The Story of Googie Architecture, the Iconic Architectural Style of Los Angeles

When I lived in Los Angeles, I enjoyed no breakfast spot more than Pann’s. The place had it all: not just signature plates ranging from biscuits and gravy to chicken and waffles, but tropical landscaping, stone walls, a slanted roof, banquettes in burgundy and counter seats in cream, and as the pièce de résistance, a neon sign that lit up one letter at a time. Built in 1958, Pann’s stands today as quite possibly the most immaculate surviving example of Googie, a mid-twentieth-century aesthetic that takes its name from another Los Angeles coffee shop opened nearly a decade earlier. Though designed by no less serious a modern architect than Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Lautner, Googie’s gave rise to perhaps the least serious of all architectural movements.

“It’s a style built on exaggeration; on dramatic angles; on plastic and steel and neon and wide-eyed technological optimism,” writes Matt Novak at Smithsonian magazine. “It draws inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocketship dreams. We find Googie at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Space Needle in Seattle, the mid-century design of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, in Arthur Radebaugh‘s postwar illustrations, and in countless coffee shops and motels across the U.S.”

But the acknowledged cradle of Googie is Los Angeles, whose explosive development alongside that of mid-twentieth-century American “car culture” encouraged the ultra-commercial architectural experimentation whose first priority was to catch the eye of the motorist — and ideally, the hungry motorist.

You can hear the history of Googie told in the Cheddar Explain video “How Los Angeles Got Its Iconic Architecture Style,” which adapts Novak’s Smithsonian piece. In “Googie Architecture: From Diners to Donuts,” photographer Ahok Sinha goes into more detail about how the style turned “architecture into a form of advertising.” Like all the most effective advertising, Googie drew from the zeitgeist, incorporating the striking shapes and advanced materials connected in the public mind with notions of speed and technology embodied not just by automobiles but even more so by rockets. For Googie was the architecture of the Space Race: it’s no accident that the creators of The Jetsons, which aired in 1962 and 1963, rendered all the show’s settings in the same style.

It could fairly be said that no one architect invented Googie, that it emerged almost spontaneously as a product of American popular culture. But “for some reason, we got stuck with the name,” says architect Victor Newlove, of Armet Davis Newlove and Associates, in the interview clip above. For good reason, perhaps: to that firm’s credit are several locations of the diner chains Bob’s Big Boy (where for years David Lynch’s took his daily milkshake) and Norms, both of which are still in business in Los Angeles today. Its architects Eldon Davis and Helen Liu Fong also designed Pann’s, which for many Googie enthusiasts remains an unsurpassable achievement — and one whose competition, since the moon landing and the end it put to not just the Space Race but the sensibility it inspired, has been dwindling one demolition at a time.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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