Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Regular followers of this blog will recognize the button featured at the right from one of our earlier posts about the Museum’s New York World’s Fair collections. Visitors to the General Motors Highways and Horizons exhibit at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair proudly wore this “I have seen the future” pin after stepping out of the “Futurama,” a ride-like feature of the exhibit that traversed several levels of the pavilion, and extended for a third of a mile. The Futurama covered 35,000 square feet and was made up of 408 separate sections created by hundreds of skilled artists and craftspeople.
Who was the visionary behind this world from the future? Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), whose creations are now on view at the Museum through February 10th.
“Five million people saw the Futurama of the General Motors Highways and Horizons exhibit…long queues often stretched more than a mile, from 5,000 to 15,000 men, women and children at a time, stood, all day long every day, under the hot sun, and in the rain…” (Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940).
The map of the General Motors exhibit building below provides a clear picture of what a large portion of the exhibit was devoted to the Futurama.
The “ride-like” aspect of the Futurama was derived from the moving people conveyor – or “carry-go-round,” as they called it – from which visitors viewed the exhibit. The moving chairs were equipped with sound and the souvenir booklet that accompanied the ride includes a written version of the narration from the exhibit. You can almost hear the words these visitors are listening to:
“Come tour the future with General Motors! A transcontinental flight over America in 1960. What will we see? What changes will transpire? This magic Aladdin-like flight through time and space is Norman Bel Geddes’s conception of the many wonders that may develop in the not-too-distant future…this world of tomorrow is a world of beauty.”
The souvenir booklet provides insight into the perception of the future. As visitors were transported past scenes of suburbia and more rural homes, the sound chair resonated with the words, “Night falls on the countryside and wives are serving supper to hungry families and farm hands.” While Bel Geddes’s imagination was boundless when it came to advancements in technology and envisioning designs of future cities with towers and skyscrapers, it seems some of his predictions were still steeped in the social order of 1940.
As visitors glided through the final portion of the Futurama, into the “metropolis,” the narrative states, “There are approximately 38,000,000 motorcars in the America of 1960 – almost a third more than in 1940.” In this case, Bel Geddes didn’t dream big enough. In fact, by 1960 there were 74.4 million cars on the road in the United States: nearly twice what Bel Geddes imagined in 1940.
President Franklin Roosevelt sought out Bel Geddes to advise the country on transportation and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 bears remarkable conceptual similarities to the network Bel Geddes envisioned; thus, future became reality. For more information on the Futurama, check out Lawrence W. Speck’s chapter in the companion text to the exhibition and source for much of the information in this post, “Norman Bel Geddes Designs America” (Abrams, 2012).