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Googie architecture: Space age themes shaped 'modern' style

The space age changed the way designers looked at the world and left a lasting influence on the shape of everything from cars to appliances and even buildings.

RELATED TOPICS: THE MOON | APOLLO | NASA
GoogieONE

The Jetsons, a popular animated TV series about a futuristic family living in Orbit City, featured architecture that exemplifies the Googie style.

PICTURELUX/THE HOLLYWOOD ARCHIVE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Have you ever noticed a diner, or perhaps a motel, gas station, or drive-in, that looks like it would fit in the Jetsons’ neighborhood? A confluence of car culture and the Atomic and Space Ages, Googie architecture (pronounced GOO-gee) is probably the reason behind that quirky, retro-futuristic look.

After World War II, U.S. suburbs were growing fast, leading to many more drivers on the roads. To capitalize on these commuters, businesses needed attention-grabbing buildings and signs that captivated those riding by.

“The architecture itself had to be really bold and vivid and noticeable,” says Alan Hess, an architect and historian who has written extensively on modern architecture in the mid-21st century. “At that time, one of the things that would really attract attention was anything that looked really, really futuristic, really modern, really up to date.”

The future looked bright in the 1950s and 1960s. The birth of atomic science brought promises of advanced societies powered by nuclear energy, while the beginnings of the space race made people realize that humans might soon venture to the Moon or Mars. And because a futuristic era seemed just beyond the horizon, the shift to an ultramodern architectural style was almost inevitable.

Television also reflected this optimism toward technology — it would make our daily lives easier, and allow for ever-more-ambitious achievements. In the early 1960s, The Jetsons portrayed a high-tech society with flying cars, housekeeping robots, and meals prepared with the push of a button. A few years later, Star Trek painted an idealistic future where humankind uses advanced technology to explore and understand the universe . . . as well as enjoy meals prepared with the push of a button.

Googie architecture exemplified this sanguine outlook. The style used unconventional shapes, eye-catching colors, and modern materials — including glass, chrome, and lots of plastic. It was bold, playful, and exuberant.

Because many businesses, such as restaurants, car washes, and bowling alleys, were being built in this style, Googie architecture was easily accessible to the average American. You didn’t need to hire an architect to design a modern, futuristic house for you. You could get a taste of Googie by just hopping in your car and scoping out your local diner.

“All you needed was, you know, the price of a hamburger. And you could go into any of these restaurants, and the designs of them were intended to make you feel as if you were participating in this new age,” Hess says.

GoogieTWO

The iconic welcome sign in Las Vegas, built in 1959, is a prime example of Googie architecture.

KEN LANE/PXHERE
By the early 1970s, however, the Googie style waned in popularity. After Apollo 11’s lunar landing in 1969, space travel was becoming less of a novelty. And with the rise of the ecology movement, Hess says, enthusiasm for futuristic technology like nuclear power was petering out. The curved roofs and shiny surfaces of Googie were no longer seen as chic, so businesses turned back to traditional styles that were perceived as more Earth-friendly.

Still, Googie remained popular for a good two decades or so — fairly long for a trendy architectural style. And although many Googie buildings were torn down after the space race, conservationists and architectural historians around the country now are working to preserve any that remain as historic landmarks. Some, like the nation’s oldest existing McDonald’s in Downey, California, have even qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Hess says visiting these sites can really give you a feel for their era. “You get that sense of optimism,” Hess says. “You can still go to these places and feel that. It’s very tangible when you’re sitting there, having a root beer float.”

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