A Newfound Appreciation for Googie Architecture

Though many Googie structures have fallen into disrepair or met the wrecking ball, the Space Age style rings nostalgic for many and has been preserved by a wave of restaurateurs who’ve restored former roadside fast food joints in Southern California.

The oldest McDonald’s restaurant, located in Downey. Image via Flickr Vision

Midcentury modern often comes to mind when thinking of the architecture of Southern California, with the low-slung indoor-outdoor villas of Palm Springs and Julius Shulman’s iconic photographs of the glass-walled Stahl House hovering over a twinkling L.A. firmly embedded in our consciousness. But there’s perhaps no architectural movement more inextricably linked to the region than Googie, the wildly expressive style whose upswept roofs, ostentatious colors, and parabolic shapes captured a Space Age optimism. Land in LAX and you immediately see the mysterious Theme Building; drive around to find car washes, diners, and even the oldest McDonald’s restaurant still kicking between two giant golden arches.

A recent movement has swept the city to breathe new life into the “architectural ghosts of fast-food past”—many of them in structures influenced by Googie. Wienerschnitzel recently vacated one of its signature A-frame structures in Rosemead, with locals fearing the ‘60s-era hallmark would meet the wrecking ball. Instead, the 432-square-foot space was easily converted into a Bành Mì takeout joint. (A similar Wienerschnitzel shell became a Brazilian Plate House in Torrance.) Tierra Mia Coffee repurposed a now-closed KFC’s iconic roadside logo into a giant mug by affixing a small handle to the bucket. Meanwhile, a Googie-inspired KFC in Koreatown, designed by Frank Gehry protégé Jeffrey Daniels, is still standing strong despite long being misunderstood and named one of the city’s ugliest buildings.

Photography by Don Barrett

The term “Googie” was first coined by editor Douglas Haskell in a scathing review of the flourishing postwar style after driving by Googie’s Diner, a West Hollywood coffee shop designed by John Lautner in 1949. A staunch Modernist, Haskell maligned the style’s perceived lack of seriousness as a direct consequence of the tackiness of Hollywood, which he posited was fueling the movement’s popularity. It wasn’t so much the movies as California’s thriving car culture, which saw motorists speed by their surroundings on freshly paved highways. It was critical that roadside businesses stand out, and outlandish architectural gestures that teased the imagination were the way to do it.

The name stuck; the distaste didn’t. Googie buildings were surging in popularity and popped up all across Southern California during the midcentury, a phenomenon that architectural historian Alan Hess attributes to the style’s humble origins and unpretentious aesthetic that appealed to the middle class. “One of the key things about Googie architecture was that it wasn’t custom houses for wealthy people,” he told Smithsonian. “It was for coffee shops, gas stations, car washes, banks… the average buildings of everyday life that people of that period used and lived in. And it brought that spirit of the modern age to their daily lives.”

Union 76 Station in Beverly Hills. Image via Getty Images

Googie eventually fell victim to changing tastes, giving way to more muted architectural forms and the ecology movement that popular culture started favoring in the ‘70s. (McDonald’s, for example, changed its building prototype from Googie to brick walls and mansard roofs in the late ’60s.) Many Googie buildings closed decades ago, with a 1986 Los Angeles Times article noting “much of this architectural genre … is slowly succumbing to remodeling or has been relegated to the Googie graveyard.” Despite the downturn, preservationists have been fighting to save Googie hallmarks since the mid-’80s, when Hess published Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture. Many of these buildings, which developers didn’t think were worth preserving as cultural artifacts, have since received historic designations thanks to efforts by the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee.

“[Googie] didn’t only capture the future, but it brought it in a meaningful way to people,” Hess continues. “And you see this in interest in these futuristic ideas not only in architecture or car design, but in cartoons like The Jetsons and places like amusement parks—in advertisements, in magazines, and so forth, certainly in the movies as well. This interest, this intrigue, this appeal of living in the future just went all across the culture.”

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