Sunday, July 02, 2017

How Googie got its name

In discussing this exaggerated Modern form of architecture, people often ask where the name "Googie" came from. It came from a Los Angeles Coffee Shop called "Googie's" (next door to the famous Schwab's Pharmacy) which was designed by the great Modernist architect John Lautner. Architecture critic Douglas Haskell disliked the style intensely and wrote a cutting tounge-in-cheek article about it in the February 1952 issue of House and Home magazine. The name stuck, first as a perjorative, but later as simply a non-judgemental descriptor. For purposes of historical documentation, here is that article...

By Douglas Haskell
House and Home, Feb. 1952

“We call it Googie architecture,” said Professor Thrugg, “named after a remarkable restaurant in Los Angeles called Googie’s.

That’s one you should see. (Photo, above) It starts off on the level like any other building. But suddenly it breaks for the sky. The bright red roof of cellular steel decking suddenly tilts upward as if swung on a hinge, and the while building goes up with it like a rocket ramp. But there is another building next door. So the flight stops as suddenly as it began.

“It seems to symbolize life today,” sighed the Professor, “skyward aspiration blocked by Schwab’s Pharmacy.

“My Los Angeles companion saw it differently,” continued the Prof. “He said, ‘looks funny, but I guess the guy has the right to do it that way if it attracts attention to his business.’”

“Is it a commercial motive?” asked a student, getting out his notes. “Do you mean that Googie architecture is like Mother Goose -- night clubs and gas stations shaped like Cinderella slippers or old-ladies-who-lived-in-the-shoe or stucco pumpkins?”

“No,” replied the Prof., “this resemblance is superficial. Googie is mostly houses. And Googie goes deeper. You underestimate the seriousness of Googie. Think of it! – Googie is produced by architects, not by ambitious mechanics, and some of these architects starve for it. After all, they are working in Hollywood, and Hollywood has let them know what it expects from them.
I refer you to that great popular classic, The Fountainhead. You may recall that every building the mythical hero Roarke created struck his audience on the head like a thunderclap. Each was Original. Each was a Revelation. None resembled any building ever done before.

“So the Googie architect knows that somehow he has to surpass everybody if he can – and that includes Frank Lloyd Wright.

“You can see why Googie architecture then becomes Modern Architecture Uninhibited.”

“Do you mean then," asked the student, “that Googie is an art in which anything and everything goes?”

“So long as it is modern,” came back the Prof. “Googie can have string windows – but never 16-light colonial sash. It can have inverted triangle roofs but never a cornice. It may be decked out in what my Googie friends call ‘vertical or horizontal louvers’ but never in green shutters. The first rule of Googie is, ‘It can’t be orgiastic if it’s not organic.’”

“Does it have canons of form?”

“It does indeed. The first is that although it must look organic it must be abstract. If a house looks like mushrooms, they must be abstract mushrooms. If it looks like a bird, this must be a geometric bird. (Nothing so naïve as Mother Goose!) It’s better yet if the house has more than one theme: like an abstract mushroom surmounted by an abstract bird.

Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, the Googie architect declares, ‘When the public can’t make it out, the artist is in harmony with himself.’”

“Does it have principles of construction?”

“Yes, Googie has set modern construction free. You may have noted for some time the trend in modern architecture to make light of gravity, to get playful with it. Googie goes farther: it ignores gravity altogether.
“In Googie whenever possible the building must hang from the sky. Where nature and engineering can’t accomplish this, art must help.

“You note, for example, that a good Googie architect has no fear of starting a heavy stone wall directly over a glass-filled void. Taking his cue from store front designers, he laughs at anybody whom this might make uncomfortable. He knows that nothing need appear to rest on anything else, least of all on the earth; in Googie architecture both the glass and the stone are conceived to float. It is strictly an architecture up in the air.

“Another Googie tenet is that just as three architectural themes mixed together are better than one, so two or three structural systems mixed together add to the interest of the occasion.”

“What about materials?”

“Ah, yes. You may have noted how they have multiplied in modern architecture. First only three materials were considered truly modern: steel, concrete and glass – especially glass. Now look at them all! Redwood and asbestos cement and glass block and plastics and plywood and more and more and more and more orchard stone! Need I expand the list? But Googie as I have said treats all issues with generous abandon. ‘Why throw the coal into the furnace?’ it asks. ‘Why not into the wall? Why not build with string? Why not use anything?…”

“What about equipment?” quickly interrupted the student.

