Friday, January 1, 2016

Welcome! To The World Of Tomorrow!

Happy New Year!  And welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

And what better way to start off the New Year than with a shining vision of the Future, the original Futurama from the 1939 - 1940 World's Fair in New York City.  Rising out of the marshland of Corona Park in Queens, an immense Emerald City beckoned visitors over the smokey brickwork of Depression Era New York.  The Fair promised people living in the dreary restricted world of the Great Depression a vision of a much better world to come.  The highlight of the whole Fair for most people was The Futurama exhibit at the General Motors Pavilion designed by Norman Bel Geddes.

Visitors stood for hours in line in the hot sun waiting to see a spectacular exhibit of elaborate dioramas of a promised vision of the future twenty years into the future, in 1960.

Once they got into the show, visitors rode moving chairs with speakers giving them the grand tour of the wonders of life to come in 1960.

Here is the film General Motors made of the Futurama exhibit To New Horizons.  It remains the best document of the exhibit with color footage of the dioramas.

Bel Geddes' great dioramas are the future as imagined by the American automobile industry.  While not entirely missing, the role of public transportation in this vision is minimal.  Historical preservation is also strikingly absent.  This is a vision of future cities and countryside remade for the automobile, a future realized after the Second World War in probably the biggest public works project in history, the Interstate Highway system, the first system of paved roads to eclipse in size and scope the road network of the ancient Roman Empire.  Now that we are at the far end of the 20th century and are having serious second thoughts about all that the internal combustion engine has wrought, these visions look very quaint.
However, there remain some aspects of Bel Geddes' design that are still praised as very forward thinking, especially his generous use of park space with large interconnected city parks and river fronts turned into parkland.

One of the things that I find most striking about Bel Geddes' vision, and most older (and many newer) visions of the future is the lack of people.  I don't see any pedestrians, even tiny plastic model ones, anywhere, though I see lots of weird little Art Deco cars.  I almost never see crowds in shining visions of a Better Tomorrow.  The only vision of the future that I can think of that features crowds is a dystopia, Ridley Scott's 1982 movie Blade Runner.
What matters so urgently for our time is people.  All of our worst troubles are not amenable to technological fixes.  The Wonders of Science will not fix race relations or inequality.  Political engagement is needed to solve these problems more than technology.

Few things age more poorly than visions of the future, but I really wonder if are better off without them.  Big extravagant international exhibitions were once an regular feature of modern life going back to 1851 and the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London.  Looking over the list down through time, the number shrinks dramatically after the Second World War, and seems to be disappearing all together now despite proposals (a lot of which got cancelled due to lack of funding and interest)
I suppose the last one of any note was the 1982 fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Norman Bel Geddes (right) working on the Futurama

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