Googie; there is nothing quite like it in the world. Despite being one of the most recognisable architectural styles, Googie is still a foreign term for many (including some California natives) who - while having witnessed some of its iconic landmarks - never found the right word to describe them. Visually representative of the modern zeitgeist, Googie embodies the optimistic spirit of a futuristic vision that was creative, exciting and very, very fun.
The Googie craze: American retro-futurism
“…this interest, this intrigue, this appeal of living in the future just went all across the culture” Alan Hess
For millions of Americans, the future looked bright in the mid-1950s - 1960s. The start of the Space race and the birth of atomic science brought promise of intelligent societies driven by nuclear energy and economic prosperity. At the same time, the automobile sector boomed and a powerful moving car culture developed. As Americans sped across the country with their new cars, a new type of drive-in and roadside restaurant emerged in response to try and capture the attention of fast moving drivers, quickly becoming the new buzz in town. Postwar America was prepared for change and Googie was ready to deliver it. The shift towards a retro high-tech futuristic outlook only seemed natural.
The 1962 version of The Jetsons, looked towards Googie buildings for inspiration, helping to drive the style closer to American homes.
While Googie became a national phenomenon, spreading to Texas, New Jersey, Michigan and Florida, it was among the experimental and laissez-faire environment of California and Los Angeles where the style found a home. With a tradition for housing emerging and eclectic modern architecture, Los Angeles drove the popular thrive for the architectural style that so dexterously was able to mix Modernist, car culture and Atomic Age futuristic dynamism together. At the peak of the modern era, Googie symbolised the live realisation of 50s and 60s perception of the future and what this meant for all Americans. Iconic landmarks like Chips, Mel’s Diner and the original Googie - a John Lautner designed coffee shop, the first of its style, and the namesake of the movement - continued to define America’s place in pop culture and Googie’s spirit of the age.
Architecture & Marketing combined - Googie’s defining features
“The more startling, the better. The more forms you used the better, especially if [the building] looked like it was just floating there, if you couldn’t see how it could stand up. That was the trick of it.” Pat DeRosa, Los Angeles Times
Exuberant and playful, Googie’s bright and bold futuristic aesthetic acted as visual attractions for potential patrons speeding down the driveway; location was no longer a physical constraint for commerce and Googie style establishments took full advantage of it. Architects deliberately designed the retro-looking interior for short, immediate stays, allowing for more customers to visit the building. Unapologetically advertising, Googie was essentially just one large, successful working billboard. It is thus that a big part of the features that characterise Googie style architecture, appeal to both marketing and architectural design.
Googie Feature: Upswept or Dome roofs
Modern concrete construction allowed architects to incorporate dome and curved structures into their Googie buildings. Colourful and upswept with large sweeping arches, these rooflines helped in the addition of multiple glass surfaces to the building’s form, which helped to determine their other-worldly and sci-fi aesthetic.
Googie Feature: Starbursts
Besides a striking silhouette, colour and neon lights play an essential role in Googie buildings. With the sole objective of grabbing passerby’s attention, architects experimented with typography and extreme signage in vibrant primary colour patterns to achieve a technicolour space dream. What a better way to do this than with overhead signs of neon starbursts?
Googie Feature: Sheet glass windows and Exposed steel beams
Advances in engineering lead to the creation of more flexible, dynamic materials that were then used by Googie architects in their designs. Glass and steel in particular achieved a new function with Googie; not only functional or material elements, they came to be considered an additional element of design and aesthetic. Most Googie facades became glass-made, with a variety of different finishes of modernist material depending on the building’s context. Other popular materials included linoleum, cork and plastic.
Googie Feature: Cantilevered ceilings
Although thick, the hard angular lines of Googie style ceilings cause the buildings to almost defy gravity. Giant clocks, spotlights and thin supports contribute to support this weightless vision reminiscent of gravity zero space.
Googie Feature: Boomerang and Amoeba shapes
Organic and daringly geometric in form, Googie emphasises the dynamic sense of motion. Whether this is achieved through atomic flying saucer based models or pop culture emblems, buildings were designed to stand out from the cityscape norm and express the age’s desire for a futuristic utopia.
The visionaries of Googie style
Even though many architects delved into the Googie style, only a few became big names in the community:
Father of the great American drive-thru, McAllister took his first steps in the architectural world with his design for Mexico’s Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel. Although heavily Space Age and car culture inspired, it wasn’t until his later commercial collaborations with restaurants and night areas, that his designs achieved historical status within the Californian community. Drawing from USA’s automobiles and the fever for the tail fins and alluring chromatic, he developed the original concepts of roadside restaurants and theme hotels into immersive artistic creations of futuristic work. Besides designing many of Southern California’s greatest circular drive-ins (like Herbert’s and Robert’s), McAllister’s ventured further north towards Las Vegas. He is responsible for the original plans for hotels and casinos including El Rancho and the Fremont Hotel and Casino.
A modernist master (watch his interview here), Wong fought against challenging obstacles including WWII and racial disparity, before forging a notable architectural career. Starting at Pereira and Luckman, he followed Pereira when the architectural marketeer and business developer established his own firm, eventually leading the design team in charge of LAX’s master plan. Under his direction, the airport was modernised and readied for the arrival of jet air travel. At the core of his work, however, there was a distinct simplicity and clarity that never changed, however diverse was his architectural work. Often choosing to break down a building’s structure to a single catchy silhouette, Wong’s design philosophy was evident and idiosyncratic. CBS Television City and Los Angeles Centre Studio as well as several corporate headquarters and other commercial spaces are signed by him.
