005. Alan Hess, Champion of the Googie. Introducing: The Patron Saints of the Lower Modernisms.

by James Black.

The Patron Saints of the Lower Modernisms are those individuals who have lowered the bar for what qualifies for membership in the sanctified realm of Modernism proper, and thereby expanded the domain of what is considered Modernist. I praise them for their efforts and hope they can take such a characterization rightly as a compliment. These thinkers and geniuses have helped to democratize design culture, making it more diverse and inclusive. The Patron Saints of the Lower Modernisms is Architecture Burger’s answer to the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame.

Alan Hess rose to prominence with the 1985 publication of Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, rehabilitating “Googie”, which had been a term of derision for the exuberant, populist modernism of the best 1950s coffee shops and bowling alleys, and offering a spirited and convincing defense of a then-maligned style. The 2004 republication, Googie Redux, opens with an anecdote of Hess’s epiphany while then a UCLA architecture student eating dinner with Bruce Goff at Ship’s Westwood coffee shop in 1978 – Hess’s eyes were opened to the glories of an architecture which at that time must have been unutterably taboo within the academies at a time when Michael Graves’s work was sexy and exciting. I am a sucker for epiphanies, as the epiphany is to consciousness what the diagram is to design.

Googie Redux serves as one of the best guidebooks of architecture in Los Angeles, pointing the way to the landmarks of what is now obviously one of Los Angeles’s finest architectural movements; but it also functions as a conventional history of an architectural movement, establishing the key individuals and the development of the style in much the same way as a book about any other Modernist substyle would do, such as, for example, Futurism or the Case Study House Program or the New Brutalism.

Hess sought to legitimize Googie as a proper form of endeavor within the Discipline of Architecture. The book’s analysis of the best Googie projects makes repeated analogy to the work of High Modernist architects, showing that the High Modernists engaged in the same sorts of compromises as Googie’s Low Modernist heroes, while alternately (and successfully) demonstrating the comparative creativity, rigor and integrity of the Googie monuments; e.g., “the commercial nature of the coffee shop did not corrupt the modern design principles that guided its design. Though academic Modernism was never impressed with Coffee Shop Modern and its liberal definition of Modernism, the style fulfilled Modernisms’s aims (126).”

Whereas the designers of most Lower Modernisms projects remain anonymous, the great Googie coffee shops are renowned, and we know the names and stories of their heroic architects: Wayne McAllister, Martin Stern, Jr., and the peerless partnership of Armét and Davis. Hess has emphasized the relationship between their modes of practice and those of the organicist wing of proper Modernism such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, and John Lautner, who himself designed the Googie’s Coffee Shop that lent its name to the movement – architects near the margin, but whose work clearly falls within the Discipline of Architecture. As a result, the Googie style has effectively taken its place within the succession of Modernist schools.

Hess’s triumph is the LoMos project’s loss, as Googie is now nearly too legitimate a form of Modernism to be considered within the intended scope of the Lower Modernisms project. A goal of the LoMos is to look closely at that which is typically considered beneath consideration, and our favorite coffee shops are no longer that. Hess’s analysis extends use of the term “Googie” to include not just the high quality monuments (such as Armét and Davis’s coffee shops) but also to buildings in a similar style but of lower quality.

Though the LoMos project is intended to expand the scope of inquiry into the Modern and modernizing, I do not wish to erase the distinctions between high and low. This distinction is critical to the Lower Modernisms project. Distinctions are the architect’s stock in trade – they are to judgments what the epiphany is to consciousness. Quality matters. I prefer to draw a line in my use of the term between the righteous Googie and the inferior quality Googie-inspired liquor stores and taco stands. I adjudge the term Googie to apply only to the highest, of greatest integrity, forms of the art. This characterization also forms my response to what could be a Frequently Asked Question, “Isn’t the Lower Modernisms just another name for the style already called ‘Googie?’”

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