Book Review: Googie Redux, Ultramodern Roadside Architecture

Things I cannot find in Hong Kong: drive-thru restaurants. Like a few other building genres, they seem uniquely American. Same goes for supermarkets, tiki-themed motels, and roadside diners – buildings with purposes evolved to fit American car culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Space Mountain

I became fascinated with American architecture because I grew up in Los Angeles, the epicenter of the emergence of car culture and thus, car-centric American architecture in the mid-20th century. Alan Hess’s Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture is the most complete book I’ve ever read dealing with “Googie.”

Googie, or Populuxe, is essentially high-modern architecture dumbed down and utilized for commercial purposes. It often references space, and will almost always involve large plate glass windows, huge neon signs, and upward pointing shapes.

Hess has somehow managed to deconstruct my curiosity regarding most types of weird roadside architecture found only in America, from hot dog stands shaped like hot dogs to why ’50s and ’60s diners usually have the same aesthetic. A lot of it is about utilizing big signs, colorful abstract shapes, and plate glass windows to attract people to restaurants (it’s apparently how that worked pre-Yelp). He even explains how the style eventually disseminated throughout the United States, and spread to buildings with different programs from gas stations to motels to Disneyland’s Space Mountain.

Beverly Hills gas station

The end of the book is especially poignant: Hess explains that many important diners, considered “kitsch” rather than “art,” are demolished. John Lautner’s original Googie diner was torn down, as was the seminal example of the style, a Bob’s Big Boy diner in Westwood, Los Angeles. Though I don’t necessarily think all architecture should always be preserved, Hess’s conclusion is an important call to action; it serves to remind others that Googie is indeed an art form.

My only complaint is this book can get too wrapped up in the details and is somewhat dry. It doesn’t require any background in architectural history to read and understand, but it gets mired in certain topics and buildings for way too long. Granted, the pictures are great. My dad (who never reads) was enthused when he saw Googie Redux because he recognized and had liked a lot of the diners. Though most are long gone, he appreciated that they were receiving some sort of scholarly treatment.

If anything, Googie Redux epitomizes American visual culture in the 1960s. It explains the impact of the car culture and the Space Age on advertising and design. By the end of it, you’ll understand the aesthetics of 1960s America, which is especially relevant considering the era’s resurgence and recent popularity (photo above – Stark’s Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Ashley Lee I'm a recent grad (Wellesley '11!) trying to break into the art world. When I'm not reading, writing, or tweeting about the contemporary art world, I like shoes, soccer, and Star Wars. Like Liz Lemon, I list things in threes.

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