This prolific duo (who were later joined by Victor Newlove in 1963) set up their architectural firm in 1947 and quickly became the most prominent practitioners of the Googie movement. Credited with the design of 4,000 buildings (single locations, local chains, or national franchises), they produced many of Los Angeles’ new postwar commercial and public structures. Their design staples were revolutionary and eye-catching but artfully devised so that function was never compromised. Among the futuristic elements of maximalism signage and dramatically vaulted roofings, they thought out practical solutions for their clients that expanded from accessible open spaces to the more economic use of materials.
Iconic examples of Googie Architecture
“It wasn’t custom houses for wealthy people — it was for coffee shops, gas stations, car washes, banks… the average buildings of everyday life that people of that period used and lived in. And it brought that spirit of the modern age to their daily lives.” Alan Hess
The retrospective and commercial appeal of Googie style buildings made it an easy target for developers, who either remodelled them or demolished them completely to pave for contemporary engineering examples. However, several examples of Googie architecture still remain, and they are nothing short of iconic.
Norms, 1957, West Hollywood
This dinner style restaurant, apart from boasting a 24/7 service, is also the oldest example of Googie designs from the Armet and Davis firm still in operation today. With a sleek kite shaped roof, the site is best known for its spectacular five-part and block letter Norms sign markedly supported by directional angular white trusses. Retro white and brick orange hues and an open glass panel looking out onto the Boulevard continue to infix the whole location with the Space Age vibe so proper of the movement. Among the dynamism of more exuberant Googie designs, Norms is a rare exhibit of the Cali breakfast shop type on the go that was not exempt from redevelopment, but in 2015, Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission mobilised to protect the landmark from demolition.
Pann’s, 1958, Los Angeles
Charmingly 1950s, this breakfast delight is a chic Googie emblem signed by the Armet and Davis firm. Multi-textured and rich in materials, Pann’s features many of the staples of Googie architecture; large glass windows, earthy cream neon sign, tar walls, and a distinctive hovering, angular roof with a peculiar ‘turtle’-like shape that dotes the place with a cosy feel. The inside is not far behind and it is just as appealing as the outside! With its red wine booths, cork surfaces, dark wood character and slitted curtains, the inside is a call to the colour palette of Helen Fong, the mind behind Pann’s interior design and its central spot in between a haven of subtropical landscaping surrounded by traffic. A close collaborator of the architect firm, she was also one of the first women to join the American Institute of Architects - we love a brilliant female.
Union 76 Station, 1965, Beverly Hills
A Googie gas station designed by Gin Wong, what more could we ask for? One of the highest tokens of the architectural style, this prolific station originally intended to become part of LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) as a compliment to the famous Theme Building, but when another project was chosen instead, the refuelling stop ended up in Beverly Hills of all places. Described by writer and critic Tom Wolfe as a “spherical triangle”, the gas station owes all of its popularity to the dramatic boomerang of its enormous canopy. Sharp and white in colour with a frieze of orange rooflines, the concrete roof uniquely spreads over a large area that covers the cashier station, the pumps and then seems to board toward the sky, lifting its angled corners as if to head upwards. (At night, the underside of the roof is illuminated by linear fluorescent lights that follow the skyward angle of above.) All of this is supported by two large pillars that descend to the ground in the area near to the pumps. Soaring and fun, the roof is the anachronism of a Space Age vision not yet realised. Beverly Hills landmarked the gas station in 2018 to the pleasure of Googie fans out there.
Space Needle, 1961, Seattle
A ‘spaceship’ or ‘flying saucer’; both are accurate descriptions for this Googie observation tower whose spiralling streamlined forms so perfectly embody the Space Age fervour of the movement. Once the highest building in USA’s North West, this space bound tower was designed by Edward Carlson for Seattle’s World Fair in 1962 to have a height of 184 meters and yet withstand +9.0 earthquakes and category 5 hurricanes. To sustain this, the Space Needle was made purely of structure, built with a mixture of reinforced concrete, iron, steel and glass, but suffice to say it was not an easy task. The lookout’s iconic geometric lines and Carlson’s vision of an hourglass bottom, UFO disk restaurant and needle top hindered the process and the Space Needle underwent many design and structural transformations before it was completed. Now, the Space Needle is the city’s unofficial symbol and the host to various festive celebrations which include the traditional end of year party. Its observation deck, with 10 tilted leaning glass benches, offer an airing floating view over the booming city below.
LAX McDonald’s, 1953, Downey
The world’s first ever McDonald’s, this drive-in designed by Stanley Mestion (who specialised in auto showrooms), reveals why the massive chain was so quick to adopt the Googie style. While the savoury display of the canted glass walk-up window was tempting enough, it was the two symbolic golden M shaped arches - each approximately 10 meters in height, of sheet metal, and piercing through the wedges of the building’s roof - that attracted drivers as they sped down the driveway. You simply couldn’t miss it. Speedee the Chef mascot and the side “Hamburgers” sign put the finishing touch to this effective flashy combination - and to think that it all began with McDonald’s desire to show the world its original food preparation techniques! The adjacent building houses a replica of the McDonald’s brother’s original food stand in San Bernardino.
Googie after the trend
Despite being a driving force for American identity, Googie is often regarded as tacky and outdated by critics who view it as nothing more than an expanse of Hollywood glamour. But the style has shown that it is more than simple architecture. Retro-futuristic and optimistic, Googie is the manifest of the 50s boundless vision of the future - and how wonderful a vision that was.
Written by Carlota Pano