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The Space Needle in Seattle

The Once Marvelous Googie Architecture and Its Best Examples

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“Ooh! That is a groovy idea!”

You hear anybody say that word anymore? Unless they’re fifty-something or maybe at a theme party.

Come to think of it, what would be the theme at that party where people might say “groovy”?

You named it! A 60s or 70s-theme party.

What does “groovy” even mean? Fashionable, attractive, maybe even a simple “great” would do. So, it conveys a positive attitude toward something awe-inspiring.

This sense of amazement and optimism with new stuff was the main theme of the American life in the 40s. People who saw themselves at the forefront of the time’s technological advances.

Reverberations of the Atomic Age, the boom in the American car market, functioning orbit-launching pads in Huston and California, and the promise of conquering the moon by a president and all the hoopla around it, were some of the reasons why the groovy, flashy Googie architecture rose to popularity in the 40s and all the way up to the late 60s.

Googie architecture’s short-lived clout was most apparent where it was born; West Coast; more specifically California.

All the technological edge that Americans were enjoying, was fanning their sense of optimism to praise futuristic approaches to design.

On the other hand, 40s and 50s, the years after the World War II, were when the architecture community and its clients were starting to have second thoughts about Modern architecture’s hammering dictations.

So, Googie architecture was among one of the earliest ephemeral trends that were discordant with modernist values and had come around to contradict it.

One of the most vivid exhibitions of googie architecture’s swipe at Modernism’s monochrome face, was Las Vegas and its popular view of neon-fed multicolored rows of storefronts and signs all along the city.

The road sign that welcomes visitors ahead of entering might be the most famous one. The one that reads “Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas” with its familiar blue starburst sticking out from the upper left.

So, the car, jet, Atom and Space Age attractions topped by the public frustration with Modernists’ inflexibilities and lost momentum, were two sets of reasons that gave rise to the Googie architecture’s promising call.

John Lautner’s coffee house design in West Hollywood in 1949 created a buzz all over the community and caught the attention of a handful of reporters and famous columnists, mostly in California. The place was called googie and so the nation-wide media movement that followed, went by the name googie style architecture.

Apart from slight variations in style, the other names that rose beside “googie architecture” were pretty close in forms and principles. Doo Wap or Popluxe are two examples.

Googie architecture’s rather short-lived reach that also for the good part remained inside the United States appeared along highways, coffee houses, motels, gas stations, and the signage of a lot of other commercial establishments across California. It was at its highest in the 60s.

Till this moment, if you weren’t around in the 50s or 60s and more importantly weren’t in Los Angeles and the area, you may have made up a vague picture of googie style architecture in your mind!

But before we get to the visual characteristics and examples of this thread-bare style that still strives for survival today, we think you could enjoy relating to googie style architecture through some of the most acclaimed animated movies in Hollywood.

Have you ever noticed the retro-future setting of the 60s’ in the world of The Incredibles? Or the same sort of mid-century modern design you see in the animation Minions?

These two and a handful other animated pictures are heavily inspired by the visual features of the time where googie architecture was conceived and raised.

a googie styled building in California

Swept up Roofs and generous use of neon, glass, steel, and geometric shapes with sharp angles, along with cantilevered overhung shades and awnings and occasional fashioning of nuclear signs, starbursts, and free-form motifs shape most visual characteristics of the googie style architecture.

Like many other impulsive trends in art, googie architecture too, didn’t last very long. After a fairly long and good run that held on for more than two decades, it wasn’t simply just as appealing and engaging to the architecture academia community and its public as it used to be anymore.

That’s the veneer to excitement. There’s an ambivalence to it that undermines its perpetuity.

Googie architecture, like many of its predecessors or fashionable movements after it, didn’t last long and became subject to academic contempt and ridicule; being considered as too commercial to deserve more looking into.

In a lot of senses, googie style architecture underwent what Art Deco movement in architecture had suffered in the 30s; but despite being abandoned, they both mark an important link in the 20th century’s history chain.

Although a lot of googie architecture buildings have been demolished or left to rot, a few still remain and operate after almost half a century. So, let’s check out these tokens of the past; standing bits of history when people were confident in what their supposed-bright future held for them.

Theme Building at LAX - Los Angeles

Theme Building at LAX - Los Angeles

With its pair of intersecting steel arches and tensile structure that helps hold up the main UFO-shaped ring of a restaurant at the center, the theme building at LAX is more than anything an icon, a message, and wants to show a future that doesn’t exist but could happen.

The streamlined and sleek-looking geometry of this building is a statement on how much technology can rule design; how much it can be truly relied on to arouse shock and awe.

