The World of Tomorrow 75 Years Later

April 30th will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With a decade of Depression behind them and a world war looming ahead, 44 million visitors came to catch a hopeful glimpse of the future. The essay below, an earlier version of which first appeared on this site two years ago, explores the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power that animated the vision of the future visitors encountered 75 years ago. 

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1939 World's Fair Progress“The World of Tomorrow”—that was the theme of the 1939 NewYork world’s fair. Prior to 1939, the American fairs had been characterized by what historian Astrid Böger has aptly called a “bifocal nature.” Janus-faced, they looked back to a glorified past and forward to an idealized future.The fairs were both “patriotic commemorations of central events in American history” and they “envisioned the nation’s bright future.” During 1930’s, however, the fairs turned their gaze decidedly toward the future.

The ’39 New York fair offered an especially grandiose and compelling glimpse of a techno-utopian society poised to materialize within a generation. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow—Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power and supported by benign government planning. And little wonder these exhibits were so popular: the nation had been through a decade of economic depression and rumors of war swept across the Atlantic. “To catch the public imagination,” historian David Nye has explained, “the fair had to address this uneasiness. It could not do so by mere appeals to patriotism, by displays of goods that many people had no money to buy, or by the nostalgic evocation of golden yesterdays. It had to offer temporary transcendence.”

This link between technology and the realization of religiously intoned utopian visions did not, however, appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. In fact, the late cultural historian David Noble has argued convincingly that this religiously inspired techno-utopianism has been integral to the Western scientific project since at least the late middle ages; it was the central tenet of faith for what Noble called the “religion of technology.”

The planners of the 1939 fair instructed the industrial designers, who “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian,” to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous fairs and expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits and attractions. The ‘39 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. As world’s fair historian Robert Rydell put it, “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” the designers decided “to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism.” With nearly a decade of economic depression behind them and a looming international conflagration before them, the fair planners remained committed to the religion of technology and they were intent on creating a fair that would rekindle America’s waning faith. It may not be entirely inappropriate, then, to see the 1939 New York world’s fair as a revival meeting calling the faithful to renewed hope in the religion of technology. But the call to renewed faith in 1939 also contained variations on the theme. The presentation of the religion of technology took a liturgical turn and it was alloyed with the spirit of the American corporation.

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

Ritual Fairs

Historians of the world’s fair typically focus on the explicit message fair designers intended to communicate. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But it’s debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Böger suggests a better way of understanding how the fairs made their impression. “World’s fairs,” she tells us, “are performative events in that they present a vision of national culture in the form of spectacle, which visitors are invited to participate in and, thus, help create.” Writing of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explained that it was the “striking example of the sensual–primarily visual–experience of the fair, which seems to precede both understanding of the exhibit’s technology and, more importantly, appreciation of it as an American achievement.” What Böger picks up on in these observations is the distinction between the fair’s intellectual content and the embodied experience of attending the fair. It is the difference between reading the fairs as a “text” with an explicit message and constructing a meaning through the experience of “taking in” the fair. The planners intended an intellectualized, chiefly cognitive experience. Fairgoers processed the fair in an embodied and mostly affective manner. It is this distinction that leads to the observation that the religion of technology, as it appeared at the ‘39 fair, was a liturgical religion.

1939 World's FairThe genius of the two most popular exhibits at the fair was the embodiment of their message in a ritual experience. Democracity, housed inside the Perisphere, and General Motors’ Futurama both solved the problem of the impertinent walkers by miniaturizing the idealized world and carefully choreographing the fairgoer’s experience. Earlier fairs presented themselves as idealized cities, but this risked the diffusion of the message as fairgoer’s crafted their own fair itineraries or otherwise remained oblivious to the implicit messages. Democracity and Futurama mitigated this risk by crafting not only the world, but the experience itself–by providing a liturgy for the ritual. And the ritual was decidedly aimed at the cultivation of hope in a future techno-utopian society, giving ritual expression to the religion of technology.

As David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the whole fair as “a quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future equally accessible to all … The fair was a shrine of modernity.” Nowhere was the “quasi-religious” aspect of the fair more clearly evident than in Democracity, the miniature city of the future housed within the fair’s iconic Perisphere.