“Same freedom. To the inventions of the modern engineer, Googie adds all of Popular Mechanics. Walls that are hinged and  roll out on casters, doors that disappear into the ground, overhead lights that cook the hamburger…”

“Stop! Wait!” cried the despairing student. “Just where in the name of Apollo can all this uninhibited incoherence lead?”

“Ah, well you might ask,” meditated Thrugg, stroking his chin. “Well you might ask. Modern architecture has set building free. For every one good way of building that there used to be, there are now three new ones, with more coming around the corner.
"Almost anything can be done and is being done – so what is there for young fellows trying to live up to The Fountainhead to do except create this spicy Googie goulash? Even so, they have brought modern architecture down from the mountains and set ordinary clients, ordinary people, free.”

“Is that good – having the people free?”

“No and yes. No, because the people have neither the education nor leaders to guide them. Caught between numbskull appraisers of the FHA on one side and Googie geniuses on the other, how can they know their way? There are no responsible critics in the middle!

“But again, yes, it is good, and for two reasons. One is that sometimes fantastically good ideas result from uninhibited experiment. The other is that Googie accustoms the people to expect strangeness, and make them the readier for those strange things yet to come which will truly make good sense.” Thrugg paused.

“Let me tell you a story. One hundred years ago in Spain was born a strange genius, Antoni Gaudi. He built cathedral towers that resembled weird plants and shocked everybody. Gaudi and his friends were interested in reproducing the more superficial appearance of nature – the beautiful lines of waves, the ever sensitive contours of leaves.

But Gaudi got people accustomed to looking away from the immediate past and toward nature. Soon a more deeply searching generation came. Beneath the changing leaves of plants they discerned the ever constant and ever geometric law of each plant’s growth; and beneath the changing waves the ever constant operations of dynamics. When their buildings were reading, applying these new principles, Gaudi’s fantastic strangeness had helped prepare the ground for this sensible strangeness.

“So something better than accidental discoveries might come even from Googie. It’s too bad our taste is so horrible; but it’s pretty good to have men free….”

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Googie Architecture: An Introduction

Bob's Big Boy, Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove. (Currently endangered)
(The following introduction to Googie was first posted on my Googie Architecture Online / SpaceAgeCity website way back in 1998. I know a good deal more about the subject than I did two decades ago, but much of the article still holds up well. - C.J.)  

Googie architecture was born of the post-WWII car-culture and thrived in the 1950s and 1960s. Bold angles, colorful signs, plate glass, sweeping cantilevered roofs and pop-culture imagery captured the attention of  drivers on adjacent streets. Bowling alleys looked like Tomorrowland. Coffee shops looked like something in a Jetsons cartoon.

For decades, many "serious" architects decried Googie as frivolous or crass. But today we recognize how perfectly its form followed its function.

Even as the best historic examples are bulldozed, architects are rediscovering the importance and utility of Googie and are adopting it for their own designs.

Cars with jet-like tailfins zoomed past giant tiki gods, rockets and flying saucers on their way to Disneyland. In some ways, the Space Age, or Googie, architecture and design surrounding the park blurred the line between the Magic Kingdom and the real world.
Beach-Lin Car Wash, 126 S. Beach Blvd., Anaheim
The Space Age Inn, Satellite Shopland and the ultra-modern Bob's Big Boy restaurant were like extensions of the promise of Disney's Tomorrowland. Likewise, a giant Tiki with glowing eyes standing before the Pitcairn Motel was nearly as intriguing to young visitors as the restless natives hiding in the jungles of Adventureland.

 These are some of the more exotic examples of Googie, a style of architecture that thrived in the 1950s and early 1960s. It began as commercial architecture designed to make the most of strip shopping centers and other roadside locations. It fit the needs of the new California "car culture" and the dreams of the even newer space age.

Googie began in Southern California, and although it spread (in numerous forms) across the nation, its heart always remained in its birthplace. Los Angeles and Orange County, California remain some of the best places to see what remains of the style.

