Ed Driscoll

1969: The Shattering of the Modernist Dream

I’m in the process of reading two books I recently bought from Amazon as sort of post-Christmas gifts to myself: Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture by Alan Hess, and The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream by Meredith L. Clausen. Googie, which I know James Lileks is a big fan of, was a somewhat informal designation for modernist commercial architecture of the 1950s and ’60s. As this superb Website explains, Googie grew out of a Los Angeles coffeehouse by that name, and came to dominate roadside architecture: the original McDonald’s and Jack in the Box restaurants (not the versions seen today, as we’ll discuss in a moment) were Googie; the building at LAX that currently houses the Encounter Restaurant (which I posted about a couple of months ago) was Googie. It was playful stuff, designed to give the stern shapes originated by Bauhaus boys like Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius more curb appeal–and hence entice motorists to pull over and stop in.

In his book, Alan Hess notes that in 1969, Ray Croc dumped the original Googie-styled McDonald’s restaurant design for the more traditional looking mansard roof buildings we see today (he kept the originals’ iconic golden arches on the new buildings’ signage), and Hess uses that year, and that gesture as one of the demarcation points that traditional modern architecture had come to an end.

And he’s certainly got a point: in addition to Ray Croc discarding Googie forms, it was also the year that Mies and Gropius died. Manhattan’s Seagram building, on Park Avenue, has long been considered one of Mies’s great successes (and one of my favorites, which was partially why I chose it for the unofficial Pajamas pre-launch party that grew like Topsy). In contrast, as Meredith Clausen notes in her book, very few obituaries of Gropius mentioned his involvement in the Pan Am building, just down the block. Ironically, during the Pan Am building’s planning and construction, Gropius saw it as the bookend to a career that included the founding of the Bauhaus in the 1920s. But even before Pan Am was completed, it became the Building That New Yorkers Love To Hate, as a mid-1980s New York magazine cover story dubbed it, complete with wrecking ball smashing into the building. And indeed, there was good reason to loathe the beast: Pan Am (since renamed in the 1980s for current owner Met Life), dwarfed handsome Grand Central Station with its towering bulk, cut Park Avenue in half, and was–and is–considered ugly and brutal by the vast majority of New Yorkers.

And despite all that, as the Pan Am book notes, it will probably never be torn down, as it’s a larger building than current Manhattan zoning laws allow for office buildings on its size lot.

If Googie made modernism fun, Pan Am made many people come to hate modernism. And if these are the sorts of topics you enjoy exploring, check out Architecture and Morality’sCarnival of the Architects and Urbanists“.

(In it, we’re listed as “multifarious blogger extraordinaire Ed Driscoll”, and naturally, a nifty piece of textural embroidery like that richly deserves its addition to the rotating “What They’re Saying” board on the sidebar.)