Discovering the Charm of Googie Architecture Through History


Exploring historical Googie architecture offers a fascinating journey into a period of American design that encapsulated the country’s post-war optimism and technological enthusiasm. This unique architectural style emerged in the mid-20th century and remains an enduring symbol of the era’s forward-looking ethos. Among the iconic examples of this style is Johnie’s Broiler, a landmark that not only showcases the quintessential features of Googie but also serves as a portal to a bygone era of architectural innovation.

Definition of Googie Architecture

Googie architecture, a subset of mid-century modern architecture, is known for its futuristic designs, space-age motifs, and embrace of bold angles and vibrant colors. Emerging in the United States during the late 1940s and flourishing in the 1950s and 1960s, Googie architecture reflects the post-war era’s optimism and the societal fascination with space exploration and the atomic age. This style is characterized by upswept roofs, curvaceous geometric shapes, glass walls, neon lighting, and novel materials like steel and plastic.


A common question arises about the correct pronunciation of “Googie.” It is pronounced “goo-gee,” with a hard “g” sound at the beginning and the middle. The term originated from a now-defunct coffee shop in Los Angeles.

Historical Context and Origins

“Googie” originates from Googie’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles, designed by John Lautner in 1949. The establishment’s distinct architectural style captured the public’s imagination and emulated the era’s forward-looking ethos. Googie architecture was heavily influenced by the car culture of Southern California, the advent of the Jet Age, and the excitement surrounding the Space Race.

Architects designed buildings to attract motorists, hence the emphasis on eye-catching shapes and signage visible from the roads. This architectural style was particularly prevalent in roadside architecture, including diners, motels, gas stations, and bowling alleys.

However, its principles are also exhibited in larger projects such as airports, shopping centers, and movie theaters. Despite its popularity, Googie architecture was often criticized by contemporary critics for its perceived lack of sophistication and over-reliance on thematic gimmicks.

Importance in American Architectural History

Googie architecture is significant in American history as it encapsulates a unique technological optimism and cultural transformation period. It represents the democratization of design, with its elements appearing in everyday structures and spaces, making bold architectural statements accessible to the general public.

Additionally, Googie architecture contributed to shaping the American landscape, especially in urban and suburban settings, influencing the development of commercial architecture in the mid-20th century. Although the popularity of Googie architecture waned in the late 1960s, there has been a resurgence of interest in preserving these buildings as cultural and historical landmarks.

Today, Googie architecture is celebrated for its artistic creativity and historical value and reflects a period when the future was envisioned with boundless optimism and imagination.

Characteristics of Googie Architecture

Googie architecture, emblematic of mid-20th-century optimism and technological advancements, stands out for its distinctive design elements, thematic motifs, and iconic structures that dot the American landscape. This section delves into the quintessential characteristics of Googie architecture, exploring its design principles, thematic inspirations, and notable examples that exemplify its enduring appeal.

Exploration of Design Elements and Styles

Googie architecture is renowned for its audacious use of novel shapes and materials, breaking away from traditional architectural forms to embrace a future vision. Key design elements include:

  • Dynamic Shapes: Buildings often feature geometric forms with sharp angles, starbursts, and boomerang shapes that suggest movement and energy.
  • Innovative Materials: The use of then-modern materials such as steel, glass, and neon, alongside traditional substances like concrete, allows for the creation of unique textures and the play of light.
  • Integration of Indoor and Outdoor Spaces: Large glass walls and windows blur the boundaries between the interior and exterior, inviting natural light into spaces and offering expansive views.
  • Visually Striking Roofs: Upswept roofs, often resembling flying saucers or the tail fins of automobiles, create a dynamic silhouette and serve as a visual magnet from afar.

Use of Space-age Motifs and Futuristic Themes

The essence of Googie architecture lies in its reflection of the era’s fascination with space exploration and technology. This is manifested through:

  • Space-age Symbols: Motifs such as atoms, stars, and planets are commonly incorporated into building designs, signifying the atomic age and the space race.
  • Futuristic Themes: The architecture often embodies a vision of the future, with elements that belong to an imminent era of space travel and technological marvels.
  • Neon and Lighting Effects: The strategic use of neon lights and illuminated signs adds a vibrant, kinetic quality to structures, enhancing their futuristic appeal.

Iconic Examples of Googie Architecture

Several buildings and establishments have become enduring symbols of Googie architecture, celebrated for their architectural innovation and cultural significance:

  • Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): Resembling a flying saucer poised on four legs, this structure epitomizes the Space Age aesthetic and is a landmark of modern aviation.
  • The Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas: Although no longer standing, its iconic neon sign and atomic-themed décor made it a quintessential example of Googie’s influence on commercial and entertainment venues.
  • Norms Restaurant in Los Angeles: This operational eatery showcases classic Googie design with its eye-catching sign, angular roofline, and expansive windows, embodying the style’s commercial appeal.

