Ode to the Space Race: How it shaped architecture and design

August 2, 2011

I've posted images of this Chatham neighborhood dry cleaners before. Built in 1959, the cleaners was completed two years after the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite and two years before President John F. Kennedy vowed to land a man on the moon by 1970. 

The space race was on, and Pride Cleaners--seemingly earthbound, but with a roof and an architectural vocabulary that said otherwise--was in the thick of it. Right at the corner of 79th and St. Lawrence.

I thought about this late last month as the Space Shuttle touched down for the final time. We treated it with a low-level nostalgia that's usually reserved for things like, say, Montgomery Ward going out of business, or a restaurant where Bogie and Bacall once hung out shutting its doors. Kind of, "It was bound to happen, sooner or later." But a generation or two ago our fascination with outer space and its futuristic aspects was once powerful enough shape American pop culture, music, kiddie drinks, all aspects of design--particularly automobile design--cartoons, of course, and architecture.

Ah, yes, architecture. Space and modernism connected to give us nearly 20 years worth of boomerang-shaped gas stations and amoeba-like signage. This pretty cool YouTube video shows Las Vegas architecture in this vernacular, but you can find it everywhere if you look hard enough:

Space hasn't excited us like that in decades. Is it me, or did the country seemed less interested in space once we got to the moon? Along with Skylab, only George Clinton kept it on the one for us, space-wise, though, in the 1970s and early 1980s. Star Wars movies don't count. And the Space Shuttle program, though successful, didn't captive the pop psyche the way the space race did.

NASA assures us that human space exploration will still occur. But when it does, I wonder if we'll feel that old magic again.

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Wait--Can we go back to car design for a second? Look at this 1950s promotional video from GM, showing a host of concept "Cars of Tomorrow" that look ready to blast off into space. It begins with a woman doing the "Dance of Tomorrow" and it only gets better after that, believe me. You gotta wonder if they'd be so excited if they'd known the car of tomorrow would wind up being a dry-ass Ford Taurus or a Toyota minivan or something...

 

A sad note: I got word this morning from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects that the talented and visionary architect Doug Garofalo died over the weekend. He was 52. More later, as I gather more details.