The All-American Phenomenon known as Googie

Tuesday March 27, 2018 Written by Sam Wilson

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Theme Building, LAX, designed in 1961 by Gin Wong (Photo: Sam Valadi, Wikimedia Commons)

Back when Donald Trump was still in short pants and 50c bought you a burger, fries and thickshake, the United States was riding high on a wave of post-war euphoria. The economy was booming, the country was in full super-power mode and anything seemed possible. The future had arrived -- and it looked like an episode of The Jetsons.

Good times beckoned…

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Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, designed in 1959 by Betty Willis (Photo:  Joao Carlos Medau, Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to the world of Googie, an eye-popping architectural style that flourished in the US during the 1950s and 1960s.

If American cars of the time reflected the prevailing post-war optimism with their flamboyant rocket-ship stylings, Googie’s space-age flourishes served a similar purpose. Starbursts and sweeping curves, cantilevered roofs and poptastic signage paid colourful tribute to the bold new era. 

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Roy’s Motel and Café, Route 66, Amboy, California. (Photo: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons)

Not everyone was impressed. In 1952, House and Home magazine’s Douglas Haskell was driving past Googie’s coffee shop in West Hollywood, when it struck him that this John Lautner-designed building embodied the flashy new architectural movement he’d come to detest. In a scathing article penned after this epiphany, he christened the style ‘Googie’. The name stuck.

But where Haskell saw only tackiness, others saw the future, bright and enticing. Love it or loathe it, you couldn’t miss it. Googie was impossible to ignore, a brash scene-stealer demanding the attention – and wallet -- of passing motorists. Petrol stations, car washes, cafes, fast food joints and motels all jostled for consumer attention from the roadside.

And let’s face it: who wouldn’t be compelled to pull over for a cup of joe here…

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Pann’s Diner, LA, designed in 1958 by Armet & Davis. (Photo: Sam Howzit, Flickr Creative Commons)

…or a night’s kip here…

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La Concha Motel lobby, Las Vegas, designed by Paul Williams, opened in 1961 (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons)

…or a quick fuel stop here:

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Union 76 gas station, Beverly Hills, designed by Gin Wong in early 1960s (Photo: markvanslyke, Flickr Creative Commons)

While California and Las Vegas were undoubtedly the Googie heartland, the style made its (very visible) mark across the country. Seattle’s Space Needle, JFK Airport’s TWA Flight Center and motels from New Jersey to Tennessee embraced its distinctive aesthetic.

These days, intact Googies are getting rarer as developers demolish them or they fall into disrepair. But those that remain are a captivating reminder of how the past once viewed the future – writ large, loud and in technicolour.

Get an eyeful of some more Googie goodness here.