American Design Adventure: Dreams and Realities – America at Peace 2
American at peace
. . . these men. . . know all about the problems,the dreams, and the realities that the future hasin store for us. They are trained to think ahead;they know tomorrow like their own stream-lined pockets. . . .
Vogue, 1939 (188)The New York World's Fair of 1939-1940 wasconceived as an exposition of technologicaladvances that would emphasize social andhistorical relevance, as a "fair of the future," andas a unified whole that would represent all theinterrelated activities and interests of theAmerican way of life. The industrial designersWalter Dorwin Teague and Gilbert Rohde weremembers of the original group that in 1935organized a meeting of some 100 architects,urban planners, artists, designers, andeducators to discuss with businessmen andsociologists the idea of a fair that would addresscontemporary social problems. Lewis Mumfordset the early theme for the fair by hoping that itwould "lay the pattern for a way of life whichwould have an enormous impact in times tocome" (17, 4). In 1936 a seven member designboard was formed to refine the theme of the fair and to set its plan and general character so asto balance architectural values with those of commerce and industry. The board was alsoempowered to recommend designers,architects, and engineers and to give finalapproval to all construction.Industrial designers-"men believed to be in touchwith the realities of the machine yet capable of speaking the public's language - have beencredited with having contributed a great deal tothe fair's final theme, "Building the World of Tomorrow" (17, 6). The development of thetheme and the design of the focal exhibits wereassigned to a group of industrial designers whowere riding the crest of popularity for havingcontributed to the country's victory over theDepression and whose imagination inspired theboard of design to reach out for the future as nofair had done before. Henry Dreyfuss designed"Democracity," thetheme exhibit of the Perisphere. RaymondLoewy's "Transportation" exhibit depicted a"Rocketport" for transatlantic flights to London.Gilbert Rohde took on two focal exhibits, "Man inthe Community" and "Home Furnishings."Egmont Arens designed "Production andDistribution," Donald Deskey "Communication,"and Russel Wright "Food." Teague served as amember of the design board, and his officedesigned pavilions for Kodak and U.S. Steel. Heand many other designers created exhibits for various companies and agencies represented atthe fair. For General Motors, Norman BelGeddes conceived and built Futurama, the fair'smost popular exhibit. (In response to publiccriticism of the 1939 version of Futurama, BelGeddes was obliged to add a university andmany more churches and temples to Futurama'smodel landscape for 1940.)Futurama's prediction that in the future theUnited States would be laced withsuperhighways on which a driver would be ableto cross the country at high speed without oncebeing stopped by a traffic light has, of course,come true. At the time, however, Robert Moses,New York City's Parks Commissioner, was notconvinced. At a meeting of the American Societyof Civil Engineers, he declared that the wholequestion of great transcontinental highways wasirrelevant and that they were a needless andexpensive luxury. Bel Geddes responded thatMoses was short-sighted. "Under the presentsystem," he said, "highways are outmodedbefore they are completed-not only a viciouscircle but a silly one." In the face of an annualdeath toll of 32,000 and enormous propertylosses, he could not, he said, be as calm as Mr.Moses. "I have great respect for him as ParkCommissioner," said Bel Geddes, "for settingbushes and making playgrounds, butlandscaping along a highway does not make itsafe for present-day travel." (163) Today, a half-century after this public argument, the nation isindeed overlaid with superhighways. However,in contradiction to Bel Geddes's position thatplanning can foresee and ease traffic problems,it seems that bigger and better highways onlyencourage urban sprawl; they stimulate theproduction of automobiles and discourage thedevelopment of mass-transit systems and thebuilding of satellite towns.After the World's Fair, General Motors puttogether a traveling show based on Futurama. Apoleless "Aerodrome" tent, and twenty-two"Futureliner" tractor-trailer units, many of themcontaining portions of the original exhibit, touredthe country in 1941, gleaning publicity for GM.Bel Geddes also traded on the exhibit bydesigning a "Futurama" line of furniture, which