Fairgoers filed into the sphere and were able to gaze down upon the city of the future from two balconies. When the five-and-a-half minute show began, the narrator described the idealized miniature landscape featuring the city of the future at its center. Emanating outward from the central city were towns and farm country. The towns would each be devoted to specific industries, and they would be home to both workers and management. As the show progressed and the narrator extolled the virtues of central planning, the lighting in the sphere simulated the passage of day and night. Nye summarizes what followed:

“Once the visitors had contemplated this future world, they were presented with a powerful vision that one commentator compared to ‘a secular apocalypse.’ Now the lights of the city dimmed. To create a devotional mood, a thousand-voice choir sang on a recording that André Kostelanetz had prepared for the display. Movies projected on the upper walls of the globe showed representatives of various professions working, marching, and singing together. The authoritative voice of the radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn announced: ‘This march of men and women, singing their triumph, is the true symbol of the World of Tomorrow.’”

What they sang was the theme song of the fair that proclaimed:

“We’re the rising tide coming from far and wide
Marching side by side on our way
For a brave new world,
That we shall build today.”

Kihlstedt believes Democracity’s designer, Henry Dreyfuss, modeled this culminating scene on Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece featuring “a great multitude … of all nations and kindreds, and people” as described in the book of Revelation. “In this well-known painting,” Kihlstedt explains, “the saints converge toward the altar of the Lamb from the four corners of the world. As they reveal the unity and the ‘ultimate beatitude of all believing souls,’ these saints define by their presence a heaven on earth.” Ritual and interpretation were thus fused together in one visceral, affective liturgy.

Democracity, inside the Perisphere

Corporate Liturgies

Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Robert Rydell, arguably the leading historian of world’s fairs, has emphasized the imperial and racial ideologies driving the design of the Victorian Era fairs. These fairs also promoted political ideals and patriotism. Additionally, they sought to educate the public in the latest scientific trends (dubious as they may have been, as in the case of Social Darwinism for instance). But in the 1930s the emphasis shifted decidedly. Böger notes, for example, “the early American expositions have to be placed in the context of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the world’s fairs after 1915 went in the direction of globalism and the ensuing competition of opposing ideological systems rather than of individual nation states.” More specifically the fairs of the 1930s, and the 1939 fair especially, sought to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.

“From the beginning,” Rydell observed, “the century-of-progress expositions were conceived as festivals of American corporate power that would put breathtaking amounts of surplus capital to work in the field of cultural production and ideological representation.” Kihlstedt put it this way: “whereas most nineteenth-century utopias were socialist, based on cooperative production and distribution of goods, the twentieth-century fairs suggested that utopia would be attained through corporate capitalism and the individual freedom associated with it.” He added, “the organizers of the NYWF were making quasi-propagandistic use of utopian ideas and imagery to equate utopia with capitalism.” For his part, Nye drew on Roland Marchand to connect the evolution of the world’s fairs with the development of corporate marketing strategies: “corporations first tried only to sell products, then tried to educate the public about their business, and finally turned to marketing visions of the future.” Nye also tied the ritual nature of the fairs with the corporate turn: “Such exhibits might be compared to the sacred places of tribal societies … Each inscribed cultural meanings in ritual … And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission.”

In this way, the religion of technology was effectively incorporated. American corporations presented themselves as the builders of the techno-utopian city. With the cooperation of government agencies, corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a rationally planned yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.

Framing the 1939 New York World’s fair as an embodiment of the religion of technology highlights the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power at this pivotal cultural moment in American history. This convergence was taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and compelling fashion. Through its imaginative liturgical experience, the fair renewed the faith of a generation of Americans in the religion of technology, and it was this generation that went on to build post-war American society.

Macro-trends in Technology and Culture

Who would choose cell phones and Twitter over toilets and running water? Well, according to Kevin Kelly, certain rural Chinese farmers. In a recent essay exploring the possibilities of a post-productive economy, Kelly told of the remote villages he visited in which locals owned cell phones but lived in houses without even the most rudimentary forms of plumbing. It is a choice, Kelly notes, deeply influenced by tradition and culture. Kelly’s point may not be quite unassailable, but it is a fair reminder that technology is a culturally mediated phenomenon.

