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.