It has been a while since people asked me to do something on Atom-, Diesel and about every other punk. But for those that have watched my channel know I have nothing to say on these topics. I don’t identify with these labels, and my observations of these labels don’t coincide with how people feel about them. Watch my discussion with Eric Fisk on this topic or my video, A question for Dieselpunks, for example of these.
As for the stuff we do agree on, well you might as well watch my Steampunk Beginners Guide series, because those pretty much apply to those genres to a tee. Another reason why I didn’t make a separate video, yet.
So, I decided to talk about what I believe are very important influences to Diesel and Atompunk. And that is American Architecture en Popular design. This also reveals my bias towards the label that these are very American-centric genres. Therefore I don’t expect there to be a large, if any, Dieselpunk subculture to arise in Europe.
Also I am no expert on the subject of architecture so don’t expect a peer reviewed essay or anything. More of starting of point.
Now with those disclaimer out of the way here is a short overview of architectural history for both the States and Western Europe for the 1920 onward. So We will not be discussing Arte Deco in depth yet, which has at its peak during the 1920’s.
We travel back to the interbellum period. While Europe rebuild in the aftermath of the Great War, The states entered a periode often referred to as the Gay or Roaring 20’s. The States flourished and this was reflected in its architecture.
We see the modern Arte Deco, but also the classic Baroque and Louis the Xivth style. All were elaborate attention grabbing styles. But where Baroque was flamboyant and Aristocratic, Arte Deco was the Cool kid that fit the industrial era. Rich in color, but streamlined in form, creating complex structures out of basic shapes.
This in particular inspired the World of Rapture in Bioshock.
But then the 30’s came about and we enter the period of the Great Depression. Gone was the prosperity of the twenties, and compagnies toned down the style of their new offices that matched the emerging zeitgeist.
This is when Streamline modern came about. An architectural style developed for the more austere 1930’s. Economic decline happens throughout the western world, and companies were less interested in the ornate Arte Noveau and Arte Deco.
Streamline, or Arte Modern, was a combination of late Arte Deco with German design philosophies, like the Werkbund and Bauhouse school, that combined aesthetics with functionality. But we’ll focus on the US for this video.
Just like Arte Deco, Arte Modern used basic shapes in it’s design. But focused on practicality and reproducible. Effectively they stripped Arte Deco of it ornamentation in favor for a more ‘efficient scientific aesthetic´. Aka streamlining!
Were Arte Deco was warm and unique, Streamline was ´objective’ and uniform. It might have inspired many, minimalist products we own today, like mobile phones.
Buildings were made to look streamlined with meant horizontal patterns and rounded corners. The overall shapes were basic. Roofs became flat and windows became plentiful but relatively narrow.
Fun fact. Streamlined buildings are sometimes laid out to look like boats. My old high School is shaped like that.
After the 30’s we got the 1940’s. It weird that 1939 is treated like some cutoff date in the architectural timeline, but there were some innovations made in the war period that became very important during the Aftermath. One mayor innovation was Prefabrication, or Prefab, that allowed construction of buildings to be done at a fabrication yard before getting shipped to it’s final constructionsite. Especially in Europe were entire cities needed to be rebuilt this way.
Also in the wake of the Nazi’s reign a lot of German architects, who happened to be members of the Bauhause school, moved to the states . This included Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhause, who moved to the US before the war. So in the fifties we see a lot of German influences during the ‘50 when Blocked buildings with rectangular windows became commonplace.
The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1945–51) The Seagram Building, New York City, 1958
The Germans may have lost the war, they started to dominate the American landscape.
Since the 30’s there is this increasing focus on utilitarian design that is a combination of new design philosophies and economic stagnation.
Despite the cultural shift something uniquely American arose during the 50, thanks to good’Ol capitalism.
In 1949, architect John Lautner was asked to design a coffee shop for a company in West Hollywood, called Googies. Lautner believed the design of the coffeeshop needed to match the logo of the franchise so created something quiet out there for the time.