There are, generally speaking, two schools of thought on the relationship between technology and culture. Those tending toward some variety of technological determinism would argue that technology drives culture. Those who tend toward a social constructivist view of technology would argue the opposite. Ultimately, any theory of technology must account for the strengths and weaknesses of both of these tendencies. In fact, the framing of the relationship is probably problematic anyway since there are important ways in which technology is always cultural and culture is always technological.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to lean toward the social constructivist perspective. No technology appears in a vacuum. It’s origins, evolution, adoption, deployment, and diffusion are all culturally condition. Moreover, the meaning of any technology is always culturally determined; it is never simply given in the form of the technology itself. Historians of technology have reminded us of this reality in numerous fascinating studies — studies of the telephone, for example, and the airplane, the electric grid, household technologies, and much else besides. When a new technology appears, it is interpreted and deployed within an already existing grid of desires, possibilities, necessities, values, symbols, expectations, and constraints. That a technology may re-order this grid in time does not negate the fact that it must first be received by it. The relationship is reciprocal.

If this is true, then it seems to me that we should situate our technologies not only within the immediate historical and social context of their genesis, but also within broader and more expansive historical trajectories. Is our use of computer technology, for example, still inflected by Baconian aspirations? What role do Cartesian dualisms play in shaping our relationship with the world through our technologies? To what degree does Christian eschatology inform technological utopianism? These seem to be important questions, the answers to which might usefully inform our understanding of the place of technology in contemporary society. Of course, these particular questions pertain especially to the West. I suspect another set of questions would apply to non-Western societies and still further questions would be raised within the context of globalization. But again, the basic premise is simply this: a given technology’s social context is not necessarily bounded by its immediate temporal horizons. We ought to be taking the long view as well.

But the rhythms of technological change (and the logic of the tech industry) would seem to discourage us from taking the long view, or at least the long view backwards in time. The pace of technological change over the last two hundred years or so has kept us busy trying to navigate the present, and its trajectory, real and ideal, casts our vision forward in the direction of imagined futures. But what if, as Faulkner quipped, the past with regards to technology is not dead or even past?

I’m wondering, for instance, about these large motive forces that have driven technological innovation in the West, such as the restoration of Edenic conditions or the quest for rational mastery over the natural world leading to the realization of Utopia. These early modern and Enlightenment motive forces directed and steered the evolution of technology in the West for centuries, and I do not doubt that they continue to exert their influence still. Yet, over the last century and half Western society has undergone a series of profound transformations. How have these shaped the evolution of technology? (The inverse question is certainly valid as well.) This is, I suppose, another way of asking about the consequences of post-modernity (which I distinguish from postmodernism) for the history of technology.

In a provocative and compelling post a few months ago, Nick Carr drew an analogy between the course of technological innovation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

“The focus, or emphasis, of innovation moves up through five stages, propelled by shifts in the needs we seek to fulfill. In the beginning come Technologies of Survival (think fire), then Technologies of Social Organization (think cathedral), then Technologies of Prosperity (think steam engine), then technologies of leisure (think TV), and finally Technologies of the Self (think Facebook, or Prozac).”

I continue to find this insightful, and I think the angle I’m taking here dovetails with Carr’s analysis. The technologies of Prosperity and Leisure correspond roughly to the technologies of modernity. Technologies of the Self correspond roughly to the technologies of post-modernity. Gone is our faith in les grands récits that underwrote a variety of utopian visions and steered the evolution of technology. We live in an age of diminished expectations; we long for the fulfillment of human desires writ small. Self-fulfillment is our aim.

This is, incidentally, a trajectory that is nicely illustrated by Lydia DePillis’ suggestion that the massive Consumer Electronics Show “is what a World’s Fair might look like if brands were more important than countries.” The contrast between the world’s fairs and the CES is telling. The world’s fairs, especially those that preceded the 1939 New York fair, were quite obviously animated by thoroughly modern ideologies. They were, as President McKinley put it, “timekeepers of progress,” and one might as well capitalize Progress. On the other hand, whatever we think of the Consumer Electronics Show, it is animated by quite different and more modest spirits. The City of Tomorrow was displaced by the entertainment center of tomorrow before giving way to the augmented self of tomorrow.