Through its innovative design elements, celebration of futuristic themes, and iconic constructions, Googie architecture offers a captivating glimpse into a period of American history characterized by boundless optimism and a forward-looking spirit. These structures are a testament to architectural creativity and cultural artifacts, preserving the essence of an era when the future was envisioned with excitement and potential.

USA flag in the front

The Influence of the Space Age and Pop Culture

The Space Age and pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s profoundly influenced Googie architecture, infusing it with elements that captured the era’s technological optimism and cultural zeitgeist—this period of American history, marked by the Space Race, a burgeoning car culture, and a distinctive presence in media and film, shaped Googie architecture into a symbol of modernity and futuristic vision.

Impact of the 1950s and 1960s Space Race

The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, a hallmark of the Cold War era, fueled public interest in space exploration and advanced technology. This fascination with the cosmos and the possibilities of future space travel directly inspired Googie architecture, incorporating space-age motifs and a general aesthetic that mirrored the sleek, aerodynamic forms of rockets and spacecraft.

Buildings reflected this excitement using atomic symbols, starbursts, and materials, suggesting a leap into the next frontier. This era’s optimism about technology’s potential to shape the future was thus architecturally manifested in structures that seemed to be reaching for the stars.

Connection with American Car Culture

The rise of American car culture in the post-war era, characterized by increased personal automobile ownership and highway system expansion, played a crucial role in shaping Googie architecture. This architecture was designed to be seen from the road, with features like bold neon signs, dramatic rooflines, and visually striking forms that could attract the attention of drivers and passengers.

The car-centric lifestyle of many Americans led to the proliferation of drive-in restaurants, motels, and gas stations that embraced Googie’s attention-grabbing style, making it a prominent feature of the American roadside landscape.

Popularity in Media and Film

Googie architecture’s distinctive look and futuristic appeal made it a popular choice for representation in media and film, further embedding it in the cultural fabric of the time. Movies, television shows, and cartoons often featured Googie-inspired sets and designs to convey a sense of the modern and the futuristic, from utopian visions of society to space-age adventures.

This visibility in popular culture helped cement Googie’s association with the optimism and innovation of the era, making it a symbol of the times in the public imagination.

Notable Googie Architects and Their Works

The distinctive flair of Googie architecture was brought to life by a cadre of visionary architects whose innovative designs left an indelible mark on the American landscape. Among these, John Lautner, Wayne McAllister, and Douglas Honnold stand out for their pioneering contributions, creating iconic structures that epitomize the essence of Googie architecture.

Paul B. Clayton and the Johnie’s Broiler

Johnie’s Broiler in Downey, California, is a quintessential representation of Googie architecture, resonating with the era’s fascination with automotive culture and futuristic optimism. Opened in 1958 (originally as Harvey’s Broiler), its design features—such as prominent signage, angular structures, and open, inviting spaces—epitomize the Googie style’s emphasis on visibility, accessibility, and innovation. Johnie’s Broiler became a cultural landmark, reflecting mid-century America’s societal trends and aspirations.

The narrative of Johnie’s Broiler is also a story of preservation and renewal. After facing partial demolition in 2007, the community and preservationists rallied to save what remained of the iconic structure. It was eventually restored and reopened as Bob’s Big Boy Broiler, showcasing the power of community advocacy in preserving architectural heritage. This journey underscores the importance of Googie architecture as a style and a tangible link to America’s cultural and historical identity.

Today, Johnie’s Broiler stands as a testament to the enduring appeal of Googie architecture and its significance within the American architectural landscape. It serves as a reminder of the optimism of the post-war era, the cultural shift towards automobile-centric lifestyles, and the importance of preserving historical landmarks for future generations to appreciate.

John Lautner and the Theme Building at LAX

John Lautner, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, is renowned for his futuristic design of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), an iconic symbol of mid-century modernism. Completed in 1961, the Theme Building is a masterpiece of engineering and aesthetics, featuring a flying saucer-like observation deck supported by a quartet of curved concrete legs.

This structure not only embodies the space-age optimism of the era but also serves as a functional piece of art, offering panoramic views of the airport and its surroundings. Lautner’s work reflects a deep interest in creating spaces that harmonize with their environment, and the Theme Building is a testament to his innovative approach to design.

Wayne McAllister and the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas

Wayne McAllister is credited with shaping the architectural landscape of Las Vegas through his design of the Sands Hotel, which opened in 1952. McAllister’s design for the Sands Hotel incorporated elements that would become synonymous with Las Vegas architecture, including neon lights, expansive glass walls, and an inviting, open layout that blurred the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces.

The Sands Hotel became a legendary venue, known for its Rat Pack performances and epitomizing the glamour and excitement of Las Vegas. McAllister’s work at the Sands and other venues laid the groundwork for the city’s development as a resort destination, showcasing his ability to blend functionality with spectacle.

