Wasn't the Future Grand?

Passing by Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York, on the Long Island Expressway, I was recently transported back to a time long before I was born — the future.

“I try to remember how the pastel lighting glowed on Mad Meadow in Flushing: soft greens, orange, yellow, and red; blue moonglow on the great Perisphere and on the ghostly soaring Trylon. I think with a sense of sweetened pain of nights when I sat by Flushing River and saw The World of Tomorrow reflected on its onyx surface, in full color, and upside down….,” wrote Meyer Berger  about the centerpiece of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the ghostly futuristic Trylon and Perisphere.

The 1939/40 New York World’s Fair – “Fair of the Future,” “The World of Tomorrow” – was a masterpiece of showmanship, the epitome of stagecraft. More than a collection of exhibits, it was a wellspring of innovation, sponsored by the most future-minded American corporations (when America’s industry reigned surpreme, and would rise even higher). “This Fair of Tomorrow is a promise for the future built with the tools of Today, upon the experience of Yesterday,” hailed the corporate founders of the Fair.

Consistent with the Fair’s precept that “super civilization…is based on the swift work of machines, not on the arduous toil of men,” the fair was conceived as a melange of provocative, often symbolically designed pavilions (some representing a trend in architecture parlante, or billboard architecture, in which a building’s exterior look revealed its interior purpose, i.e. the Aviation Building was shaped like a dirigible hanger), that were organized into thematic zones covering all aspects of human activity that wed man and machine; Transportation, Production and Distribution, Communications, Community Interests, Government, and Business Systems, Food, Medicine and Public Health, and Science and Education.

Democracity, the Fair’s central theme exhibit, designed by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, was an idealized projection of America in 2039, an interdependent network of urban, suburban, and rural areas. Viewed from two moving circular galleries, the visitor had a bird’s-eye view of Centeron, a modern, perfectly planned, riverside metropolis that could accommodate a million people but, in fact, had no inhabitants because it was used exclusively as the hub of commerce, education, and culture. The mellow yet authoritative voice of the recorded narrator, underscored by music written by William Grant Still and conducted by Andre Kostelanetz, told visitors about a population that lived in commodious high-rises amidst suburban garden developments or Pleasantvilles and in light industrial communities and satellite towns called Millvilles, rimmed by fertile and profitable farming zones or sustainable greenbelts, all linked, of course, by modern express highways and parkways. “This is not a vague dream of a life that might be lived in the far future,” wrote Robert Kohn, chairman of the Fair’s Board of Design, “but one that could be lived tomorrow morning if we willed it so.”

Democracity was housed in the enormous globe called the Perisphere, a white futuristic temple that also served as the fair’s indelible, architectural trademark. Designed by Wallace K. Harrison and J. Andre Foulihoux, who had been involved in the design of Rockefeller Center, the Perisphere was 180 feet in diameter and 18 stories high.  The theme center emerged after more than one thousand sketches and models and despite its unique form, was not without design precedents including references to the futurist wellsprings, the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism.

Each hour more than eight thousand enthusiastic spectators entered the Perisphere through the Trylon, a triangular obelisk – 610 feet high, larger than the Washington Monument. Ascending on the two largeescalators to a 65-foot-high bridge that led directly into this visionary extravaganza. Six minutes later they would exit down the Helicline, an 18-foot-wide ramp with a stainless steel underbelly.

No sales pitch for the future was as persuasive as the one extolled in Democracity. Laid before Mr. and Mrs. Average American in all its colorful splendor was the grandest World of Tomorrow – and it was entirely real. Equivalent to more than 370 city blocks, it included more than 200 modern and modernistic buildings curiously laid out according to a nineteenth-century beaux-arts rond-point system of radiating streets and fanlike segments extending like spokes from a central hub.

The future was concieved and constructed by industrial designers, among them Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Desky, Egmond Arens, Russell Wright, Gilbert Rohde, and Norman Bel Geddes. These were industry’s predominant form givers whose “faith was…based on moral conviction,” wrote historian Francis V. O’Connor, “that the public good was to be attained by the universal adoption of a certain rightness of form in all matters from the design of cities to the styling of pencil sharpeners.” They designed the lighting stanchions and sculptural fixtures. Most of the kinetic exhibits were also imaginatively designed by proponents of the new streamline aesthetic. It was a dream come to life, if only for a few years. And no virtual world can ever be as magnificent.

 

 


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7 thoughts on “Wasn't the Future Grand?

  1. Lee Knight

    Hi Steven, As a new resource on your current topic, you might like to know that each month in Exhibitor magazine, the last page – “Archive” – is devoted to history of exhibits, many which are found in World’s Fairs and Expositions. We devote a fair amount of research to this and I have never found anything like this elsewhere.
    On another topic, I was disappointed you were unable to accomodate our media partner The Atlantic and their request to represent them at the upcoming GRAVITY FREE 2012. Cheers, Lee Knight, Chief Instigator, Gravity Free: World’s Only Multidisciplinary Design Conference.

  2. Pingback: Wasn’t the Future Grand? by STEVEN HELLER |

  3. Pingback: “Fair of the Future”, New York, 1939-1940 | Retronaut

  4. Pingback: “Fair of the Future”, New York, 1939-1940 | Retronaut

  5. Shelly Bohach

    Thank you Mark for posting a comment about our upcoming exhibition! Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 opens April 14th. Do you live in Kansas City?
    Steven, we would love to have you join us in Kansas City, the exhibition is spectacular!
    Thank you,
    Shelly Bohach
    Graphic Designer
    The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

  6. Pingback: Wasn’t the Future Grand? by STEVEN HELLER « PANGAEA LTD by fairapplecelt

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