Googie and Tiki Architecture in America

Pink and green lights on the space age architecture of the Theme Building at LAX
Photo by Tom Paiva / The Image Bank / Getty Images (cropped)

Googie and Tiki are examples of a Roadside Architecture, a type of structure that evolved as American business and the middle class expanded. Particularly after World War II, travel by car became part of the American culture, and a reactive, playful architecture developed that captured America's imagination.

Googie describes a futuristic, often flashy, "Space Age" building style in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Often used for restaurants, motels, bowling alleys, and assorted roadside businesses, Googie architecture was designed to attract customers. Well-known Googie examples include the 1961 LAX Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport and the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington, which was built for the 1962 World's Fair.

Tiki architecture is a fanciful design that incorporates Polynesian themes. The word tiki refers to large wood and stone sculptures and carvings found in the Polynesian islands. Tiki buildings are often decorated with imitation tiki and other romanticized details borrowed from the South Seas. One example of Tiki architecture is the Royal Hawaiin Estates in Palm Springs, California.

Googie Features and Characteristics

Reflecting high-tech space-age ideas, the Googie style grew out of the Streamline Moderne, or Art Moderne, the architecture of the 1930s. As in Streamline Moderne architecture, Googie buildings are made with glass and steel. However, Googie buildings are deliberately flashy, often with lights that would blink and point. Typical Googie details include:

  • Flashing lights and neon signs
  • Boomerang and palette shapes
  • Starburst shapes
  • Atom motifs
  • Flying saucer shapes
  • Sharp angles and trapezoid shapes
  • Zig-zag roof lines

Tiki Architecture Has Many of These Features

  • Tikis and carved beams
  • Lava rock
  • Imitation bamboo details
  • Shells and coconuts used as ornaments
  • Real and imitation palm trees
  • Imitation thatch roofs
  • A-frame shapes and extremely steep peaked roofs
  • Waterfalls
  • Flashy signs and other Googie details

Why Googie?

Googie should not be confused with the Internet search engine Google. Googie has its roots in the mid-century modern architecture of southern California, an area rich with technology companies. The Malin Residence or Chemosphere House designed by architect John Lautner in 1960 is a Los Angeles residence that bends mid-century modern stylings into Googie. This spaceship-centirc architecture was a reaction to the nuclear arms and space races after World War II. The word Googie comes from Googies, a Los Angeles coffee shop also designed by Lautner. However, Googie ideas can be found on commercial buildings in other parts of the country, most noticeably in the Doo Wop architecture of Wildwood, New Jersey. Other names for Googie include

  • Coffee House Modern
  • Doo Wop
  • Populuxe
  • Space Age
  • Leisure Architecture

Why Tiki?

The word tiki should not be confused with tacky, although some have said that tiki is tacky! When soldiers returned to the United States after World War II, they brought home stories about life in the South Seas. The best-selling books Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener heightened interest in all things tropical. Hotels and restaurants incorporated Polynesian themes to suggest an aura of romance. Polynesian-themed, or tiki, buildings proliferated in California and then throughout the United States.

The Polynesia fad, also known as Polynesian Pop, reached its height in about 1959 when Hawaii became part of the United States. By then, commercial tiki architecture had taken on a variety of flashy Googie details. Also, some mainstream architects were incorporating abstract tiki shapes into the streamlined modernist design.

Roadside Architecture

After President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act in 1956, the building of the Interstate Highway System encouraged more and more Americans to spend time in their cars, traveling from state to state. The 20th century is filled with examples of roadside "eye candy" created to attract the mobile American to stop and buy. The Coffee Pot Restaurant from 1927 is an example of mimetic architecture. The Muffler Man seen in the opening credits is an iconic representation of roadside marketing still seen today. Googie and Tiki architecture is well-known in southern California and associated with these architects:

  • Paul Williams, designer of thousands of mid-century modern homes in southern California, may be best known for the LAX Theme Building, shown on this page bathed in Walt Disney colored lighting
  • John Lautner
  • Donald Wexler, designer of many mid-century modern homes in Palm Springs, California, is known for designing the Royal Hawaiin Estates in the early 1960s
  • Eldon Davis
  • Martin Stern, Jr.
  • Wayne McAllister


  • LAX Theme Building designed by Paul Williams, Los Angeles airport photo by Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images (cropped)
  • The Royal Hawaiian Estates, Palm Springs, California, photo © Daniel Chavkin, courtesy Royal Hawaiian Estates
  • The Malin Residence or Chemosphere House Designed by John Lautner, 1960, photo by ANDREW HOLBROOKE / Corbis Entertainment / Getty Images
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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Googie and Tiki Architecture in America." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Googie and Tiki Architecture in America. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Googie and Tiki Architecture in America." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).