Los Angeles is known for its eclectic architecture, from Italianate mansions to Art Deco skyscrapers and humble ranch houses. But in the 1950s, it created its very own style: Googie.
With vibrant colors, myriad materials, daring shapes, and over-the-top signage, Googie architecture was optimistic, experimental, and exciting. And you might already be familiar with it. Animators for The Jetsons mined Googie buildings for inspiration.
This style wasn’t just about futurism or expressiveness; it was strategic. Googie architecture was designed to get drivers to stop and patronize roadside businesses.
As the story goes, Googie got its name when the architecture critic Douglas Haskell was driving around Los Angeles researching a story about all the new splashy coffee shops he spied in the city.
He saw Googies, a West Hollywood coffee shop with a bold red roof, and decided to name the style after it.
Diners, coffee shops, gas stations, and motels—fixtures of roadside America—used Googie design traits liberally. And many of them are still standing in LA today, which makes it a perfect time to take a virtual road trip to see these iconic buildings and learn more about Googie.
Let’s hit the road!
The Shape of Things
Googie architecture was designed to stand out in the cityscape, and architects used every trick in the book to make their buildings appear more prominent, starting with how they were shaped. Daring geometry ensured there was no way you could miss one of these structures.
Gin Wong, William Pereira & Associates, 1965
Strong, angular rooflines—which often reflected new engineering techniques—are a common trait of Googie buildings. This gas station, designed with an enormous, swooping roof, was originally intended to be part of LAX, but when another project was chosen for the airport instead, it was built in Beverly Hills.
Five Points Car Wash
In Googie design, the buildings themselves became “signs” for the businesses they housed. Five Points Car Wash, built in 1963, features a row of tall pylons that draws attention to the structure.
Stanley Clark Meston, 1953
An early adopter of Googie was McDonald’s. When it began its burger empire in the 1950s, it believed alluring architecture was essential. Its first establishment included a 30-foot-high version of its now-famous “golden arches” that pierced the roof of the restaurant.
While a killer structural silhouette was the foundation for a Googie building, color and materials were the icing on the cake. Architects and designers used bold, contrasting colors to make the buildings grab your attention, and a variety of finishes—stone, glass, metal, linoleum, Formica, cork, concrete, brick, and plastic—inside and out to keep it.
Johnie’s Coffee Shop
Armet & Davis, 1956
Johnie’s Coffee Shop occupies a corner lot, which lets passersby take in the sharp angle of its roof. But the blue-and-white paint, red sign, stonework, and perforated cladding amp up its visual appeal.
Pann’s Coffee Shop
Helen Fong, Armet & Davis, 1958
With its flagstone walls, angular roof, large expanses of plate glass, and funky neon sign, Pann’s is one of the best-preserved Googies in the city. If you venture inside, there are more textures: terrazzo floors, red vinyl booths, dark wood veneer, and cork finishes.
Harry Harrison, 1956
Chips has a fairly restrained shape compared to its fellow Googies, but its tall, bright teal sign commands attention—the angled letters look like they’re shifting towards you as you drive past. The color scheme continues inside, with seafoam green stools and walls.
Signs of the Times
Signage is where many Googies sing. Their architects experimented with custom typography, abstract symbols like dingbats and starbursts, neon lights, and more.
Bob’s Big Boy Broiler
Paul B. Clayton, 1958
While this restaurant has been a number of establishments over the years—including a stint as a car dealership—its impressive 65-foot-long neon sign has remained unchanged. The restaurant was partially demolished, illegally, in 2007, but has since been restored.
Henry Goodwin, 1953
There’s no mistaking Randy’s iconic doughnut, which has been making mouths water since 1953. At 32 1/5 feet in diameter, it triumphantly crowns a humble building and has been featured in movies such as Get Shorty and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, and television shows like Arrested Development and Entourage.
Norm’s Coffee Shop
Helen Fong, Armet & Davis, 1957
Googie buildings, as a whole, are like signs for their businesses, but Norm’s takes it to another level. The shape of the roof—like a kite on its side—is echoed on the sign, with each block letter in the name Norm’s getting its own angular backdrop.
While many Googies remain in Los Angeles, countless more were lost. The style was always polarizing—to detractors, it was garish and tacky—and as architectural tastes changed, the Space Age futurism of Googie fell out of favor. Googies, the John Lautner-designed coffee shop that launched the entire movement, was also demolished in the 1980s.
Groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy have rallied to save the remaining buildings, but as cities grow and change, the future of some of these structures is uncertain.
So there’s no better reason to go out and see them today, and take in the colors, shapes, textures, and signs that made Googie Southern California’s signature style—while you still can.
Or, if you can’t hit the road just yet, check out the links below for more of Curbed’s reporting on the eye-popping style, including a profile of Googie’s most prolific designer and a map of fifteen of Los Angeles’s most noteworthy remaining Googies. Buckle up!
Writing: Diana Budds
Editing: Kayleen Schaefer, Mariam Aldhahi, Kelsey Keith
Illustration: Alexander Vidal
Photography: Chris Mueller
Art Direction: Alyssa Nassner, Audrey Levine
Development: Miriam Nadler
Copy Editing: Emma Alpern
Special thanks: Laura Holder, Anna Graves, Jenna Chandler, Jessica Gatdula