Monday, February 19, 2007

The Future Was Then

It is not simply clothing that goes through various fashions as time passes. The same holds true for architecture. And when it comes to architecture, sometimes current styles don't just dictate how things might look now, but how we think they will look in the future. In the 20th century there were two design movements which shaped the way people thought the future would look. More often than not, when someone read a science fiction comic strip or watched a science fiction movie, the look of the comic strip or movie was largely determined by these movements.

The first of these was the art deco movement, popular from around 1910 to 1939. Art deco combined many of the different styles from the very early 20th century, with influences from Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Constructionism, and Modernism (with, at times a touch of the Gothic thrown in for good measure). Art deco tended towards sweeping, natural curves, stepped shapes, sunburst motifs, grill designs (much like a radiator grill), chevron type patterns, and the the aerodynamic designs of modern technology (which was part of the related Streamline movement--see below). It was an ornate style, which relied on aluminium, stainless steel, glass, and inlaid wood.

The style originated in France following the Universal Exposition of 1900, held in Paris. Its earliest practitioners had been disciples of Art Nouveau movement, including architect Hector Guimard and artist Eugene Grasset. Originally, it was called Style Moderne. Hard as it is to believe, it would not be called "Art Deco" until well after it had gone out of style. Art historian Bevis Hiller coined the term, taking it from the official name of the Exposition of 1925 (the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes), also held in Paris.

Regardless of its name, art deco soon became immensely popular as a style of design. Although today generally associated with architecture, it also influenced industrial design. Cameras (such as the Kodak Beau Brownie designed by Walter Dorwin Teague), watches and clocks (Cartier from the era), and even cars (the Nash Ambassador is an example) bore the mark of Art Deco. The movement influenced artists ranging from Georgia O'Keefe to Grant Wood (most famous for "American Gothic"). Of course, today it is best known for architecture, and several examples of Art Deco buildings survive to this day. Indeed, what may be the most famous building in the world, the Empire State Building, is a perfect example of Art Deco design, as is the neighbouring Chrysler Building. Radio City Music Hall, particularly its auditorium, is another example of Art Deco design. Radio City Music Hall wasn't the only theatre that used Art Deco--it was perhaps the single most popular style for cinemas of the era.

A movement related to Art Deco was Streamline Moderne (most often called simply "Streamline). Although not as popular as the more ornate Art Deco style, Streamline Moderne had its heyday in the late to mid Thirties. Relying on the aerodynamic look of aviation and automobiles, it used natural curves and long, horizontal lines. Examples of Streamline Moderne architecture are the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport and the Strand Palace Hotel in London. The Streamline movement was perhaps bigger in industrial design than in architecture. The 1933 Chrysler Airflow is a perfect example of Streamline design.

At the time Art Deco must have seemed very futuristic to many, and it should not be surprising that many viewed the future in terms of art deco design. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is the comic strop Flash Gordon, written and drawn by the legendary Alex Raymond. Everything from the architecture to the space ships to the clothing was Art Deco in design. Raymond would have an enormous impact on future cartoonists, to the point that art deco was appearing in comic strips and comic books well after it had gone out of fashion in the real world. In early Superman comic books, artist and co-creator Joe Schuster drew both the planet Krypton and the city of Metropolis as Art Deco masterpieces (here I should point out that even Superman's costume was influenced Raymond's clothing in Flash Gordon...). With regards to movies, the serials based on the comic strip Flash Gordon would also feature Art Deco architecture (the finest example perhaps being Ming's Imperial Palace). Metropolis, Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic, strongly relied on Art Deco architechture, as did Things to Come, the 1936 sci-fi film based on the work of H. G. Wells. Both Lost Horizon and The Wizard of Oz relied more upon the related Streamline design than Art Deco.

While it was often portrayed as the look of the future, Art Deco gradually went out of fashion. Once it became mass produced, there were many who thought that Art Deco was rather gaudy. And when World War II erupted, Art Deco suddenly became too expensive a luxury for many to afford. Ironically, today Art Deco is more associated with the past than the future. Today it brings to mind the glamour and fashion of 1930s New York City and Hollywood more than it does life in the 21st century. For a time, however, it was thought to be the way the future would look, as demonstrated by numerous comic strips (most notably Flash Gordon) and comic books from the time.

While Art Deco had gone out of style, there would arise another design movement in the very late Forties that would also give shape to the way people viewed the future. This movement is best known as Googie, although it is also called Populuxe or Doo-Wop (personally, I prefer the latter names, although they are not the ones that stuck). Googie originated in southern California, where it became a popular design for restaurants, coffee houses, motels, and bowling alleys. It is difficult to say what the first example of Googie architecture was, but it is believed to have been the Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake, California designed by Wayne McAllister in 1949. Its name is derived from a coffee shop called Googie's located on Sunset Boulevard. One day architectural photographer Julius Shulman and Professor Douglass Haskell of Yale were driving past Googie's. The two stopped there and Haskell proclaimed, "This is Googie architecture." Unfortunately, the term would become permanently attached to the design after Haskell used it in an article he wrote for House and Home magazine in 1952.

