1930s and 1940s. As more and more of the population had access to a car, the service industry began to spread out towards the suburbs so that customers would find businesses easily accessible by car. As a result of this spread, business owners needed sign and shop designs that would easily identify their businesses from the road and encourage passing customers to drop in. Tapping into the pop culture of the age, Googie was born, a fun, friendly and brash style that typified a generation. Sadly, this joyful innocence was to run out with the assassination of Kennedy and the Vietnam War, and in subsequent years many of the original Googie buildings were torn down as they and their philosophy on life began to appear dated, to be replaced with more reserved modernist architecture that looked to put function before aesthetics. In the cold light of modernism, Googie began to look tacky rather than glamourous.
Googie architecture draws on the pop culture of the 1950s to create kitsch, iconic structures that demand attention. Primarily, Googie relies on Space Race iconography, incorporating science motifs into structures to tap into growing public interest in future technology. This applies not only to literal images, but also to more abstract shapes that allude to a space theme, such as blocky geometric shapes and fluid lines that hint at comet trails and rocket tail fins. In this way, whole structures can be seen as metaphors for Space Age technology, creating ambiguous and abstract shapes that mirror futuristic and alien forms. In addition, structures often were designed to give the illusion of having floating roofs, or of appearing to defy gravity and of being hung from the sky, again embracing the futuristic and the space age. From this overview, specific common features can be identified in Googie architecture.
Star Dust Motel, Santa Monica – postcard picture courtesy of Heather David
Googie often utilised upswept roofs – roofs that slope upwards at an angle – that both allowed for larger glass windows at the front of a building, and created a feeling of motion in its mirroring of angular tail fins. This upwards-slanting roof was a new and fairly revolutionary design – both eye-catching and in itself a futuristic technology. This of course achieved the main goal of catching the attention of passing trade, as well as lending itself to space age aesthetics. Combining these roofs with large sheet glass windows (another new technology) meant not only more light inside the premises, giving the building an airier, friendlier feel, but when used with thin steel supports made the roof appear to defy gravity and ‘float’.
GOOGIE ARCHITECTURE IN PRACTICE
Googie’s pursuit of the sci-fi fantasy resulted in outrageous structures that were disliked by critics, but loved by the general population. One of the more famous examples is Johnie’s Coffee Shop (formerly Romeo’s), situated in Los Angeles, which has featured as a backdrop in films such as The Big Lebowski and American History X.
Johnie’s Coffee Shop – photos by Anna Berthold and Hane C Lee
Johnie’s is a classic example of Googie, with its upswept, floating roof giving an illusion of movement and kinetic energy, much like an aircraft taking off. The striking design and bold use of primary colours is clearly used to catch the attention of passing drivers, and this is complemented by the use of tiny lights in sections of the roof. These lights can be seen as stars or, taking into account the shape of the roof, like the light that emanates from the tail end of rockets in motion. Alan Hess, an expert in Googie architecture, has said that ‘the building embodies all of the changes in L.A.: becoming suburban, auto-oriented, also becoming a city of the future’.
The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign – photos by James Martin Phelps and roadsidepictures
Another example of Googie styling is not a structure, but a symbol of a whole city. The Las Vegas sign is world famous as an icon for the city of excess, but the Googie architecture beautifully complements the innocent hope of those arriving to earn their fortune – if not the cynics that return with rather less money than they brought with them. Created in 1959 by Betty Willis, a local graphic designer, the sign was intended to be a unique design that epitomises the spirit of Vegas – even the silver circles that ‘Welcome’ is written across symbolise silver dollars. The kitsch and colourful sign, sporting the eponymous starburst, is a well-loved icon, even if its glamour may be receding somewhat with age.
The Seattle Space Needle – photos by Carissa Bonham and Juan@el-callejon.tk
Googie is not just limited to kitsch signage and low-level commercial buildings, but can be used for creating sophisticated international landmarks that stand the test of time. The Seattle Space Needle was constructed in 1961 for the 1962 World Trade Fair, and was originally designed in 1959 by the artist Edward E. Carlson to resemble a tethered balloon. Architect John Graham refined the design to resemble a flying saucer, cementing the space theme so central to Googie. Even the paint used on the project was astronautically themed – Astronaut White for the legs, Orbital Olive for the core, Re-entry Red for the halo and Galaxy Gold for the sunburst and pagoda roof. Built to withstand earthquakes up to 9 on the Richter Scale and Category 5 hurricanes, the ‘hovering disc’ houses a revolving restaurant that is powered by a single one horsepower electric motor.
The Theme Building, LAX – photos by bringo and Michael Zara
The Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport looks surprisingly modern, considering that it celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Built to resemble a flying saucer with four legs, the restaurant in the centre of the building originally revolved in much the same way as the Seattle Space Needle, but is now stationary. The structure has undergone several renovations, most recently in 2010, but has retained its sense of modernity. Perhaps fittingly, this Googie building was installed with futuristic lighting, enhancing the sci-fi theming of the structure, in 1997 by Walt Disney Imagineering, an echo of the innocence and hope of the Googie era.