June 5, 2023

Googie architecture: primitive futurism, with upswept roofs from Frank Lloyd Wright

No exploration of American culture's distinctive "primitive futurism" would be complete without a look at Googie architecture of the Midcentury period -- usually defined by its Space Age and other futuristic elements. Off-kilter angles, cantilevered upswept roofs, Industrial Age materials of glass and steel and neon lights, shapes and motifs (like starbursts) suggesting rockets or spaceships or space stations, and an overall busy frenetic energy level.

And yet it just wouldn't be American without pronounced primitive elements as well. Rarely does the discussion about this Midcentury style emphasize them, and their seeming contradiction with the Space Age elements.

Googie came from the same time and place -- the Midcentury, out West -- as tiki culture, which was purely primitivist, an attempt to root our still-developing identity in the ancient times of the New World, including Polynesia, rather than the Old World (just as the Mayan revival style of the '20s had done, or the ahead-of-its-time Book of Mormon's genesis narrative had done circa 1830). Googie fused this primitive / tropical theme with the also contemporaneous Space Age / Industrial Age / Streamline theme.

In the Penguin coffee shop below (built in 1959), the dramatic upswept roof (being cantilevered, and so appearing to defy gravity and take flight), wall-o'-windows, neon lights on the sign, and the busily off-center placement of items on the sign, give this building a futuristic feel that could not have even been imagined 100 years earlier.

However, Americans have never defined ourselves as strictly futuristic, progressive, etc., hence the need for the ancient and primitive elements -- tropical vegetation, and massive piers faced in flagstone to support the roof. The stones are not finely cut into rectangular prisms and then laid in regular courses like advanced stonework -- they appear to be used as they were found, with human ingenuity only playing a role in fitting them together like puzzle pieces.

This is not the masonry of an advanced civilization of several thousand years ago -- let alone one capable of splitting the atom and sending rockets to escape Earth's orbit. This far cruder form of assembling the stones together leavens the head-spinning futurism of the other elements. Crude and raw -- yet also advanced and sophisticated -- in its construction. That's what American identity is all about.

In fact, from some angles, these Googie buildings primarily consist of primitive elements and crude techniques, not so Space Age-y after all:

This combination of primitive with futuristic continued on the inside, where large expanses of flagstone walls gave a familiar cozy feel to the starkly-angled interior space, with rough natural textures and earthy colors balancing the smooth and dyed-any-color synthetic materials. Just as the woodgrain tabletops balanced the gleaming stainless steel / chrome pedestal supports.

* * *

I was glad to find one quote to this effect already out there: "these were places where George Jetson and Fred Flintstone could meet over a cup of coffee" (Alan Hess, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, quoted here). The Jetsons and the Flintstones were both highly popular TV shows, and helped define American identity of the time and ever since. Their co-existence is no accident: Americans are part caveman, part spaceman, with no stage of material cultural development in between -- that would be Europeans, and because we are not European, we have had to define ourselves as belonging to the time periods outside of the heyday of European empires.

There were never mighty empires and advanced civilizations where Americans landed and settled, and we have always had to wrestle with the absence of counterparts to Ancient Greek temples, Medieval castles, and Early Modern cathedrals in our newly settled land. Part of our response was to borrow from those civilizations in the New World that did build monumental architecture that was still easily visible and tangible, like the Maya of Central America or the later Easter Islanders off the Pacific coast of South America.

But mainly our response was to go with the obvious theme, that we were bringing an advanced civilization to a mostly primitive environment. Not necessarily like taming a desert environment to make it suitable for agriculture. We didn't build spaceships out of the primitive environment we found on arrival -- it's more like the advanced technology appeared to have been dropped from the sky by some civilizational stork.

Americans project that founding myth back onto other civilizations, when we assume that the Ancient Egyptians must have had their advanced tech for pyramid-building dropped upon them by ancient aliens. It may sound silly, but it makes sense when you consider our historical path, and the absence of intermediate stages of material development between the primitive and industrial in America. We just assume that every civilization in history has been dropped from the sky, mostly pre-fabricated, like ours was.

