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Wayne McAllister - The Future Is Now

Words:

Edd Norval
June 3, 2019

One of the most instantly recognisable styles of architecture is barely even seen as that. Googie, the futuristic All-American drive-thru mode is oft-regarded as kitschy, low-brow stuff. But under Wayne McAllister's pen, it became a work of art that drew influence from a future far-far away whilst helping forge America's image in popular culture.

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In architecture, as any creative field, certain structures and styles are thought of as holding greater merit, of being more worthy of admiration and study - for example high-end homes in Modernism or Cathedrals in Classicism. Commercial ventures like restaurants and casinos aren't usually talked about in the same breath, unless the architect is Wayne McAllister.


He had a knack for turning these blank slate projects into sublime and immersive creations of useable, liveable and enviable Futurism. That's why he always remained an in-demand name. Not only did his buildings work aesthetically, but due to their nature, functionality superseded even that. A commercial venture must first sell and it was through his aesthetic sensibility - that borrowed from spaceships and car culture - that drew audiences, participants and customers in droves. They were, essentially, just one large advertising board.


How this impacted popular culture was unpredictable, perhaps even to McAllister himself. He designed with cars in mind, both using their stylings, but also for people who never wanted to leave them. In many ways, the great American drive-thru as we know it today was sculpted by his very imagination. It has since become a global symbol, portrayed in films, novels, computer games and indelibly influencing music - both in lyrics, on album covers, never mind its association with rock 'n' roll jukebox culture. Maybe even Elvis has him to thank...

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Having dropped out of school to study architecture, McAllister quickly made his name as he designed Mexico's Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel aged only 20. Although the influence of space age shapes and automobile curvature was present, it wasn't until his later works, with commercial brands like KFC and Pig 'n' Whistle, that his designs reached their iconic status within the architectural movement of the time.


With an eye for the future, McAllister fully understood the importance of automobiles in the lives of Americans and by developing the drive-thru, as both functional and aesthetic mode, utilised his designs as a sort of alluring advert, selling promises of what lay within. Even better, people didn't even have to leave their car to get it.


Two things made his venues iconic. The place itself, of course, and the people that used them. It took the first to cultivate the second. His most iconic, at least visually, is now listed as a California State Point of Historical Interest. Due to the commercial nature of most of the projects, many didn't survive. But the Bob's Big Boy on Riverside Street - the nucleus of 50s Burbank life - still stands out with its neon sign and fearless facade.

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Places that McAllister designed - diners and casinos - places with sun-drenched spirit and attitude, always drew in the right people. The Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was hangout to, amongst others, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. At that time, in that place, they were the Kings of Cool, men whose reputation topped more than the charts and their favourite place to be had McAllister's signature on it.


Looking back at the whole era, as defined in part by the shapes and ideas of McAllister, elicits a sense of overwhelming nostalgia. It's easy to see why many are still heavily invested in that time period, both through their art, or as collectors of memorabilia, such is its ability to draw emotion and fondness.


McAllister's main operational bases, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, developed at a rate beyond most others at that time. As his designs were (despite being futuristic in influence) very much of their era, they aged quickly and when architectural ideas and commercial sensibilities moved on, his buildings did too. Just as quickly, it seemed, did his interest in architecture abate. In 1956 McAllister left it behind, moving to Washington DC to work in the hotel business, before returning to LA to develop a pay-as-you-go photocopying machine.


With a searingly sharp focus on an era that didn't actually exist until he helped make it so, McAllister contributed something truly unique to architecture - both a visionary and pioneer. Outsider or Naive Art is often scoffed at by establishment circles and so too is the work of his and the larger Googie movement. In hindsight though, many architects are beginning to understand it, in a new context, as being a driving force for American identity, both locally and globally. Without McAllister, without the diners, the casinos and hotels, it's hard to imagine an America with a Las Vegas and a Los Angeles and without them, it's hard to imagine America at all.

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