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Space Age Design: Googie, Populuxe and Raygun Gothic

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The 1950s were known as the ‘Space Age’ because the conquest of space was a major preoccupation. The imagery of space travel leaked into American culture and triggered a craze for all things futuristic. Design started to flirt with sci-fi imagery

Keywords: googie, raygun gothic, populuxe, 1950s, space age, conquest of space, space travel, futuristic, design, sci-fi, style, Cesar Pelli, Armet and Davis, Alan Hess, john lautner, the jetsons, futurama 

The 1950s were known as the ‘Space Age’ because the conquest of space was a major preoccupation. The imagery of space travel leaked into American culture and triggered a craze for all things futuristic. It can be argued that the destruction of the Second World War had provoked a desire for change. People were looking to the future and space was a distraction from the past and the violence of the War. Technology was envisaged as a force of liberation that would solve all our problems and create a Utopian future.

Design started to flirt with sci-fi imagery and a new style developed that was known as Googie. It was named after a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles that had been designed by John Lautner in 1949. In the early 1950s, Douglas Haskell, a professor of architecture at Yale University, was driving down Sunset Boulevard. He passed the Googie coffee shop and stopped to study it. Haskell later wrote an article about this new style of architecture, and named it Googie. The original coffee shop has since been demolished.

Googie began in Southern California as commercial architecture for roadside shopping centres, coffee shops and gas stations. It fit the needs of the new Californian car culture. Googie was characterized by space-age iconography like flying saucers and atoms. It reflected America’s fascination with space travel.

Very little academic work has been done on Googie because for a long time it was considered too kitsch and tacky. The political philosopher Russell Kirk said ‘we have done more damage to our country’s artificial and natural beauty since the Second World War than we were able to accomplish in the hundred years preceding.’ Alan Hess wrote the first book-length study of Googie.

To begin with the style formed the backdrop to the rock and roll generation because it was used for the sites of youth culture: cinemas, diners and bowling alleys. A Los Angeles architectural firm called Armet and Davis were leading exponents of Googie. They specialised in Californian coffee-shops like Bob’s.  The example below (1949) was designed by Wayne McAllister.

Cesar Pelli designed a Googie Cinema. The style is sometimes called ‘Raygun Gothic’, a term that was invented by the science fiction writer William Gibson. Here you can see why – it has a spiky verticality like Gothic architecture, but it also has a techno-futurist look. It was a futuristic architecture influenced by the Space Age and it expressed a naïve enthusiasm for technology and the future. It was deliberately kitsch and tacky. Googie was the style of this American Graffiti culture.

One of the icons of Googie is the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. This was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and was designed by Victor Steinbrueck. The tower has a soaring verticality and it terminates with an observation deck that was directly inspired by the image of a flying saucer. It borrows from contemporary sci-fi imagery. The supporting tower diverges into bold parabolic arches, showing off the structural virtuosity. Googie represented a flamboyant structural modernism symbolising new possibilities. For a while this was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It had a restaurant at the top, called the SkyCity restaurant, which rotated, of course. So the building actually revolved like a flying saucer.

One of the most famous Googie buildings is at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) designed by James Langenheim (1961). Again this has parabolic arches supporting the tower. They’re very expressive, suggesting the orbital path of planets or sub-atomic particles around a nucleus. Imagery was drawn from nuclear physics, because this was also the Atomic Age.

The Googie style was very cartoonish and it was actually used for the architecture in the Jetsons cartoon series. This was basically a space age version of the Flintstones and was made by the same company, Hanna-Barbera. It was broadcast from 1962-3, right at the height of the Googie style. It projected contemporary American values and lifestyles into the future. The show depicts a totally conventional American family, but they live in a futurist utopia of robots and gadgets. The architecture reflects the Googie style of the era. All the buildings are raised high above the ground on columns like the Space Needle; they have the same pop-futurist aesthetic. The main character commutes to work in an aerocar that resembles a flying saucer. Domestic life is characterised by complete leisure because everyone has incredibly sophisticated labour saving devices. Again, that illustrates the belief that technology will liberate us and solve all our problems. It is unusual to see a cartoon responding so directly to contemporary design, but it was tapping into conventional ways of imagining the future.

Googie was used by the Disney Corporation. The original Disneyland in Anaheim, California had a section called Tomorrowland, which was designed in the Googie style.

The style filtered down to more everyday designs. 1950s Cadillacs had fins that emulate the aerodynamic features of rocket ships. They also had tail lights that imitate the jets of flame from a rocket. This was a celebration of jet-powered air travel. Googie also revolutionised the domestic landscape. Space was a major influence on domestic design in the 1950s. A very famous design was the Astro Lamp (1965). This is overtly designed in the form of a rocket ship, but it has gelatinous shapes moving inside. This was probably meant to be an approximation of galaxies and nebulae.

A more respectable example was the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy airport, designed by Eero Saarinen (1962), a great Modernist architect. This was executed in concrete, but Saarinen has exploited the plasticity of the material. It has expressive sculptural curves reminiscent of electro-magnetic waves. This building was used as a location in the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can.

Googie wasn’t taken seriously at the time, but it has since gained a cult following. It was revived in the Tim Burton film Mars Attacks (1996), which was about an alien invasion. More recently, Futurama used a retro-futurist look, which was very similar to the Jetsons. The title came from the Futurama pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This was designed by Norman Bel Geddes and showed how he imagined the world to look in 1959.

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