* * *

Finally, where *did* all of these dramatically upswept roofs, heavily cantilevered, come from -- if not aliens? You should already know the answer by now, given his all-encompassing influence on American architecture, but -- that's right -- they were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright himself, back in the Midwest. As far as I can tell, anyway, from searching around for "upswept roofs", and I'm happy to be corrected.

I don't know from my limited study of Googie examples which one was the first to employ the upswept roof, but Wright had all of them beat anyway -- the Robert and Rae Levin House from 1949, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While most of the roof is flat, as was his style, a pronounced section of it soars up toward one of the edges, is not supported vertically at the outer edge, and contains a wall-o'-windows underneath, exactly as would become the norm with Googie in the next decade.

Even more Googie than that is the Elam House from only one year later, 1950, in Austin, Minnesota. This one has the doubly upswept roof, rising toward opposite edges and having a low-point in the middle of the roof, which is off-center / asymmetric. It's also cantilevered, supported by massive stone piers -- the only difference from Googie being their finer level of cutting and dressing, instead of being used as they were found, in the cruder Googie fashion, and so not looking quite as primitive. (But then, this is only the Midwest, not the Pacific coast, where the tropical primitive environment is more evident.) It has a wall-o'-windows underneath as well.

In 1952, at the Reisley House in Pleasantville, New York, he added a bit of functionality to the upswept roof, turning it into the cover for a carport. (He also changed the material to be cypress wood panels, adding to the primitive side of the balance.) The pier supporting the cantilevered roof is again stone, though more Googie-esque in using stones of uneven size, albeit still in rectangular outlines. It really did take the Googie movement to make them look unaltered and crudely assembled at varying angles.

I couldn't easily find other examples throughout the '50s, perhaps because he had seen it evolve into Googie -- and then elevated Modernist airport terminals from Eero Saarinen, like Dulles and the TWA Flight Center at JFK -- and figured his pioneering work was done. However, he was still at it circa 1960, when he built the Don Stromquist House in Bountiful, Utah. One corner of the roof rises toward the edge, is cantilevered, and contains a wall-o'-windows underneath.

California Googie architect John Lautner had apprenticed under Wright in the '30s, though I don't know if he was still keeping tabs on what his mentor was up to circa 1950 with three out of dozens of Usonian homes. It's possible that the moment for upswept roofs had come, and Wright was simply an early pioneer, while it came to others later but independently as part of a general zeitgeist. But there is a potential direct channel from Wright to Googie-style roofs that is worth looking into (for someone else).

* * *

And we must remember to hit on the other big-picture lesson from my survey of modern architecture -- the non-existent role played by the Europeans, whether affiliated with Bauhaus or otherwise. Clueless and embarrassed-to-be-American East Coast academics may hear "upswept roof" and "Modern architecture," and think of Notre-Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier. But that was built in 1955 -- half a decade after Wright pioneered the look in the American Midwest with multiple examples, as usual. It's also not as cantilevered as Wright's proto-Googie buildings, being supported at the outer corner.

For that matter, the supposed avant-garde of Bauhaus had been beaten to the punch by literal McDonald's, whose 1953 oldest building in Downey, California employed an upward-sloping roof -- along with prominent parabolas over a decade before Saarinen's Gateway Arch was built.

Civilization-shaping cultural creativity comes from expanding empires, and by the 20th century, the Euro empires had all bitten the dust, except for Russia, which didn't start its collapse until the final decade of that century. America was still rising, expanding, and innovating. If something cool or inventive happened, just assume that we did it (or maybe a Russian counterpart), not the collapsed empires with no gas left in the tank. Their heyday was several centuries earlier.

Whether trad or mod, Europeans simply had nothing to invent during the 20th C., although if they came under American aegis post-WWII, they could jump on our bandwagon and contribute that way -- which many of them did, enthusiastically, since our cultural scene was the only game in town, aside from Russia's.

We can't get too triumphalist, though, since our empire has begun collapsing as well. We aren't going to invent anything else ever again. That means our job is to preserve what has already been built in our national distinctive style, such as Googie (or Brutalism, Art Deco, Streamline, Prairie School, Mission, etc.). And if anything new needs to be built, then produce new examples of those established styles. That's how the Mormons are treating their temples -- old and new alike -- and that's how we should treat our buildings as an entire nation.