Douglas Honnold and the Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant

Douglas Honnold, an architect with a diverse portfolio, significantly contributed to Googie architecture with the design of Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant in Burbank, California, in 1949. This restaurant is notable for its iconic 70-foot-tall sign, the use of a cantilevered roof, extensive glass windows, and an overall aesthetic that captures the optimism and dynamism of the era.

The Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant has become a cultural landmark, recognized for its historical and architectural significance as a quintessential example of Googie design. Honnold’s work exemplifies the playful yet functional approach characteristic of Googie architecture, with a focus on attracting attention and creating memorable spaces.

These architects, through their groundbreaking works, have cemented their legacy within the realm of Googie architecture. Their buildings capture the spirit of their times and continue to fascinate and inspire, serving as enduring symbols of America’s mid-century architectural innovation.

Googie Architecture Across America

The Travel Channel once embarked on a journey titled “Incredible Googie Architecture Across America,” highlighting the widespread influence and diversity of Googie structures throughout the country. From diners and bowling alleys to motels and gas stations, Googie architecture made its mark with designs that seemed lifted straight from a science fiction novel.

Although this program showcased numerous examples, the essence of Googie can be distilled into a few notable themes:

Innovation and Experimentation: Architects of the Googie style were not afraid to experiment with new materials, shapes, and construction techniques, pushing the boundaries of what was architecturally possible at the time.

Cultural Reflection: These buildings reflect the post-war American culture, characterized by an optimistic outlook toward the future and a fascination with space and technology.

Accessibility and Visibility: Googie architecture was designed to be seen and experienced by the masses, often located along busy roads and designed to attract attention from afar.

Decline and Resurgence

The trajectory of Googie architecture, from its peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s to its decline and subsequent resurgence, reflects broader shifts in architectural tastes, societal values, and cultural priorities. This section explores the factors contributing to the decline of Googie architecture, its revival in recent decades, and its lasting impact on contemporary architectural practices.

Reasons for the Decline in the Late 1960s

The decline of Googie architecture in the late 1960s can be attributed to several factors:

Changing Architectural Trends: As architectural tastes evolved, the bold and flamboyant style of Googie began to fall out of favor. The emergence of minimalism and postmodernism shifted the focus towards more subdued, historically referential, and eclectic designs.

Economic and Environmental Concerns: The energy crisis of the 1970s and growing environmental awareness raised questions about the sustainability of the materials and design practices common in Googie architecture, such as the extensive use of glass and neon lighting.

Urban and Suburban Development Shifts: Changing urban and suburban development patterns, including the decline of the automobile-centric culture that had fueled Googie’s popularity, also played a role in its diminished prevalence.

Current Revival and Newfound Appreciation

In recent years, there has been a significant resurgence of interest in Googie architecture, driven by:

Nostalgia and Cultural Heritage: A growing appreciation for mid-century modern design, fueled by nostalgia and a recognition of its cultural significance, has led to the preservation and restoration of Googie landmarks.

Architectural and Historical Recognition: The architectural community and preservationists have advocated for recognizing Googie structures as important cultural and historical artifacts, leading to efforts to protect and celebrate them.

Popular Culture: The visual appeal and distinctiveness of Googie architecture continue to be celebrated in movies, television, and social media, contributing to its popularity and appreciation among new generations.

Googie’s Influence on Contemporary Architecture

Googie architecture has left a lasting imprint on contemporary architectural practices:

Emphasis on Visual Impact: Googie’s emphasis on bold, attention-grabbing design elements has influenced modern architectural approaches, prioritizing distinctive visual identities and experiential impact.

Integration of Technology and Design: The Googie tradition of incorporating new materials and technologies has inspired contemporary architects to explore innovative construction techniques and materials.

Engagement with Popular Culture: Googie’s connection to popular culture and its ability to capture the public imagination has encouraged modern architects to consider their work’s cultural and social dimensions more deeply, designing spaces that resonate with broader societal trends and values.

The decline and resurgence of Googie architecture underscore its enduring appeal and significance as a cultural and architectural phenomenon. Its legacy continues to influence the field of architecture, serving as a reminder of the importance of innovation, boldness, and the integration of cultural narratives in the creation of built environments.


The exploration of Googie architecture, epitomized by landmarks like Johnie’s Broiler, reveals a unique chapter in American architectural history that continues to fascinate and inspire. With its futuristic optimism and bold expression, this style encapsulates a period of innovation and cultural dynamism. The preservation and appreciation of Googie buildings underscore the importance of architectural heritage in connecting past and future generations.

Through its distinctive aesthetics and communal significance, Googie architecture remains a vibrant testament to the spirit of an era that looked forward with hope and imagination, reminding us of architecture’s role in shaping and reflecting our collective experiences and aspirations.

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