The features we mentioned for the googie architecture have not been disguised here. With its overall form of nuclei with electrons spinning around it, this building has become the symbol of one of the most visited airports around the globe.

Space Needle - Seattle

Space Needle - Seattle

Russia’s space endeavors in the 50s that was capped by the Sputnik project till then, didn’t bode well for their nemesis, the United States.

Boing that was headquartered in Seattle, Washington, and their biggest employer, NASA had to sell their ability to outreach Russia’s space dominance.

Seattle officials picked Century 21 exhibition in 1962 to broadcast this message. Space Needle was to be the life of the party.

John Graham Jr.’s reinforced concrete and steel structure was topped off by the flying saucer that is held up on the tower by three supporting steel shafts.

Space Needle, the most iconic building that introduces Seattle, was primarily inspired by Fernsehturm tower in Berlin through a visit by the deputy of the 1962 exhibition, but the real incentive behind its Googie architecture was the sense of a liberating future that aviation industry saw for itself.

A reality that might not have taken place quite the way its builders foresaw but close enough to help Seattle and the area prosper to a promising landscape.

TWA Flight Center at JFK - New York City

TWA Flight Center at JFK - New York City

Although planes were one of the main arms of the military in the Second World War, their commercial use picked up only after the war. One of the most effective firms in capitalizing the middle-class Americans’ access to commercial jets for both domestic and cross-Atlantic flights was Trans World Airlines (TWA).

The hype for commercial flights was yet another reason that bolstered googie architecture mentality in the 60s and what basically inspired the design of TWA former flight center at JFK. It was converted to an airport hotel in 2005.

The great Eero Saarinen was the architect TWA decided to commission for the design of its own terminal at the airport we call John F. Kennedy today.

The terminal’s iconic shape is made of four reinforced concrete shells that join at the heart of the ensemble and is tailed by two dangling transit arms for plane boarding.

The dynamic googie style architecture of the building, that is believed by some modernist critics as inefficient and unnecessary, soars and hangs over the passengers; almost giving a borderless place that’s supported by four giant reinforced concrete bases.

The oldest McDonald’s stand - Downey, California

The oldest McDonald’s stand - Downey, California

One of the main tourist attractions of Downey in California is the oldest standing branch of the empire franchise, McDonald’s.

Its neon lighting, use of curved free forms and starbursts that are meant to capture the company’s familiar “M” logo on either side of the drive-up restaurant reveal its googie architecture.

It is absolutely one of the most gripping examples that still submerges you in quite the exact experience of one who’d walk into the newly opened googie style architecture McDonald’s in the 50s.

A touching and nostalgic walk through the past.

Union 76 Station - Los Angeles

Union 76 Station - Los Angeles

Union 76 gas station at Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills is absolutely one of the boldest Googie architecture icons of post-war California.

Its upswept curvilinear roof with its flashy colored exterior, catches the eye the moment it shows up in sight.

The soaring canopy over the station exemplifies a mid-century, futuristic longing of the post-war era.

Passersby would definitely prefer to gas up here; well, if the prices are reasonable enough and the staff is nice of course!

The googie style architecture of Union 76 Station was conceived of a notion that may not relate to us today as much as it did five decades ago!

Norms La Cienega restaurant - Los Angeles

Norms La Cienega restaurant - Los Angeles

Norms franchise gained attraction in the 1950s across Southern California. Its googie style architecture flag that sticks out of the restaurant’s cantilevered roof and resembles a jet wing has definitely helped with creating a sticky icon to bear in mind.

The Sculptured House - Genesee, Colorado

The Sculptured House - Genesee, Colorado

Although it might not particularly fall into the googie architecture category this one, but Charles Deaton’s luxury house that sits on the pine-covered mountain hills of Genesee certainly can relate to the sci-fi fantasies of the Space age in the 1960s. That’s why we couldn’t resist bringing it here on this list.

Chips restaurant - Los Angeles

Chips restaurant - Los Angeles

On Hawthorne Boulevard, a well-known sign stands out.

A collection of prompts that each bear a letter of the name “Chips” where all erect out of a zigzag green-and-white roof. Chips’ design is more conventional that to other googie style architecture restaurants and coffee shops in LA but it still captures the eye all the same.

Mitchel Sardy
Author: Mitchel Sardy
I am a Computer Engineer and an architecture enthusiast, graduated on both majors up to the master's degree from the University of Washington; I'm an advisor to early-stage architecture startups all around the globe; the ones using computer-based solutions to design in architecture.

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