Fortunately in the case of Googie, it was most prolific in Southern California, which is the most preservationist region of the country, to their envy-making credit. If there's even a rumor about someone taking down the giant donut from what used to be a roadside vernacular diner, City Council will block them. And they have probably already made a preemptive move by getting the building legally protected as a landmark, making it sacrosanct, untouchable, and inviolable.

Nowhere else in the country conserves its American culture like L.A., which is why Brutalism is being systematically razed all along the East Coast, while UC Irvine will always look like it's from the Planet of the Apes, primitive yet futuristic at the same time -- and for all time.


  1. Some jannie at UC Irvine is seething that they couldn't demolish their institution's Brutalist architecture, and pulled some strings / bribed someone at Google to hide their school's distinctive and foundational Brutalist style buildings.

    Google image search "uc irvine," and not a single one of them pops up, after dozens and probably hundreds of results.

    Then add "brutalist" -- and there they all are, including the main library. Whoops, the main library, how could we have missed that? Because it's censorship, in this case driven by status insecurity by some likely East Coast transplant in the university administration.

    So some coding monkey at Google decided to return, *not* the real results of "uc irvine" but those results left from subtracting the results of "uc irvine brutalist" from the unqualified query for just "uc irvine".

    >ywn be European

    And those William Pereira buildings aren't ever coming down. Seethe harder, jannies!

    Also a timely reminder with the AI hype, AI is just as fake as the society's elites that make and use it -- very fake news, these days! And it will only get worse.

    It's the non-violent version of "machine kills its operator" -- search engine thwarts users' queries, which has already reached an arms race status by now. "How do I get around Google's attempts to lie and censor information?"

  2. The everyday utopia of the 1970s, through old photos and ads (somewhat stylized for commercial purposes, but those were the only things being manufactured for sale, so that's what ended up in the office, home, etc., when someone bought new things).



    I normally don't link to content aggregators / curators, but this one is so extensive and every one is an "unskippable track" as we'd say for an album. And it gets the benefit of the doubt for being on Flickr instead of content thief inferno P*nt*r*st.

    Remember these images anytime you hear about the '70s being a decade of "malaise" -- that was, and has always been, just neolib / neocon propaganda from the Me Generation (Silents and Boomers) to rationalize the destruction of the Progressive and especially New Deal eras of our history, economy, government, kinship, and culture.

    The percent of foreign-born residents was at an all-time low, a minimum wage summer job paid your way through college, people bought homes in their early 20s (without money-printing from the central bank), public goods provisioning was at an all-time high after the Great Society / Medicare programs, but including through private sector institutions like the corporate offices that were built and furnished to be utopias for the everyday American, the malls that brought this same utopia to the community sphere (outside of work or private household life), and all free of charge!

    AFAICT, the term "malaise" is most common still among the classic car crowd, and being more expensive objects, which are titled, that appeals mostly to Boomers. Boomers only care about real estate and automobiles -- the big-ticket items, not small-fry stuff like furniture, clothing, consumer goods of any kind, and so on and so forth.

    This is just a sad marketing campaign to simulataneously slander the decade as one that you'd hate to live in, but also one that produced the cars that you're still drooling over and would kill to get your hands on. Also contradicted by Boomer refrains, let out in a temporary lapse of their "boo Midcentury" propaganda, about "if you can remember the Seventies, you must not have been participating in it" because it was so fun, awesome, and heaven-on-Earth.

    1. What do you think of the transition from New Hollywood to Blockbuster Era in this period?



  3. That's what every Brutalist interior used to look like, BTW, whether a High Brutalist university library, or a Pop Brutalist suburban office building or mall.

    Imagine judging a Gothic cathedral from the facade only, and never stepping foot inside to see the stained glass! Apart from the fact that Brutualist exteriors *did* have variety in textures, volumes / shapes, materials, and colors, through the use of exposed aggregate concrete, which was molded in all sorts of different forms.

    The point is that, although the exterior was more minimalist and monochromatic than a Gothic cathedral or an Art Deco skyscraper, Brutalism moved all of that inside. Still streamlined, still not going kaleidoscopic on the color palette, but more than enough ornamentation, dyanamic energy, color, and variety of materials / luxury of materials.

