Culture: Googie Architecture

Back to the Future: Disappearing Googie architecture evokes space-age past

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Metal swoops and fiberglass fins and sails.

Perpendicular planes of glass and concrete jutting at 90-degree angles, bordered by tropical plants. A gleaming, skewed canopy painted in primary colors that beckoned diners down the Sunset strip. Although Googie’s—the Los Angeles coffee shop that launched an architectural movement—is a fading memory, its imprint on popular culture lives on.

Googie—a breathtakingly unrestrained architectural style, perfected by 1940s- and ’50s- era architects like John Lautner, Douglas Honnold and Wayne McAllister—flourished in southern California, coastal Florida and Las Vegas, locales where fantasy and escapism provided the fabric of daily life. Whimsical, and occasionally absurd, restaurants such as Pann’s and the Wich Stand, futuristic bowling alleys and drive-in movie theaters, and roadside gas stations, motels and burger stands sprang up virtually overnight. The effect was startling, as if Frank Lloyd Wright had embarked on an Electric Kool-Aid acid trip.

“New York and Miami had Art Deco, but here in southern California, we really excelled at Googie,” boasts Los Angeles-based journalist Chris Nichols.

MEET GEORGE JETSON…
According to Chris Jepsen, an employee of the Orange County Archives and the founder of SpaceAgeCity.com, a website dedicated to Googie history, L.A. provided the perfect incubator for the movement. “First, you had the blurring of indoor and outdoor living spaces, which was typical to mid-century California architecture,” says Jepsen. “There were a lot of contractors doing development for NASA and the U.S. Air Force out here, and workers tightening lug nuts on satellites at Boeing.”

Factor in the Disneyland and Hollywood scenes, which were both more comfortable with the fantasy element, and the fact that most Californians weren’t tied to tradition, and the West Coast was a prime breeding ground for Googie.

Alan Hess—author of 1985’s Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, recently updated and republished as Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture—agrees. “The cultural attitude in the West didn’t put so many restrictions on architects,” he notes. “People were willing to break out of cultural conventions and accept a wider range of ideas, and the exuberance of Googie and its willingness to push the envelope while displaying great sensibilities made for some fantastic architecture.”

Facets of the style have permeated pop culture via iconic imagery like Holiday Inn signs, In-N-Out Burger joints, and McDonald’s legendary golden arches (not to mention landmarks like Seattle’s Space Needle and the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport). Movies have also traded on Googie’s retro-future kitsch; the Coen Brother’s cult classic The Big Lebowski being one example among many.

THE ‘CAMERA OF DEATH’
Today, however, authentic Googie sightings are as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Thumb through the pages of Googie Redux, and you’ll notice that most of the listings are annotated as “demolished,” with obituaries for Henry’s Drive-In, a Pomona oasis; Coffee Dan’s, a Hollywood hangout; and Ship’s Coffee Shop, an aerodynamic Westwood breakfast spot, piled up like commuters in L.A.’s infamous rush-hour traffic.

“In 1985, these Googie landmarks were a common presence in the L.A. street scene,” Hess writes in the foreword to his tome, adding that, “two decades later, it seems an urbanistic luxury… So much has been lost; only some have been saved.”

Both Jepsen and Nichols credit Hess’ book with fueling their own interest in Googie architecture. Jepsen was inspired to pick up his camera and begin documenting what remained. But, he quickly discovered, many Googie structures weren’t maintained, and when property values were compounded with deferred maintenance, some of the best examples of the genre were unceremoniously razed. “I was driving around Orange County taking pictures of stuff seconds ahead of the bulldozer,” Jepsen recalls. “At times, I felt like I had the camera of death, and anything I pointed it at was doomed.”

Nichols initially contacted Hess when a McDonald’s restaurant—one of the first franchises, opened in 1954—located in his Los Angeles-suburb hometown of Azusa was shuttered in the ’80s. “His book really changed my life,” Nichols says. “I realized that there were a bunch of these things, and a real order to the species. We ultimately lost the Azusa McDonald’s, but I got involved with saving another one, in Downey, which was a real vindication.”

PRESERVATION: AN UPHILL BATTLE
Hess also guided Nichols to the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which, with 8,500 members, is the largest private preservation organization in the country. The ModCom, as it’s called, serves as a watchdog agency, educational outreach service and resource for construction firms involved in Googie-restoration projects.

“This has totally changed my life,” Nichols raves, “because working in modern preservation, you can possibly meet your idols. I got to be friends with some of the original Googie architects, like Wayne McAllister, who designed the original Bob’s Big Boys and El Rancho Vegas, the first resort casino hotel in Las Vegas. He and guys like Louis Armét and Eldon Davis were the kings. They made the interiors work, and with their exteriors, they made people stop and pay attention.”

Yet, as Jepsen cautions, preserving Googie architecture continues to be an uphill battle. “The tendency is to have this gut instinct that if you can remember a building as new, it can’t be important or historically relevant,” he says. “We’re at the cusp of people realizing the importance of this architecture, and most of it is already gone. Many of the best examples are lost.”

Hess’ book offers a guided tour of more than 100 Googie structures still standing in Los Angeles—places like Rae’s coffee shop in Santa Monica, the Mar Vista Bowl in Culver City and Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax Avenue. Thanks to his efforts, and the work of preservationists like Jepsen and Nichols, it’s still possible to gas up your convertible, put on some cool shades (and maybe some Martin Denny or Esquivel), and take a quick trip back to the future.