Monday, August 25, 2008

We Are All Googie Now



Further to the claims at Voyou that an investigation of the politics and aesthetics of the fifties might make some sort of sense of our own times - I've been reading Alan Hess' monumental study of 1950s Pulp Modernism, Googie - Ultramodern Roadside Architecture. This was a specifically southern Californian style, used to draw attention to burger bars, car washes, coffee shops (the name comes from one such, designed by John Lautner). Hess places the style in direct opposition to the 'high-art Modernism' of Mies van der Rohe and his disciples, the classicist glass skyscraper school that became the spatial lingua franca of even the most conformist parts of American capital. What's interesting here is that the debate was purely aesthetic. While the opponents of 'Googie' accused it of being crass and commercial, the Seagram Building was given tinted windows the colour of their client's brand of Whisky. While its outrageous geometrical illusions and structural expressionism were being criticised as mere dressing-up, Mies' towers 'expressed' their structure by decorative I-beams.



In essence, the debate between classical and pulp Modernism in the US was one of taste. On the one hand there was the luxury aesthetic of the wing of the bourgeoisie that aspired to finer things: New York's successful attempt in the 1950s to wrest from Paris the accolade of world fine art capital (naturally with a bit of CIA assistance). In order for this to occur it had to set itself against a more straightforward capitalist hucksterism. In fact, with their deliberate defiance of the rules of gravity and geometry, their brashness and lack of precedent, googie buildings were more true to the Modernist event - futurist visionaries like Sant Elia or Chernikhov would have recognised themselves in Armet & Davis, McDonalds, Denny's and Big Boy, more than in, say, I.M Pei, Seagram, Lever or IIT. It's also a reminder that the idea of Modernism as 'paternalist' imposition on the benighted proletariat makes sense only if one begins with an extremely limited definition of Modernism. Principally, one that limited itself to the International Style, the pernicious legacy of Johnson & Hitchcock's dual depoliticisation and classicisation of modernist architecture for American consumption, wherein the commercialism of Erich Mendelsohn and the 'organic intellectual' socialist approach of Hannes Meyer were equally scorned in favour of purity, white walls and stark volumes.



When I finally read Venturi/Scott-Brown/Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas (one should know the enemy), I found much to agree with in the paean to crassness and commercialism, to the libidinal pull of the advert and the utopian promise of making the desert into a paradise of montage and consumption (despite their deployment of that characteristic pomo rhetorical move whereby the 'authentic' is ridiculed except at the shopping counter, where suddenly consumer choice becomes genuine unproblematic popular desire), but as for the simultaneous eulogy to 'the decorated shed', to a deliberate blandness, retrogression and cheering on of the 'boring' and the 'vernacular'...One seemed to support a futuristic America of seductive surfaces and extraordinary collisions, seemed to be against the mundane - the other valourised the mundane against the apparently de trop desire of the avant-garde to be interesting. On the contrary, googie suggested a futurist everyday. Mostly it was the mundanist element that was taken up by postmodernism, and Hess' Googie (as with postmodernists in general) shows no interest in the question of why, from the early 70s onwards googie was replaced as the commercial style by simulacra shacks and fibreglass huts - that is, why after around 1969, America began to fear the future, and returned to dressing up the entirely novel in historicist drag - which was what American architecture had historically mostly specialised in, of course.



But is Googie really dead, or does it survive in some very unexpected places? Across the road from St Paul's Cathedral is a little pavilion by Make architects. In its improbable geometry, its jagged zig-zag showing zero interest in function or taste, it is as googie as googie can be. Likewise, the new building by Surface architects for Queen Mary University, sundry others by Gehry (obviously), Future Systems, Libeskind and his imitators, etc. While this has in common with googie the reduction of the building to a logo, to an instantly memorable image - one which is appreciated in the act of distraction, as from a passing car (or while doing some heavy shopping, presumably, in the case of the architects mentioned above) it also continues the moralistic rhetoric of the American Miesians. Nobody ever suggested that roadside diners used non-orthogonal geometry to make us better people, or induce them to 'aspire', let alone to simulate the experience of war or the holocaust. It does suggest a truth at the heart of today's allegedly radical architecture, however - its forbears are in the aesthetics of consumption, advertising, in forms designed to be seen at 80mph, not in serene contemplation. The architecture once described as 'deconstructivist' owes less to Derrida than it does to McDonalds.

27 Comments:

Blogger Murphy said...

excellent: the last paragraph is especially good.

1:08 am  
Blogger Murphy said...

I get the impression there's a few-thousand word essay in this one, perhaps...

1:10 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Thanks. As it happens, there's a Historical Materialism paper in it, which I'm writing in the Autumn...

1:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Deconstructionism (couture Googie) inevitably slips from fashion to take its place on the spectrum of historicist styles, will it be recognized as Modernism's mannerist, baroque or rococo period?

4:37 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ah, I like this game. I'm saying Rococo. The architecture of privilege, frippery and restoration. Googie and its high-art variants (Saarinen, etc) would be baroque...perhaps with brutalism as mannerism...

