As one of the greatest love letters to the architectural history of Los Angeles ever made, “The Big Lebowski” is in many ways a document of the city’s 20th Century architectural heritage. The film’s neon-lit diners, endless rows of drive-in restaurants, and a surfeit of tony neighborhoods filled with gaudy Art Deco mansions will almost certainly be familiar to anyone who has spent extended time in LA.
So how is it that Los Angeles developed such an utterly unique smorgasbord of modern and neoclassical architectural styles? In many ways, the answer comes down to the (sometimes uneasy) relationship that Los Angeles residents have traditionally had with the city’s car culture.
Despite the fact that Los Angeles and New York City remain the primary cultural centers of the United States, the two metropolitan areas could not be more different in their architectural histories. With its towering skyscrapers, grid-like neighborhoods, and efficient subway and train systems, New York remains a city for walkers.
In Los Angeles, however, endless urban sprawl, massive highway systems, and a limited public transport administration have made the city almost impossible to traverse by foot. Indeed, LA’s architectural heritage is in many ways a response to the vast auto culture that emerged in the city throughout the 20th Century. To this day, commercial buildings in Los Angeles are designed to attract customers who are driving by in a car.
This is also why so much of the city’s architecture is rooted in the aesthetic of the 1950s. So-called “Googie” architecture from this period derived its name from a popular coffee shop with a garish storefront. For businesses that forged a place in LA’s booming commercial culture throughout the 1950s, building design went part-and-parcel with company marketing tactics. Here, architectural design was essentially used as an advertisement tool for businesses. If a building had a compelling look, in other words, it was more likely to draw in customers who were passing by in an automobile.
Drive down any commercial street in Los Angeles or Burbank, in fact, and you’re still likely to see a vast array of storefronts, diners, drive-ins, and coffee shops that feature big signs and space-age architectural design. Indeed, many LA-based companies like In-n-Out Burger haven’t updated their look since the post-war era. The city became so enthralled with space-age “Googie” architecture in the 1950s that “The Jetsons” even used the style to define the show’s futuristic setting.
What the future holds for LA’s architecture is anyone’s guess, but it will almost certainly be forward-thinking and a little eccentric. For fans of the city’s eclectic hodgepodge of architectural styles, that is very good news indeed.