Googie or Populuxe architecture made bold uses of glass and steel, using upswept roofs, large domes, acute angles, tailfins, cantilevered structures, and starbursts. According to Professor Haskell, a chief characteristic of Googie architecture was that "...whenever possible, the building must hang from the sky." The Googie or Populuxe movement was heavily influenced both by Fifties car culture and the interest in space travel which peaked in the Sixties. To this end, Googie architecture was designed so that buildings resembled space ships, or a the very least automobiles.

Perhaps the most famous example of Googie architecture is the Space Needle in Seattle, built for the World's Fair in 1962. An equally famous example is the Theme Building at the Los Angeles Airport. In both cases, the buildings seem to defy gravity. Aside from California, Las Vegas may have been where Googie was most popular. Indeed, the Sands Hotel (now long gone) was built by the inventor of Googie, Wayne McAllister himself. The famous Las Vegas sign (complete with starburst) and the Stardust Hotel "space orb" are other examples of Googie architecture in Las Vegas.

Of course, Googie was generally an architectural movement for fast food restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, and motels. Indeed, perhaps the example of Googie architecture with which most people are familiar are the original McDonalds restaurants. In those days the restaurants were characterised by a single, 25 foot high, parabolic arch (not the smaller, double arches on today's McDonalds signs). Other common examples of Googie architecture were many of the Big Boy restaurants, the original Dennys restaurants, and many others.

Despite the fact that Googie was generally the architecture of such low scale establishments as gas stations, coffee shops, and fast food eateries, in the Fifties it was widely regarded as the look of the future. The original Tomorrowland in Disneyland in Anaheim, California largely relied on Googie design for its architecture. Children's books about space often featured artwork using space ships and spacesuits in a Googie design (Willy Ley's Conquest of Space is an example). And just as Things to Come twenty years before it had an Art Deco sensibility, the classic 1956 Forbidden Planet had a Googie sensibility. the classic Warner Brothers short, "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century," had a decidedly Googie look, as did the Commando Cody serials(1952's Radar Men from the Moon and 1953's Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. Of course, the prime example of Googie design in a work of fiction is probably the prime time cartoon The Jetsons. The Jetsons lived in a world where every building soared into the sky like Seattle's Space Needle, where domes and arches and tailfins often appeared on even the lowliest building. In The Jetsons, every building was Googie in design.

By the mid-Sixties Googie design, which hadn't been particularly highly regarded even during its heyday, largely fell out of favour. By the mid-Sixties most fast food restaurants and gas stations were not built in the Googie style. Even science fiction TV shows and movie eschewed the Googie sensibility. Star Trek, first broadcast in 1966, featured no Googie architecture. And neither did 2001: a Space Odyssey, released two years later. Like Art Deco before it, Googie became not so much the look of the future as a style associated with the past (in this case, the car culture of the Fifties).

Neither Art Deco nor Googie would be forgotten, however, as both have their adherents to this day. Writer William Gibson even came up with a term for the architectural styles of the old sci-fi movies: raygun Gothic. The term is most often equated with Googie, although I think it more fitting of Art Deco (which is decidedly more Gothic in appearance, especially in the hands of Alex Raymond). There is even a word for enthusiasm for the ways in which people in the past pictured the future: retro-futurism. Even some relatively recent sci-fi movies have hearkened back to the look of sci-fi movies of the past, using Art Deco or Googie for their art design. Examples of such retro-futuristic movies are 1980's Flash Gordon (which used art deco designs like the original comic strip), Brazil (a futuristic, Art Deco dystopia), The Incredibles (with a good deal of Googie architecture), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (a 1939 Art Deco New York as it probably only existed in Batman comics of the era as Gotham City). It is now 2007 and the world we in which we live hardly looks like Flash Gordon or The Jetsons, but there are no doubt many of us who wish they did.


poppedculture said...

I love the look of Art Deco. A couple of years back the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto held an Art Deco exhibit filled with industrial design, artwork, furniture, cars and the like. It was fascinatingly beautiful.

But my favourite display of Art Deco is Chicago. I got a neck cramp from craning to see all the details on the original skyscrapers as we walked through the downtown. Worth a visit if you've never been.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I've always loved the look of Art Deco myself. St. Louis still has a lot of its old, Art Deco buildings. There's the Jewel Box in Forrest Park and the old Continental Life Building (which they recently restored and turned into apartments after it sat vacant for years). I haven't been to Chicago, but I've always wanted to go. And I always wanted to go to New York to see the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings up close.