    Aiming for a more sober and mature and reflective and almost mystical Romanesque atmosphere. More masculine, more sublime, not insecure about feminine concerns over beauty alone. (I'm using "sublime" in Kant's sense of the beautiful vs. the sublime.)

    And yet still warm, inviting, cozy, enriching, get-lost-in kind of spaces -- not cold, harsh, or alienating, a la neolib propaganda. These are the same spaces filled with comfy enclosed conversation pits! And "an alcove for every worker" (AKA cubicles). Not agoraphobic open plans of the Silicon Valley fishbowl flex-space that the neolibs replaced all this New Deal stuff with...

  4. In fairness to Gen X-ers who scoffed at cubicle workplaces during the angsty Fight Club '90s, their managers and owners were not the same as they were back in the '70s and earlier. The new yuppies (Silents and Boomers) shattered the old New Deal norms, bringing the grand era of Fordism to a grinding halt.

    Suddenly they were just going to try to extract as much value from you, provide little in exchange, and treat you as expendable fungible economic matter.

    Corporate greed is not a constant or static quantity, it fluctuates dynamically, and it was at a minimum during the Great Compression. It was either give the underlings some goodies, or risk revolution. Well, when you put it that way, sure, we can make your workplace a heaven-on-Earth utopia, as long as you don't bring out the torches and pitchforks and rifles like you did circa 1920.

    That was when the Greatest Gen was administering society's institutions. Once the Me Gen got in (Silents and especially Boomers), that all went out the window. It was bitterly fought by those who had experienced the good ol' days, but became a moot point by the time the next generation grew up mostly under the new hellish environment and took hell for granted.

    Boomers wanted to escape the utopian workplaces of the New Deal because they wanted more liberty, and therefore less prosperity. Everyone become a free agent, independent contractor, self-employed entrepreneur working from a home office, etc.

    Although less prosperous in their workplace per se, their broader agenda was stealing all the wealth that had already been created before them, pocket it for themselves, and deprive future generations of the ability to pull the same one-time trick. So they ended up super-wealthy anyway, just in a personal or private sense, and not in the workplace or community spheres, which they let decay into ruins.

    Gen X-ers could not pull the same one-trick trick again, the new managerial cohort were greedy wealth extractors and egocentric skinflints, and as the Boomers deserted offices, they became a sinking ship. Put all that together, yeah, why would Gen X-ers or Millennials or Zoomers want to join the office?

    It's like trying to hang out and people-watch at a dead mall, teach your cat how to ride his first bike, or sing in the choir at a church with no adherents.

    Boomers never get into this nostalgia because it was always a gilded cage to them. But you can only escape that cage, steal it, melt it down, and exchange the material for your golden parachute, one time in history. Post-Boomer generations did not have any gilded cages of their own to either remain in or escape from, to sell off or keep for themselves.

    We've had just about enough of 40 years of increasing individual liberty, resulting in maximum poverty and anti-social fragmentation. We want those damn gilded cages back!

  5. New Hollywood vs. Blockbuster is one of those fake & gay academic topics that was not real. There were mega-blockbusters before New Hollywood, big tent, mass appeal, star-studded casts, high-concept, enormous budgets, costumes, soundtracks / scores / musical numbers, the whole nine yards.

    The fake & gay framework says that everything after 1975 or 1980 is in the ongoing Blockbuster era, lasting well over 40 years by now.

    Was New Hollywood a similarly long era -- say 1935 to 1975? Of course not, they're talking at most 10 years between the mid-'60s and mid-'70s.

    New Hollywood vs. Blockbuster is apples to oranges.

    They could compare New Deal to Neoliberal eras, say '35 to '75 vs. '76 to '16 or whatever. But that first group suddenly has a lot more mainstream, big tent, anti-edgy, old school, conformist, bla bla bla kind of movies.

    It's also a dumb term because the '80s and early '90s were the heyday of independent movies, meaning made outside the major studios. Carolco, Orion, New Line, etc. The Terminator, T2, the original Rambo trilogy, Total Recall, RoboCop, Platoon, Basic Instinct, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and on and on.

    So there is no change within the Hollywood studios to study in this framework, because they weren't the same studios -- it was major studios making art-house movies in the '70s, and then indie studios making mass-market crowd-pleasers in the '80s.

