Some of my favorite architectural styles are the types that tastemakers tend to mock. Real connoisseurs concentrate on flying buttresses or classical proportions or complex curvilinear forms. Readers of this blog know I prefer tackier stuff, the kinds of designs and executions dismissed by experts as cheap, disposable, and populist. To illustrate, let me tell you about one of my favorite types of design, a mid-century style called googie. Sometimes called Populuxe or Doo Wop, googie achieved some manner of prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as a playful celebration of otherwise mundane environments such as diners, motels, and bowling alleys. Googie took its name from a Los Angeles coffee shop built in 1949 (long ago razed), but the term eventually became associated with any design that can be labeled “the Flintstones meet the Jetsons.”
Googie is a variant of “moderne,” a stylized implementation of artificial materials, sweeping angles or curves, gravity-defying masses, plate glass, and “dingbat” accessories such as sputniks, starbursts, and atomic symbols. That’s the Jetsons half. Googie adds a Flintstones vibe with the addition of primitive or organic motifs into the structure: amoeba shapes, tiki idols, faux stone facades, and the like. Created in an era of fear and fascination with both technological innovation and psychoanalytical analysis, googie integrates science and superstition, optimism and fear, in a playful and accessible manner. Without the self-conscious posing of postmodern architecture that would follow in the 1980s, googie was a fad that was easily dismissed--until it was missed.
While today's epicenter for googie design is Wildwood, New Jersey, the style took root in southern California places like Anaheim and sites like the now-demolished Modernaire Motel, which opened to accomodate tourists visiting Disneyland. Take a look at the close-up from the postcard shown above. Notice the oversized arrow on the sign, designed to suck motorists off the road and onto the property. Look at the stone-like finish of the office, covering an otherwise utilitarian enclosure. Notice the fields of glass, made possible through structural innovations that enabled the removal of weight-bearing elements from the building’s exterior. It’s just a motel, of course, but it’s also a manifestation of “space age” America.
Alan Hess, Googie redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture
Thomas Hine, Populuxe: From tailfins and TV dinners to Barbie Dolls and fallout shelters
Also, visit my website, Motel Moderne, to see more images of early- to mid-century motels that embraced the "moderne" style.