Googie Architecture: Why Motels Look Like U.F.O.’s

Categories Practical

Often described as an “undeniable super-aesthetic,” the hyper-American Googie architectural stylings of the 1950s and ’60s can still be seen all over North America today. But what is Googie? Why was it so pervasive in mid-century America, especially within roadside establishments such as diners, motels, and coffee shops? Well to put it simply, it is an ultramodern fashion of architecture that came to prominence in America after the end of World War II. Following the War, the United States’ economic base grew almost exponentially; this put the nation in a particularly ripe economic condition, better than almost any other country in the world: “American society became more affluent in the postwar years than most Americans could have imagined in their wildest dreams before or during the war.” I believe that these exact sentiments of affluence and exceeded expectations are what can be directly traced to the birth of Googie.

Described as a form of ultramodern architecture and often as “a subdivision of futurist architecture,” Googie draws its inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocket ship dreams. Think Jetsons, think Post-War Pop. It was said to have started in Southern California in the late 1940s by famed architect John Lautner. It was physical design representation of the rapidly growing aspirations found amongst American peoples the nation over. With the proliferation of automobiles, color television sets, and all other sorts of luxury items throughout the United States, American citizens were all excitedly stating that “the future is now.” Googie in a sense made the future accessible for all Americans. The architecture itself is defined through long sloping and upswept roofs, curvy geometric shapes, and extreme uses of steel and glass. It is a style is at once instantly recognizable and totally memorable.

Even more so than simply being interested in reinterpreting futuristic ideologies in an architectural format, Googie finds harmony with those establishments that I have describe as roadside for a reason. With the wide use of the car that sprung about following World War II, more people were living in suburbs outside of city-centers. This meant that more people were commuting to-and-from cities, passing many diners, coffee shops, cleaners, and motels along the way. Googie thus became a pretty easy way for a roadside business to potentially increase their customer base; just throw a crazy swooping shape on the roof and rename your business to “Nonna’s Atomic Lunch.” The more glass, neon, and steel being used in eye-catching manners, the better. As Maria Fernandez wrote in 1999, “The reason we have Googie is because in Southern California we have a car culture (…) Googie starts on the roadside. The car is its soul mate.” Googie represents this incredibly fascinating moment in American architecture where there seemed to have been a collective decision to make the future happen right then and there. Maybe this is representative of a greater sense of impatience that feels pervasive during this time period as well… This can be seen in the great number of incredibly elaborate kitchen appliances that swept the nation during the 1950s (i.e.: Frigidaire’s Dream Kitchen or General Electric’s Refrigeration Center). The rise of domesticity also gave rise to the desire to eliminate labor-intensive tasks; the heightening of easy travel and family-friendly businesses increased the amount of time and money that Americans were willing to spend eating out.

Unfortunately, Googie did not last forever. I mean how could it have? It is far too optimistic of an architectural ideology to continue pleasing masses for an extended period of time. Yes, America’s naivety was to eventually fade away as the country transitioned from the 1950s into the later part of the ’60s. With the rise of the Vietnam War and the assassination of President Kennedy it didn’t seem like Americans were so hell-bent on trying to realize the future through their bowling alleys and sandwich shops anymore, but rather just hoping to weather the storm that was their new tumultuous time. Enter, Brutalism. And although Googie has already has its time in-the-sun it still is a shame to hear that so many iconic examples of wonky Space Age architecture are being torn down; however, Googie will always exist through some wonderful television programs like The Jetsons and Space Dandy, and of course in our hearts forever.

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