4:58 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

no no no... decon (1988-1997, from the Deconstructivist exhibition at Moma to the opening of the Bilbao guggenheim) is mannerism. Compare Eisenman to, say, the Palazzo Del Te by Guilio Romano, or Michelangelo's Laurentian Library. After 1997 it kind of becomes baroque, once the 'iconic' movement is on the go. Rococo doesn't really count, it being an interior design style and all, but if pushed I'd say what's coming in the next decade in the Gulf will be Rococo in nature.

This game is really silly, though, but it makes me smile wondering who the new Borromini might be...

6:47 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

I think I'm siding with Owen on this one - there was an earlier upmarket Googie in the short lived use of Brutalism for drive-by architecture.

IIRC it was explicity addressed by Venturi and Scott Brown in their discussion of the bastard offspring of Corbu at Ronchamp seen in buildings like the Neiman Marcus store in Houston.

And please, please don't mention Eisenman and the Laurentian Library in the same breath!

11:43 pm  
Anonymous alan hess said...

Good analysis in this blog. When I wrote Googie I hoped to resurrect the term and the buildings. Preservationists have since saved a number of building (but not enough) so we can experience them in the flesh. The term and concept, however, still need to be included more in the mainstream conversation.
In general, I don't see the usefulness of distinguishing between high art Googie (baroque or mannerist) and popular/commercial Googie. It's no coincidence that Googie and Gehry come from the same city.

7:56 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Blimey. It's a fine book, I hope at one point to (to cite Reyner Banham) read LA in the original, using the gazetteer. The nearest thing to a googie interior we had in London was this place, shut down a little while ago. It's a somewhat seedier aesthetic...

I suppose the major difference between googie and Gehry is one of critical reception, and its consequences. Gehry is considered a 'genius' in a way that Armet & Davis were not, and this sort of hailing definitely does things to an architect.

10:20 pm  
Anonymous Jonathan Meades said...

Randomly:

Googie is by no means peculiar to southern California. Bruce Goff, whose work is closely related, seldom worked outside Oklahoma (though he did do an unidentified house in Ealing) and there is an abundance in New Jersey.

Two English architects were much indebted to googie: Richard Gilbert Scott and Sam Scorer.

You can tell that the neo-googie of Gehry etc is 'high' art because it is chromatically polite : a dread of deafening colour implies seriousness...

The point about the identification of modernism with the international style (and purism)is astute and should be made over and again. Modernism is also Hood, de Klerk, Bodson and Pompe, Dominikus Boehm - all of whom are precursors of googie.

A lot of (lesser) googie buildings are, undeniably, 'decorated sheds'

11:05 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ealing googie, cripes. I must look up this Gilbert Scott. A scion of the neo-Gothic dynasty...?

Colour is a curious question in this context - a general Alsopish garishness is one of the most pernicious things about today architecture, including 'couture googie' (with some exceptions like Libeskind or Calatrava - but contrast the bright colours of Surface architects, Future Systems, Alsop himself) and similarly has the 'it's-good-for-you' element in abundance. I bet Peckham Library was meant to induce aspiration and aiming high via purples, greens and oranges. Also, Gehry's most colourful structure is by some leagues his worst.

12:39 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

After looking up - the Guildhall, hmm. Always liked the 60s wings, shame the recent bit is so lame by comparision. And I should have thought of this.

12:50 am  
Anonymous Jonathan Meades said...

Scott is of that dynasty: he must now be in his 80s. I was thinking of two churches he did in the 60s for the catholic diocese of Birmingham in the eastern suburbs of that city: St Thomas More at Sheldon and the spectacular Our Lady Help of Christians at Tile Cross - they're both in my thing The Absentee Landlord.

Bruce Goff and the monumental sculptor Alfonso Ianelli designed a house in Ealing for the industrialist and chemical engineer Burton Dunglinson in the early 30s. Goff was unhappy with the builder's execution and disowned it to the point that he wouldn't reveal its address - a Kelly's Directory of those years would list Dunglinson.
Can't put my finger on what is so different about today's use of colour. The self-consciousness. Look at me I'm not wearing black. The self congratulatory daring.

9:40 am  
Anonymous Sam Jacob said...

It's absolutely right to pin the pejorative use of Googie to Make. But Make lack everything that makes Googie so thrilling: ephemeral joy, a high bang-to-buck ratio, inventiveness …

(By the way, did you read this piece I wrote for the RIBAJ on Make?)

It's also interesting to consider Googie as a kind of commercialized Constructavism. Tatlin's Tower Burger anyone?

There is an explicit Gehry-does-Googie building at Disneyland Paris – which funnily enough houses a50's style burger bar (it might even be a Maccy D?). So maybe it's not quite as unacknowledged an influence as you suggest in Gehrys un-intellectualised, Californo-Decon.

1:28 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Commercialised constructivism - yes, Hess makes this argument too.

I think the affinity with Gehry himself is clear enough, but the other sub-decon stylists are always presented as deep and meaningful makers of great art rather than pretty, flimsy gee-gaws.

Make are definitely one of the worst (I have read that post btw - I linked to it somewhere, I think). Have you read this?

There's a newish Burger King in Peckham - very near the library, appropriately - which is very post-googie. Was a bit taken aback seeing that on the 171 bus.

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