top of page

Googie Architecture: Los Angeles' Enduring Love Affair with the Space-Age Aesthetic

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Welcome to a World of Whimsy and Futurism

In the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, where the sun kisses the Pacific Ocean, and the entertainment industry reigns supreme, there exists a hidden treasure trove of architectural marvels that transport visitors to a bygone era of futurism and playful design. Enter the whimsical world of Googie architecture, a style that once adorned the streets of this vibrant city with its daring and imaginative structures.

Photo Courtesy of the USC Archives

Unearthing the Origins

In the charming landscape of West Hollywood, a modest coffee shop known as Googie's opened its doors in the late 1940s, blissfully unaware of the architectural legacy it was about to create. Little did anyone know that this unassuming establishment would become the namesake and spark the birth of an entire architectural movement - the captivating world of Googie.

In 1949, renowned architect John Lautner wove his magic into the design of the West Hollywood coffee shop, now known as Googies. Its distinct architectural characteristics and striking aesthetics led to the endearing name "Googie," a loving nod to Lillian K. Burton, the wife of the original owner, Mortimer C. Burton.

As the post-World War II era enveloped the nation in a wave of hope and optimism, the prospects of space exploration, atomic energy, and futuristic technologies fueled the imagination of architects and designers. Eager to reflect America's boundless dreams for the future, these tastemakers, including Lautner, Shulman, Armet, Davis, and many more, created stylized contributions that would become a resplendent reflection of the nation's aspirations.

Join us as we delve into the captivating world of Googie architecture, where soaring rooflines and whimsical designs would briefly become the shining symbol of the American Dream itself. Discover how Googie emerged as a vibrant manifestation of America's dreams and aspirations, leaving a lasting impact on the architectural landscape and capturing the essence of postwar optimism like nothing else in history.

The Googie Aesthetic: Form Follows Futurism

At the heart of Googie architecture lies its distinctive and instantly recognizable aesthetic. Characterized by bold, upswept roofs that mimic the wings of a soaring spaceship, Googie buildings appeared as though they were ready to take flight into the cosmos. These gravity-defying rooflines imbued the structures with a sense of motion, even in their static existence.

Googie architects played with geometric shapes and swooping angles, indulging in curves and asymmetry. They adorned their creations with vibrant colors and playful neon signs that captivated passersby and hinted at the possibilities of a futuristic world. The goal was not just to build functional spaces but to inspire wonder and spark the imagination of all who beheld them.

Iconic Googie Landmarks of Los Angeles

To truly immerse oneself in the world of Googie, a visit to the "Theme Building" at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is an absolute must. Completed in 1961, this architectural marvel resembles a futuristic flying saucer perched upon four curving legs. With its observation deck, it was once a popular spot for locals and travelers to admire the planes taking off and landing at LAX. The Theme Building perfectly encapsulates Googie's out-of-this-world charm and stands as a testament to an era when the skies were no longer the limit.

One of the most iconic Googie structures in Los Angeles, the Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Burbank is a prime example of the style. It features a towering and exaggerated roofline, complete with a curving boomerang-shaped canopy that extends over the outdoor dining area. This location of Bob's Big Boy has been a beloved local landmark since it opened in 1949 - designed by renowned architect Wayne McAllister.

Ben Frank's Coffee Shop (Now Mel's Drive-In!): This exemplary example of Googie architecture left an indelible mark on the mid-20th-century landscape, adorning the Sunset Strip with its futuristic and dynamic designs, including upswept rooflines, bold geometric shapes, and vibrant neon lights. Positioned in the heart of the bustling Sunset Strip, it perfectly encapsulated the post-war optimism and the burgeoning car culture of its time, and was a lighthouse for the glitterati of a bygone era including Andy Warhol, The Rolling Stones, and many more. While Ben Frank's eventually bid farewell to its patrons, its legacy thrives through the beloved Mel's Drive-In, a cherished favorite by LA Explained fans, forever shifting California's car culture while it was at it (American Graffiti, anyone?)

Johnie's Coffee Shop in Mid-City: This Googie-style coffee shop, originally opened in 1956, stands out for its streamlined modernist design with space-age touches. Its dramatically cantilevered roof overhang and a neon sign that resembles a rocket ship add to its charm. Though Johnie's Coffee Shop has had its share of ups and downs over the years, it remains an architectural gem that has been featured in several movies and TV shows.

Covina Bowl, a beloved local bowling alley, is a prime representation of the Googie style with its distinct mid-century modern design elements. Built in 1956, Covina Bowl features a bold and eye-catching upswept roof, resembling the wings of a spaceship ready to take flight. The exaggerated angles and geometric forms of the building's facade contribute to the whimsical and futuristic charm that is characteristic of Googie architecture. The neon signs, retro interior decor, and iconic Googie roof have made it a local landmark cherished by the community.

The Rise and Fall of Googie

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the fervor for Googie architecture began to wane. Evolving tastes in architecture, coupled with the rise of modernism and minimalist design, ushered in an era that favored clean lines and functional aesthetics over whimsy and flamboyance. Many Googie buildings faced demolition to make way for the sleek and unembellished structures of contemporary times, leaving behind only remnants of Los Angeles' Googie heyday.

Googie Resurgence: Preserving the Past for the Future

Despite the decline, the legacy of Googie architecture has not been lost to the annals of history. In recent years, a growing appreciation for mid-century modernism and architectural nostalgia has fueled efforts to protect and preserve the remaining Googie landmarks. These structures are increasingly recognized as important cultural artifacts that offer valuable insights into the aspirations and dreams of mid-20th-century America.

Various organizations and individuals have taken up the mantle of preserving these delightful relics. They advocate for the designation of Googie buildings as historic landmarks, fostering awareness of their significance in shaping the city's identity and architectural heritage.

Embracing the Googie Experience

For those seeking a unique and nostalgic adventure in Los Angeles, embarking on a quest to explore Googie architecture is akin to stepping into a time capsule. Venturing beyond the beaten paths of popular tourist attractions reveals hidden gems that tell a story of the city's whimsical past.

So, put on your explorer's hat, wander the lesser-known streets, and marvel at the eclectic buildings that pay homage to a time when the future was brimming with endless possibilities. As you stand beneath the sweeping wings of a Googie roofline or admire the neon glow of a vintage sign, let yourself be transported to an era when the world dreamt big and dared to reach for the stars. Googie architecture beckons you to indulge in its fanciful charm and embrace the timeless allure of Los Angeles' space-age aesthetic.

Our friend & LA Magazine Editor, Chris Nichols, has written a wonderful book on the topic (and much more) - check him out!

Photo Credits:

The Theme building LAX : The USC Archives
Theme Building LAX 2: Credit EditorASC via wikimedia commons
Googies Coffee Shop Exterior :
Googies Coffee Shop Couple: Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives
Johnie's Coffee Shop Exterior Side: Photo by John Eng
Johnie's Coffee Shop Exterior Front: Photo by Los Angeles Conservancy, 1995
Bobs Big Boy & Wayne Mcallister Photos: Bobs Big Boy Website
Covina Bowl Exterior: The USC Archives
Ben Franks (Now Mel's Drive-In): AP Photo / George Brich


L.A. Explained Blog

bottom of page