  6. Agnostic, I want to do some thrift store hunting but my gut keeps telling me every place is checking every item they get online and it's therefore impossible to land a deal.

    Do you have any tips on how to find the few places where decent stuff comes in and is sometimes reasonably priced?

  7. Looking into mall Brutalism, here's a Brutalist take on the massive upswept cantilevered roof, at an entrance to Metrocenter in Phoenix (opened 1973):


    Parts of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure were filmed inside.

    The mall closed in 2020, and will be demolished this summer.

    The neolib crusade to destroy Brutalism extends to the mall environment as well, not just gov bureaucracies or pharma research labs or universities. More than any other style of mall, the Brutalist ones have gotten the wrecking ball. They were too cool, futuristic, primitive, utopian, and down-to-earth.

  8. Thrifting is harder now mainly because the donations have dried up. There was a one-time glut of stuff from the Silents and Greatest Gen getting old / dying off, as well as the one-time glut of everybody donating stuff they didn't want because the money-printing bonanza of the 2010s and 2020 made them feel rich, so why keep the old stuff, let's buy new stuff.

    It's not necessarily them searching for the good stuff, looking up the letter-to-Santa price on ebay / first dibs / etc., and then putting that price on it / listing it on ebay.

    The main advice is what I've said in comments over the past few weeks -- go to an unglamorous part of town, one that was recently middle-class but has been sliding downward since then. Someplace where white people or American citizens may be only 20% of the clientele. Not dangerous or ghetto -- just downwardly mobile, unglamorous, and therefore no competition.

    But aside from no competition, the workers there don't think of their place as a treasure trove, would never bother looking something up on ebay, let alone put that on the sticker price.

    I saw a group of 4 Cesca chairs at this one place for $5 apiece (already sold, though). Got a made-in-Denmark tall bookcase for less than $10, '70s Steelcase bookcases for $5 apiece, they had all kinds of desks and tables and carved trunks that I didn't need but still haven't seen in a long time at other thrift stores. I've gotten all sorts of stuff there.

    Even the main stores are not bad. Slimmer pickings than 5-10 years ago, but still there. I just scored a French Art Deco magnifying glass, with a leather handle still in great shape, for just $5 at one near a college campus, which is heavily trafficked. But it was in the display case area -- don't assume just cuz they're there, they have a high sticker price.

    Today, picked up a made-in-Norway Midcentury Modern carving knife with a rosewood handle, for $3. You might have to dig around the bins a little.

    By and large, though, they only put a high sticker price on new stuff -- i.e., the cheap new crap. The cool vintage stuff is still not expensive.

    1. The golden age of thrifting was probably the 70s-90s, my parents had amazing thrifting stories from NYC and SF in the 70s. The silver age was right after going into the 2010s maybe. By the time everyone, even people at thrift stores and antique malls and junk stores, had smart phones thrifting lost a lot of the fun though it helped if you were a collector or dealer. It’s at the point now where a lot of stuff donated to thrift stores is used crap originally bought at the dollar stores.

    2. I used to buy records for a small music store in the mid to late 2010s. As the years went on regular Joe's became convinced their bargain bin Johnny Mathis & Mantovani records were worth big bucks - and forget about finding anyone who would give you a deal on the stuff people actual look for like classic rock, jazz, etc. All because of the internet, smart phones, etc removing the domain related expertise knowledge necessary - no need to have done the work of learning about record labels, pressings, popular and cult artists, etc - just google it and no one ever gets a score ever again. The result is a loss of magic, mystery, etc. A whole lot less fun.

      Thanks for the tips, Agnostic. I'll try what you suggested. I had a feeling I should probably avoid places with names like "Linda's Forgotten Treasures" run by rich white country people who have nothing to do but sit online and look up their stock all day.

  9. This knife, BTW. I have too many knives of various kinds already, but it's just too cool-looking, long streamline shape, rosewood and chrome, primitive futurism baby. And I've never seen anything made-in-Norway other than sweaters. Usually it's from Denmark. Had to get it!


  10. A lot of doors in American buildings are also woodgrain and chrome: they would have a chrome handle, a chrome lock, and chrome plating on the bottom of the door against the woodgrain body.


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