Out Of This World: Designs Of The Space Age

Jul 14, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:40 am

The Space Age left a sleekly modern mark on everything from office parks to kitchenware to kids' TV shows like The Jetsons. Even today, if you drive around Los Angeles, you'll see relics of Space Age architecture, including the flamboyantly futuristic Los Angeles International Airport and a nearby coffee shop called Pann's.

"This stuff is bad for you, you know that," Victor Newlove drily observes as he watches a reporter chow down on an order of Pann's fried chicken. Newlove is president of an architectural firm that designed dozens of Googie restaurants across Southern California. (He started as an intern in the 1960s.)

Googie is an architectural style that zoomed into style in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in the form of dining establishments with bold boomerang angles, undulating amoebalike shapes, and signs shaped like rocket ships.

"Our buildings sort of looked like cars of the period," Newlove says. "Everything had wings or fins."

Back at the offices of Arnet, Davis and Newlove, the architect pulls out blueprints for a coffee shop called Biff's that was built in Oakland (you can see one of the original presentation drawings above.) "It almost looked like a flying saucer," Newlove chuckles. "It looks like it's about ready to lift off."

These restaurants looked so much like spaceships, one of them literally blasts off as Dr. Evil's getaway vehicle in an Austin Powers movie.

Professor Peter Westwick is curating an upcoming exhibition at the Huntington Library called Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Industry in Southern California. He says aerospace engineers influenced design and architecture through the adaptability of the materials they created for flight. For example, a material designed to blow heat from rocket nozzles is what boogie boards are made of. And Walt Disney hired aerospace engineers to help design that Space Age icon Tomorrowland.

Rocket-shaped slides, climbers and rides popped up at amusement parks and playgrounds all over the country. Some eventually ended up in a huge red hay barn in Connecticut that is now a Space Age Museum.

The museum is private — owner John Kleeman is just not equipped to handle hordes of visitors on his property — but he hopes to work with established museums to display his enormous collection of giant robots, amusement park rides, ray guns, board games, rocket-shaped table lamps and thousands of other carefully curated items, all dating from and celebrating the Space Age.

"This was some kind of a rocket car," he says, gesturing to a huge battered behemoth that looks like it came from a movie set. "We don't know what it was for or who built it, but it was found in a field with a lot of graffiti on it."

While you could fill entire silos with all of the objects representing Apollos, Geminis, Sputniks and flying saucers at the Space Age Museum, Kleeman has just one space shuttle-themed artifact. It's a piece of folk art — a weather vane made by a Pennsylvania farmer during the 1980s.

Westwick says that's when the space program began to run out of steam. And he's not surprised that design and architecture turned away from manned space flight. It remained stuck for decades and ultimately became something of a disappointment.

"You're not necessarily going to try and celebrate it and translate it into other fields," he says.

But Space Age design has stayed with us. You see it all over high-end furniture catalogs and in the movies. Perhaps it reminds us of a moment when people believed the future was inevitably going to be better; that technology would nestle us among the stars, and our best instincts would rescue us from our worst.

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Unidentified Group (Singing) Meet George Jetson...


LOUISE KELLY: Now with the space shuttle flying for the very last time, NPR's Neda Ulaby takes us to some landmarks of Space Age design and architecture.

NEDA ULABY: Not far from the flamboyantly futuristic Los Angeles Airport, is a coffee shop called Pann's.


ULABY: They're from the same era - late '50s, early '60s. And they share the same far-out aesthetic: bold, boomerang angles; undulating, amoeba-like shapes; and floating starbursts. Pann's is also a culinary landmark, with terrific fried chicken.

LOUISE KELLY: This is really bad for you - you know that.

ULABY: That's Victor Newlove. He's an architect who helped design Pann's. His firm built dozens of restaurants across Southern California, in a style called Googie - that's a real architectural term, Googie.

LOUISE KELLY: Our buildings sort of looked like the cars of the period, in some respects. I mean, you know, everything had wings or fins.

ULABY: Imagine a '59 Cadillac's swooping lines and rockety style. Newlove pulls out blueprints for a coffee shop called Biff's.

LOUISE KELLY: It almost looks like a flying saucer. The building was intended to look like that. It's round. It looks like it's about ready to lift off. It looks like some sort of an alien creature is inside this place. But then what it is, is just a restaurant.

ULABY: These restaurants looked so much like spacecraft, one even turned into Dr. Evil's getaway vehicle in the first "Austin Powers" movie.


LOUISE KELLY: (as Dr. Evil) Launching the subterranean probe.