Googie has also been known as Populuxe, Doo-Wop, Coffee Shop Modern, Jet Age, Space Age and Chinese Modern. In some cases it has been grouped with its cousin, Tiki architecture. It is also sometimes identified as part of a larger overall movement of space-age industrial design. Googie often seems like a joint design by the Jetsons and the Flintstones.
Eden Roc Motel, Anaheim (Now remodeled)

Alan Hess, the author of Googie: Fifties Coffeeshop Architecture, traces Googie back to three Coffee Dan's restaurants designed by renown Modernist architect John Lautner in the early forties.

"He selected the vaults and glass walls and trusses and angles of his buildings to fit the original, often unusual, concepts of space he favored," writes Hess.

Lautner originated the style that would be refined and reinterpreted by many others. Unintentionally, he also gave the style a name when, in 1949, he designed Googie's coffee shop at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles.

Professor Douglas Haskell of Yale was driving through Los Angeles when he and architectural photographer Julius Shulman came upon Googie's. "Stop the car!" Haskell yelled. "This is Googie architecture." Haskell openly mocked the style in a 1952 article in House and Home magazine, and the name "Googie architecture" stuck. Unfortunately, the term was used as a slur in "serious" architectural circles.
Linbrook Bowling Center sign, Brookhurst Ave., Anaheim

Googie, with its extremes, metaphorical qualities and humor has always been hard to categorize. This may have been partly why "serious architects" had trouble taking it seriously while the masses seemed to love it.

Googie architecture and design was art that told a story. The story had many variations, but its general plot was always something like this:

Man left his caves and grass huts and through hard work and ingenuity has built an amazing modern world. Tomorrow he will conquer any remaining problems and colonize the rest of the galaxy. However, for all his achievements and modern science man will never lose touch with the natural world and his noble roots.

The themes of history and primitive man were expressed in buildings and decor that reflected the Old West, the South Seas and even caves. (The interest in South Pacific motifs was partially a result of World War II servicemen returning from tours of duty in that region.)

Man's continuing link to nature was expressed in a number of ways, including the common use of rock and fake rock (flagcrete) walls, lush landscaping, indoor gardens, and vast plate glass windows that broke down traditional barriers between inside and outside. In the world of Googie, it's not uncommon to see UFO-shaped buildings with one rock wall, three glass walls and palm trees growing straight up through a cutout shape in an overhanging roof.
Earl's Coffee Shop, Tustin Ave., Orange

Various designers and architects represented the theme of man's utopian future in many ways. Like obscenity, Googie is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Some of the more common elements include the following:

Upswept Roofs -- This was especially common in the prototypical Googie buildings: coffee shops. An upswept roof allowed larger glass windows up front. Sometimes these roofs also incorporated the boomerang shape. Either way, it made many buildings look as though they were about to take off and fly. Variations on this style included the parabolic roofs of early Bob's Big Boy restaurants, designed by Armet and Davis.

Large Domes -- Often made of concrete, this was an exotic new shape for buildings made possible by advances in construction technology. It evoked the environment-controlled space stations and extraterrestrial cities that appeared on the covers of science fiction books and magazines. Some domes were reminiscent of flying saucers. Examples include the Anaheim Convention Center, the Cinerama Dome, and even the glass top of the 1956 prototype Pontiac Firebird.

Large Sheet Glass Windows -- These served several purposes. First, a tall glass front made the building itself a living billboard to drivers on the streets outside. This was a major consideration now that car travel was a key element of commerce. Also, the vast windows brought the outside in and made a sunnier brighter atmosphere for those inside. Often, the use of sheet glass with thin but sturdy steel support structures made roofs appear to float.

Boomerang Shapes -- This shape appeared in nearly every corner of the design world in the 1950s, and architecture was no exception. It appeared in archways, roadside signs, pools (often called kidney-shaped), and tile mosaics. Outside architecture, the shape was echoed in butterfly chairs, Formica patterns, corporate logos and textile prints. The origins of the boomerang as a symbol of the jet- and space-age is a little hazy, but it may be related to the "flying wing" aircraft, the expressionist art of Paul Klee and Joan Miro?, or simply the idea of an arrow shape pointing the way to progress.

Amoebae Shapes -- Sister of the boomerang, amoeboid shapes were amorphous blobs that appeared in many places, including roadside signs. Some suggest that these blobs were the predecessors of the boomerang. Some have also speculated that this design element came from World War II air defense camouflage patterns.