This design that contrasts with the Objective German architecture was further developed by Victor Newlove, who describe the style as whimsical, as the Googie font was inspired by 1920 cartoons.
Now something interesting happens after that. Originally the Googie style signs were meant to draw people to these establishments. Especially people who were driving car. These sign needed to be seen, and read, from afar. That is why these signs were constructed into the height, with neon letters so these could be seen during the night. These challenged people , as it were, to stop, just to have a look what all this promotion was about.
That is why these restaurants had large windows, so people could look inside and see how the color matched furniture, plates, utensils and even the uniforms. It wasn’t just the architecture. It was a total package.
This extended to the food preparations itself because fastfood joints had an imageproblem during this period. Especial places that served ground beef products, like hamburgers. People were told they threw stuff into the ground beef like ears and other unwanted body parts, you see.
So in these Googie-style restaurants they opened up the kitchen and prepared the meat behind the counter, so the customers could see what ended up in their burgers.
That change in marketing and architecture just happened to occur at the beginning of the Space Race between the US and the USSR. Afters the Russian launched Spoednik in 1957 (were the Beatniks based their name on btw) and the start of the Apollo Program in 1961, Space and science fiction became this huge thing. It created this new vision of the future and of course marketers jumped right on that. They combined the hype with the already popular and effective Googie architecture that was already designed around spectacle.
Googie transformed venues into attractions of their own right. Buildings we made to look like space stations and neon lit flying sorcerers. (Unfortunately I couldn’t find any references about waiters dressed as aliens or astronauts.) You were not just getting a cop of coffee, you were buying an idea.
Speaking of Dreams. This era was all about the nuclear family and the American Dream. Houses weren’t just for living any more. These deserved to be mansions in their own right where even the biggest celebrity would feel at home.
For an example of this all you need to watch is an old commercial by General Motors to get a sense of the optimism in this era. It is a live performance that spared no expense in selling its audience, not just a range of products, but a vision. It sells you an image of the future that is now unthinkable to us.
This inspired Populux, a style primarily applied to consumer products, ranging from cars to fridges. Populux products were designed to make the average american feel he or she was living in the same luxury as their Hollywood counterparts.
Gold, shiny and chrome with a pearly white finish was used to offset deep contrasting colors to make everything look fast and luxurious. Cars were streamlined and complemented with fin-like features. Household products were made to resemble art pieces in their own right, with some inspiration from Bauhaus here and there.
But above all, just like late Googie architecture, it has about delivering tomorrows future today.
Cars received names like the Golden Rocket and Fire Bird. And marketers made sure the people would associate this image with the idea of the American Dream and the bright future that would await them…. If they bought these products off course
But all that faded away during the ‘70 for, well, lots of reasons. One of them being Globalism. Apart for economic crisis that ran many of these venues out of business, foreign competition hit the american car industry hard. Electronics became smaller, leaving little room from elaborate design. And people want their stuff cheap.
Also the culture changed in the wake of the of the Vietnam War and the rise of the hippies. Googie and Populux’s association with the American Dream became a mark for political activists and social critics more than anything else. It just didn’t fit the zeitgeist any more, Also the Gernsbeckian version of Science Fiction was replaced with more political and scientifically minded visions of the future. The Optimistic futurism of the ‘50 just became outdated and the idea of the American Dream to target of ridicule.
Still it is interesting that we see a kind of revival of the Gay Twenties. We see this type of architecture revival in video games. The old swing and Rock and Rolls sound are making a comeback in mainstream music with Neoswing and Psychobilly.
Regardless of what it means for our society, we see a renewed interest for the sounds and aesthetics of this era, be it a rather rose colored and selective vision on this era. That doesn’t make it bad by any means, but we have to be careful not to have this wallpaper over the discrimination and other problem of the time, that these styles tended to do back then. Iḿ not saying that is what the styles are intended to do, just that it is this is the view of the past that now dominates popculture.
with that being said I wonder looking forward what this mainstream interest in retrofuturism will lead to.
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