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Alternatively known as “populuxe”, “doo-wop”, “space age”, or “atomic” architecture, Googie was popularized in the years following 1949. That year, John Lautner, a Michigan native, designed a Los Angeles coffee shop – not coincidently named “Googie” – for Mortimer C. and Lillian K. Burton.
The coffee shop’s exaggerated forms, as they were then considered, attracted the attention of Douglas Haskell, then-editor of House and Home magazine. Haskell referred to Lautner’s design as “Googie architecture,” deeming it “modern architecture uninhibited.” Other architects and architectural critics did not share Haskell’s assessment, instead dismissing the style as a “laughable caricature of modern design.” Even today, Googie is rarely considered in serious architectural discussions, and the term itself is often dismissed as synonymous with 1960s Las Vegas kitsch.
Criticism notwithstanding, this new architectural style, and its name, captured the imagination of an increasingly mobile and affluent public – bolstered by what seemed to be a national fascination with the dawning of the space age and all things atomic.
Despite the overstated forms, there was a functional component to Googie. Increased automobile ownership and a growing national highway system translated into increased travel, and business owners sought a way to quickly capture the attention of passing motorists. For many of them, the answer was the unique shapes, bright colors and glowing neon of the new Googie style. Googie’s functionalism has, unfortunately, also been its curse, as the style is often viewed as a novelty.
Googie in Michigan
In Michigan, as in other states, Googie can be found in the signs and buildings of the coffee shops, gas stations, bowling alleys, car dealerships, roadside restaurants and motels built in the middle part of the twentieth century.
Though not always as elaborate as their western United States counterparts, there are some notable examples of Googie in Michigan. The former Dawn Donuts buildings, with their steeply-pitched roofs and sharp angles, stand out as examples of the architectural style in Michigan.
Another great example of Googie in Michigan is the Ypsi-Arbor Lanes sign.
As is the Skyline Motel in Sault Ste. Marie:
While the former Schumm’s Restaurant and Lounge in Chelsea lacks the standard whimsy generally found in Googie restaurants, it can be considered a product of the era with its circular form and its overhanging roof.
Regardless of criticism or praise, Googie is undoubtedly a product of its era. Though we may be encouraged, through playful forms, to neglect the ills of the middle part of the last century, we cannot ignore the optimism with which so many Americans then viewed the future. Perhaps we should thus ask: if the current era gave rise to an architectural style, what would it look like?
Books and Other Sources:
The Architecture of John Lautner by Alan Hess
“From Googie to Great: Uncovering Truth and Beauty in John Lautner’s Architecture” by Hilary Jordan Scurlock. Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California, 2010.
“The Development of Googie: A Brief History and Michigan Resource Guide” by Anne Stevenson. Final Paper, GHPR 547, Eastern Michigan University, 2011.