Notes from The Buffer Zone: The Jetsons And The Alternate Future

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In the summer of 1964, my father took a teaching job at the University of California-Santa Barbara. I was four. I have distinct memories of that trip—all age appropriate. I got angry when my mother gave my comic books to another child, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t walk barefoot in the desert when our car broke down in the intense heat, and I got scared of the Wicked Witch at Disneyland, screaming, “Let’s get out of here!” and trying to flee the boat that had trapped us for the duration of the ride.

I also remember the strange sunlight (at least to these Midwestern eyes) and the clean lines of the Southern California architecture—the modern buildings that looked like something from TV.

Those modern buildings came from the mind of Gin D. Wong, an architect who died this fall at the age of 94. Mr. Wong designed the spaceshippy-type building (actually called The Theme Building) at Los Angeles International Airport that you always see in photographs of LAX. He designed a lot of impressive buildings with clean lines, things like the TransAmerica Building in San Francisco and a very famous Union/76 gas station in Beverly Hills.

I didn’t know until I Googled some of Wong’s other projects that his style is considered to be a cross between Mid-Century Modern—a term for buildings that we used to call “new” when I was a kid (sigh)—and Googie, a specifically Southern California style that combined car culture and Jet Age futurism. In Googie, you’ll find a lot of cantilevered roofs, starbursts, and hard angles.

What’s bizarre to me about Googie buildings is that I see them with two kinds of vision: the vision of that four-year-old Midwestern girl on her first trip to the west, and the vision of her older self. That four-year-old sees these buildings as new and fresh and exciting, promising a future that she’s going to live in.

That older self—fifty-three years older—sees those buildings as tired, worn out, and representative of a future that never really arrived. That future, with all its hope and optimism, got derailed by the cataclysms of the late 1960s, the long national nightmare that was the 1970s, the weirdness of the Reagan Era, and the hard lurch in a completely different direction in the 1990s.

According to Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, Wong is the architect who inspired the look of The Jetsons TV show, particularly that iconic building at LAX, which shows up in almost every scene on that old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.


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