P: There was this - very much this kind of Space Age, this "Jetsons" aesthetic in architecture, in design, Googie architecture of the '50s and '60s.

ULABY: Peter Westwick is a Southern California history professor. He studies the aerospace industry, and says its engineers influenced design and architecture. That's partly because the materials they created for flight were so easily adapted for things like surfing.

P: These new lightweight foams - polyurethane foam, polystyrene, Fiberglas, polyester resin - and then started building surfboards out of them.

ULABY: And what used to mean hauling around a hundred pounds of redwood became something nearly anyone could do. And eventually, a $15 billion global industry with its own fashion, language and music.


BEACH BOYS: (Singing) If everybody had an ocean across...

ULABY: Those boogie boards you see at every beach? Invented from a material made to blow heat from rocket nozzles. Westwick says aerospace engineers infiltrated nearly every aspect of California culture, from design to entertainment. And it went national.


LOUISE KELLY: Tomorrowland, promise of things to come...

ULABY: Disneyland's Space Age Pavilion, says Peter Westwick, was dreamed up in part by aerospace engineers, who asked themselves...

P: How do we lay out the park to ensure the best flow of people? You're almost thinking of people like little particles flowing through your system.

ULABY: Amusement parks and playgrounds all over the country started sporting rocket-shaped climbers, riders and slides. Some of that castoff detritus landed in a former hay barn in Connecticut, owned by one John Kleeman.


LOUISE KELLY: Light, I'll lead the way just so you don't - there's a little step up there. This is our space collection.

ULABY: This is a private museum of Space Age kitsch. It's filled with board games, ray guns, lamps, bed sheets and giant robots from used car lots, all dating from or celebrating the heyday of the Space Age. At least eight amusement park rides, some crafted from old test vehicles - none that would pass today's safety standards.

LOUISE KELLY: This was some kind of a rocket car, and we don't know what it was used for. We don't know who built it. It was found in a field with a lot of graffiti on it...

ULABY: The Space Age Museum is not open to the public. But it's got thousands of items, all carefully curated.

LOUISE KELLY: This is our little Space Age design corner, which has a futuristic bed and a couch, all made out of Fiberglas.

ULABY: Everything is modular, minimalist, and molded from gleaming plastic or some other once cutting-edge material.

LOUISE KELLY: It was designed in the '60s and was part of that look that was identified in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," where everything was white and very clean and simple-looking.


ULABY: But almost nothing here represents the space shuttle - Apollos, Geminis, Sputniks, flying saucers, in all shapes from pens to toasters. The only space shuttle here is a piece of folk art: a weathervane from a farm in Pennsylvania, made in the early '80s.

LOUISE KELLY: It's got old tin cans for the three main engines; a kind of little bit of rust that you'd expect from sitting out in the weather. And it says Aerospace along one side. And on the fin it says USA.

ULABY: Space and patriotism are no longer quite as inseparable as they were 1962, when President Kennedy proclaimed that beating the Soviet Union was central to our national identity.

P: We choose to go to the moon.


P: We choose to go to the moon...

ULABY: Kennedy said the future of Earth might be in space. And all of its vastness seemed like a refuge in the 1970s, when people started worrying about what Professor Peter Westwick calls an era of limits.

P: And people started looking up and saying well, we're polluting the Earth and running out of food and ove populating it. Maybe what we need to do is head out, and do what the pioneers did and head for some open land. And the open land now is up there in outer space.

ULABY: During the space colony movement, NASA was planning ambitious outer-space cities.

P: What now look like these outlandish designs - but at the time, they were taken very seriously - of these huge space stations with gardens and plants, and transportation and flying hang gliders, and all this stuff; people floating around out there.

ULABY: Gigantic space colonies would have been serviced by space shuttles, a dream Walt Disney himself once voiced on a TV show about "Tomorrowland."

LOUISE KELLY: After entering the Disneyland Spaceport, visitors may experience the thrills that space travelers of the future will encounter, when rocket trips to the moon become a daily routine.

P: People had very high hopes for the space shuttle.

ULABY: Professor Peter Westwick.

P: There was going to be hundreds of shuttle flights a year. Average citizens were soon going to be able to make commercial flights, and industry is going to be able to fly up there and build things, and we're going to have space stations.

ULABY: In that respect, Westwick says, the space shuttle has been a disappointment.

P: You're not necessarily going to try to celebrate it in other aspects of design, and try to translate it into other fields.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

LOUISE KELLY: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.