Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Googie Architecture is Flycatching

Mid-Century Modern Goes Googie
By Matt Bamberg

Googie, abstract and geometric, ignoring gravity and consisting of a combination of then-space age materials—sheets of glass, steel beams, asbestos (oh no), plywood and plastic— has caught the eye of Dale Wissman, Executive Director for Building Horizons, a non-profit training program that teaches local high school students entry-level construction and construction-related skills during the actual building of affordable homes. “Googie is space-age, roadside-ultra-optimistic, mid-century modern architecture. Think The Jetsons, Tommorrowland, The Astro Car Wash, The Seattle Space Needle, and any motel that has the total futurama motif,” he explained.

Googie has been traced back to Coffee Dan's restaurants designed by John Lautner in the early forties. There was a Googie’s coffee shop at Sunset and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles. Since then Googie has taken some twists and turns.

“It was wildly popular in Southern California for certain high entertainment/concept businesses in the late fifties and early 60's and dovetailed with the Cadillac's tailfins of the same era. There were structures riffing on the new shapes and designs coming from NASA,” Wissman said.

Seeking out new and innovative designs for his projects, Wissman’s found that Googie contains some of the mid-century’s most alluring and futuristic video game-like designs. Yet, Googie structures with their extreme, metaphorical qualities and humor are hard to categorize.

While Palm Springs is certainly not the Googie center of the world, as other SoCal locales, there are notable elements of this flamboyant architecture in the Coachella Valley, a place that has become a mid-century Disneyland.

The Tramway Gas Station (soon to be the new Palm Springs Visitor's Center.) is probably the best-known Googie landmark. “Frey did his Googie-style turn with such sophistication, that it may be hard to see the Tramway Gas Station as projecting the optimism and future (of that style),” Palm Springs Preservation Foundation member Wissman explained. “You have to notice the architectural drama in the triangular roof jutting out to shade the original gas pumps.”

Referring to Googie as “Roadside flypaper”, Wissman wants his students to know that the architecture served a purpose—to get the highway traveler off the road and inside a business. Frey’s style did just that, got people to stop at the gas station to buy gas for new fashionable vehicles of chrome and steel. “And it does something else,” he added. “Frey's Googie-style building was architecture built to succeed in yesterday's future: the current day.”

The roof is the first eyebrow lifting experience on which Googie brings to the casual roadside observer from his car window upon entering Palm Springs. The top of which would probably be a skateboarder’s paradise—slopes that swoop—had they been built on the ground.

Large plate glass windows are the next telling sign, letting the car culture know that there’s something that they want and need, whether they have to have it or not. In this aspect, up and down Palm Canyon, Highway 111, Date Palm and other established thoroughfares in the desert the tale-tall signs of Googie are lurking.

Meant to attract the automobile, a Googie building became a destination in itself. It served as a Disneyesque Tomorrowland, built with the sole purpose of creating architecture and outdoor space that itself was the attraction. Googie-style buildings serviced the new culture of mobility: car washes, gas stations, roadside cafes, convenience stores and drive-in restaurants.

It spread from here all over the United States and Canada, a celebration of competition for the highway traveler, paralleling the US-Soviet space race, the launch of the USA’s Mercury missions vs. the launch of the Sputnik, the Soviet-era space craft.

Googie fever’s rapid rise came among space success from John Glenn orbiting the earth to the men on the moon. Amusement parks and tourist attractions followed in celebration, which gave way to spinning restaurants, and space-age banks and airports. “The L.A.X. tower is SUPER GOOGIE,” Wissman said.

“Now more than ever, nostalgia for a simpler, more optimistic time goes a long way towards explaining the resurgence in interest surrounding Googie design,” stated Wissman.