Out Of This World: Designs Of The Space Age From kitchenware to office parks, the Space Age left a sleekly modern mark on the country's landscape and imagination. As the space shuttle soars through the firmament for the very last time, we appreciate some landmarks of futuristic, outer space-inspired architecture.
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Out Of This World: Designs Of The Space Age

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Out Of This World: Designs Of The Space Age

Out Of This World: Designs Of The Space Age

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There was a time when the space program seemed to be creeping into many aspects of American life.

(Soundbite of theme song, "The Jetsons")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Meet George Jetson...

KELLY: From kids' TV shows to kitchenware to office parks, the Space Age left a sleekly modern mark on the country's landscape and imagination.

Now with the space shuttle flying for the very last time, NPR's Neda Ulaby takes us to some landmarks of Space Age design and architecture.

NEDA ULABY: Not far from the flamboyantly futuristic Los Angeles Airport, is a coffee shop called Pann's.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ULABY: They're from the same era - late '50s, early '60s. And they share the same far-out aesthetic: bold, boomerang angles; undulating, amoeba-like shapes; and floating starbursts. Pann's is also a culinary landmark, with terrific fried chicken.

Mr. VICTOR NEWLOVE (Architect): This is really bad for you - you know that.

ULABY: Thats Victor Newlove. He's an architect who helped design Pann's. His firm built dozens of restaurants across Southern California, in a style called Googie - that's a real architectural term, Googie.

Mr. NEWLOVE: Our buildings sort of looked like the cars of the period, in some respects. I mean, you know, everything had wings or fins.

ULABY: Imagine a '59 Cadillac's swooping lines and rockety style. Newlove pulls out blueprints for a coffee shop called Biff's.

Mr. NEWLOVE: It almost looks like a flying saucer. The building was intended to look like that. It's round. It looks like it's about ready to lift off. It looks like some sort of an alien creature is inside this place. But then what it is, is just a restaurant.

ULABY: These restaurants looked so much like spacecraft, one even turned into Dr. Evil's getaway vehicle in the first "Austin Powers" movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery")

Mr. MIKE MYERS (Actor): (as Dr. Evil) Launching the subterranean probe.

Professor PETER WESTWICK (Director, Aerospace History Project, Huntington-USC Institute): There was this - very much this kind of Space Age, this "Jetsons" aesthetic in architecture, in design, Googie architecture of the '50s and '60s.

ULABY: Peter Westwick is a Southern California history professor. He studies the aerospace industry, and says its engineers influenced design and architecture. That's partly because the materials they created for flight were so easily adapted for things like surfing.

Prof. WESTWICK: These new lightweight foams - polyurethane foam, polystyrene, Fiberglas, polyester resin - and then started building surfboards out of them.

ULABY: And what used to mean hauling around a hundred pounds of redwood became something nearly anyone could do. And eventually, a $15 billion global industry with its own fashion, language and music.

(Soundbite of song, "Surfin' USA")

BEACH BOYS (Band): (Singing) If everybody had an ocean across...

ULABY: Those boogie boards you see at every beach? Invented from a material made to blow heat from rocket nozzles. Westwick says aerospace engineers infiltrated nearly every aspect of California culture, from design to entertainment. And it went national.

(Soundbite of Walt Disney TV show, "Tomorrowland")

Unidentified Man: Tomorrowland, promise of things to come...

ULABY: Disneyland's Space Age Pavilion, says Peter Westwick, was dreamed up in part by aerospace engineers, who asked themselves...

Prof. WESTWICK: How do we lay out the park to ensure the best flow of people? You're almost thinking of people like little particles flowing through your system.

ULABY: Amusement parks and playgrounds all over the country started sporting rocket-shaped climbers, riders and slides. Some of that castoff detritus landed in a former hay barn in Connecticut, owned by one John Kleeman.

(Soundbite of a switch)

Mr. JOHN KLEEMAN (Collector/Owner, Space Age Museum): Light, I'll lead the way just so you don't - there's a little step up there. This is our space collection.

ULABY: This is a private museum of Space Age kitsch. It's filled with board games, ray guns, lamps, bed sheets and giant robots from used car lots, all dating from or celebrating the heyday of the Space Age. At least eight amusement park rides, some crafted from old test vehicles - none that would pass today's safety standards.

Mr. KLEEMAN: This was some kind of a rocket car, and we don't know what it was used for. We don't know who built it. It was found in a field with a lot of graffiti on it...

ULABY: The Space Age Museum is not open to the public. But it's got thousands of items, all carefully curated.

Mr. KLEEMAN: This is our little Space Age design corner, which has a futuristic bed and a couch, all made out of Fiberglas.

ULABY: Everything is modular, minimalist, and molded from gleaming plastic or some other once cutting-edge material.

Mr. KLEEMAN: It was designed in the '60s and was part of that look that was identified in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," where everything was white and very clean and simple-looking.

(Soundbite of song, "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

ULABY: But almost nothing here represents the space shuttle - Apollos, Geminis, Sputniks, flying saucers, in all shapes from pens to toasters. The only space shuttle here is a piece of folk art: a weathervane from a farm in Pennsylvania, made in the early '80s.

Mr. KLEEMAN: It's got old tin cans for the three main engines; a kind of little bit of rust that you'd expect from sitting out in the weather. And it says Aerospace along one side. And on the fin it says USA.

ULABY: Space and patriotism are no longer quite as inseparable as they were 1962, when President Kennedy proclaimed that beating the Soviet Union was central to our national identity.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon...

ULABY: Kennedy said the future of Earth might be in space. And all of its vastness seemed like a refuge in the 1970s, when people started worrying about what Professor Peter Westwick calls an era of limits.

Prof. WESTWICK: And people started looking up and saying well, we're polluting the Earth and running out of food and ove populating it. Maybe what we need to do is head out, and do what the pioneers did and head for some open land. And the open land now is up there in outer space.

ULABY: During the space colony movement, NASA was planning ambitious outer-space cities.

Prof. WESTWICK: What now look like these outlandish designs - but at the time, they were taken very seriously - of these huge space stations with gardens and plants, and transportation and flying hang gliders, and all this stuff; people floating around out there.

ULABY: Gigantic space colonies would have been serviced by space shuttles, a dream Walt Disney himself once voiced on a TV show about "Tomorrowland."

Mr. WALT DISNEY (Filmmaker/Businessman): After entering the Disneyland Spaceport, visitors may experience the thrills that space travelers of the future will encounter, when rocket trips to the moon become a daily routine.

Prof. WESTWICK: People had very high hopes for the space shuttle.

ULABY: Professor Peter Westwick.

Prof. WESTWICK: There was going to be hundreds of shuttle flights a year. Average citizens were soon going to be able to make commercial flights, and industry is going to be able to fly up there and build things, and we're going to have space stations.

ULABY: In that respect, Westwick says, the space shuttle has been a disappointment.

Prof. WESTWICK: You're not necessarily going to try to celebrate it in other aspects of design, and try to translate it into other fields.

ULABY: But Space Age design has stayed with us. You see it all over catalogs and movies. It reminds us of a moment when people were sure the future was going to be better; that technology would nestle us among the stars, and our best instincts would rescue us from our worst.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

KELLY: And you can see that flying saucer coffee shop, and many more Space Age designs, at our website, NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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