Tuesday, 9 December 2008
The World of Tomorrow
Timing is everything, and it was the misfortune of the planners of the New York World Fair that, while the focus of proceedings was fixed upon an exciting vision of future prosperity, across the Atlantic, Europe was descending ever more rapidly into a state of armed conflict. The wonders of technology on offer began to seem ever more frivolous and the captains of industry would soon be adapting these ideas for military use. America had surged out of the Depression years on a rising tide of consumerism and by 1939 a credible vision of the future in terms of how technology might impact on the next two decades had emerged. The World Fair of 1939 was designed to showcase these ideas and in this sense was a significant departure from the recent template for such events in which nations competed to make the brashest and boldest statements about national identity via the construction of absurdly bombastic pavilions stuffed with symbols of national pride.
The American twist on presenting the future to the public was to out-source most of the task to giant corporations, many of which, even at that time, had developed a truly global presence. Among them were Heinz, Ford, Kraft, General Motors, Firestone, Kodak, General Electric, and RCA, many of which had an economic power that exceeded all but the most developed nation states. On the whole the corporate branding on display had a cheap and cheerful look that made a refreshing change from the increasingly totalitarian style adopted by nation states. A highlight was the General Motors Building where Norman Bel Geddes gave a new word to the language with his exhibit, Futurama which exposed visitors to a dramatic visualisation of the world in 1960, unsurprisingly a world completely dominated by the ubiquity of motor vehicles.
This humble souvenir fold-out card renders the vision in an air-brushed palette of Looney Tunes chromatic intensity. There is a Machine Age aesthetic with an Art Deco inflection on display and Colonial Neo-Classicism seems to have a stronger presence than the severe geometry of Modernism. The strongest impression is that of a free and easy, advertising friendly, drug store/drive-in sensibility epitomised by the splendidly ridiculous Sealtest building with the appearance of a gigantic sectioned blender. Curving facades predominate and reach a climax in the seductive forms of the Electrical Products Building. With hindsight the whole endeavour seems outrageously optimistic. Presented on the eve of the Holocaust and the death and destruction of World War II. Predicated on a future of unlimited resources, courtesy of a planet with an assumed infinite capacity for absorbing environmental damage. But, therein lies the charm, not to mention the inspiration for Bruce McCall’s parodies in the pages of Zany Afternoons.