Atomic Models -- This design element appeared in everything from sculpture and roadsigns to dinnerware patterns and household appliances. The interlocking rings of the atomic model were a symbol of man's scientific ingenuity and represented the unlimited power that would make our future utopia possible. It also doubled as an (inaccurate) model of the solar system.

Starbursts -- An even more ubiquitous design element than the atomic model, the starburst took many forms. Just as the atomic model was shorthand for the "innerspace" scientists were exploring, starbursts were symbolic of the outer space being explored by astronauts. It also implied clean and shining surfaces.

Exposed steel beams -- These were usually more about appearance than function, but could serve both purposes. Painted steel I-beams often had geometric holes cut in them which served the dual purpose of making them lighter and enhancing their visual similarity to rocket gantries.

Flying Saucer Shapes -- Again, this motif was taken from the movies and covers of science fiction books and magazines. The Space Needle in Seattle, Wash. is an excellent example.
Selman Chevrolet, Orange (Building demolished)

Although Googie buildings were often quite different from one another, Douglas Haskell noted that the style had certain rules:
  1. It can look organic, but it must be abstract. "If it looks like a bird, it must be a geometric bird. It's better yet if the house had more than one theme: like an abstract mushroom surmounted by an abstract bird."
  2. Ignore gravity altogether. "Whenever possible, the building must hang from the sky."
  3. Multiple structural elements. Inclusion is the rule, rather than minimalism.
New materials, including sheet glass, glass blocks, asbestos, plywood and plastic gave the architect a whole new palette to work with. Other innovations allowed steel and cement to be used in new ways. Suddenly, architects had more elbowroom for their dreams. A room made of plastic could look like a log cabin, a space ship, or almost anything.
Denny's Restaurant, San Clemente

Googie was about the past, the present and the future -- But mostly the future. It was part of the popular culture, which reinforced a unified vision of a utopian future built on mankind's hard work and ingenuity.

Like most art forms that told a story or inspired us with optimism, Googie went out of fashion in the mid-1960s. It died when the story of our grand future died in the hearts of many Americans.

Ray Bradbury's story, The Toynbee Convector, is parable of man's need for a unified dream of a better future. The hero of the story says:

"I was raised in a time, in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, when people had stopped believing in themselves. I saw that disbelief, the reason that no longer gave itself reasons to survive, and was moved, depressed and angered by it . . . . Everywhere was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism . . . . The impossibility of change was the vogue. . . . Bombarded by dark chaff and no bright seed, what sort of harvest was there for man in the latter part of the incredible twentieth century? Forgotten was the moon, forgotten the red landscapes of Mars, the great eye of Jupiter, the stunning rings of Saturn.

"....Life has always been lying to ourselves . . . . to gently lie and prove the lie true to weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born."

Gas station, Beach Blvd., Stanton
Why did we stop believing our own promises? For indeed, the death of our dreams and optimism also marked the death of Googie and the space age. Certainly, this is a topic that's been flogged to death over the past forty-some years, but a few of the popular answers follow:
  • The assassination of President Kennedy sparked a national loss of innocence.
  • The Vietnam War changed our nation's view of itself.
  • The Johnson Administration's decision to focus on "Great Society" programs rather than America's great "rendezvous with destiny."
  • Baby boomers -- the children of the can-do World War II generation -- hit their late teens and rebelled against their parents' values.
  • As the Space Program progressed, Americans became more sophisticated about space travel and "futuristic" technologies. Their view of the "Space Age" was de-romanticized.
Whatever the reasons, no new Googie was built. However, the existing buildings have served their communities well ever since, as bowling alleys, churches, professional centers, coffee shops, motels, car washes, etc. Even those who grew up in the 1970s and 80s are likely to have fond memories of burgers and milkshakes in space-age restaurants, bowling in themed bowling alleys or seeing an aging depiction of the future in Disney's Tomorrowland.

Today, the familiar boomerang arches, tapered columns, cantilevers, parabolas and curved domes are being bulldozed at an alarming rate. These buildings stand at an unfortunate juncture: Not new enough to look modern, yet not old enough to be considered historically significant. As the best examples of the genre disappear, we are loosing not only part of our history, but also the last reminders of our shared dream of a shining future in a better world.
Drive-In Church by Richard Neutra, Garden Grove (Recently restored)