Why did technological innovation take this path? Was it something in the nature of technology itself? Or, was it rather a consequence of larger sea changes in the character of society? Maybe a little of both, but probably more of the latter. It’s possible, of course, that this macro-perspective on the the co-evolution of culture and technology can obscure important details and result in misleading generalizations, but if those risks can be mitigated, it may also unveil important trends and qualities that would be invisible to more narrowly focused analysis.

The Architectural Legacy of Barcelona’s World’s Fairs

When world’s fairs close shop most of their buildings and structures are torn down and forgotten. This is as planned; most world’s fair architecture is designed to be temporary. Moreover, some world’s fair architecture was later destroyed by fire including London’s Crystal Palace and Chicago’s White City.  There are notable exceptions to this intended and unintended architectural ephemerality, of course. The Eiffel Tower is just the most famous instance of an enduring architectural legacy bequeathed to a city by a world’s fair. Seattle’s Space Needle would be another. We might also add a number of contemporary museums that are today housed in buildings first designed as world’s fair pavilions. Examples include the Queen’s Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Barcelona’s diverse architectural heritage which includes ancient Roman structures alongside bold modernist designs with medieval cathedrals between them also features a surprising number of prominent world’s fair contributions. A number of these are from the Exposición Universal de Barcelona held in 1888. But the most grand and impressive structures are gathered around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc and were built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.

While in Barcelona two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in some of these public spaces. Below are a few shots I gathered with a couple of additions for perspective, both temporal and spatial. To begin with, here is a shot taken from atop a former bull fighting arena now turned into a stylish shopping center. The shot was taken with my iPod so the quality is a bit lacking, but it shows a good bit of the roundabout that is Plaça d’Espanya along with several of the structures built for the 1929 Exposition. These include the Venetian inspired towers, the St. Peter’s inspired colonnades, and the Spanish Renaissance inspired palace in the background. Also visible is the Montjuïc Communications Tower built for the 1992 Olympics.

This panoramic black and white, which clearly I did not take, shows the same area and more as it appeared in 1929.

Here is another look at the Venetian towers, this time from Montjuïc toward Plaça d’Espanya. As you can tell, most of these shots were taken on a rather cloudy day which is unfortunate.

The four columns were intended to represent the four red bars of the Catalonian flag. Because of this the originals were torn down by then Spanish President Primo de Rivera. The columns visible today were reconstructed in 2010.

Below is a shot of what was for the fair the Palau Nacional and which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Once more looking out from the Museu Nacional toward Plaça d’Espanya. Visible to the right of the towers is the converted bull fighting arena.

Remarkably, alongside these buildings that hearken back to the architectural past there was also built one of the early twentieth century’s most famous specimens of modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion (today often referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion). As Paul Greenhalgh has put it referring to the German pavilion and the surrounding structures, “It is difficult to imagine these buildings being of the same century, and even more difficult to imagine them as part of the same event.”

Greenhalgh describes the juxtaposition as the “most dramatic example of contrast and competition between history and modernity at an exposition.” The Mies pavilion, he adds, “stunning in its opulent austerity, is an extraordinary essay on the potential of urban, domestic space to function as pure art.”

This first shot below is not my own, but taken from Wikipedia. It gives you a good look at the whole without any visitors present. Below are series of my own shots from inside the house. The original was torn down shortly after the fair in 1930. However, Spanish architects reconstructed the structure based on original plans and existing photographs between 1983 and 1986.

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The pavilion also housed the sculpture below (seen from a distance above), Georg Kolbe’s Alba or Dawn. 

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Finally, the fountains that line the avenue leading from Museu Nacional to Plaça d’Espanya including the massive fountain directly in front of the Museu Nacional, the Font màgica de Montjuïc, continue to put on a dazzling night time display as they were designed to do in 1929.

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Towers, Needles, and Wheels: Architectural Spectacles at World’s Fairs and Expositions

Today the ArcelorMittal Orbit, an observation tower designed for the Summer Olympics, opened in London. The 377 foot tall structure, England’s tallest work of public art, is part of Olympic Park in Stratford. According to an AP press release, “Some critics have called the ruby-red lattice of tubular steel an eyesore. British tabloids have labeled it ‘the Eye-ful Tower,’ ‘the Godzilla of public art’ and worse.” Its designers, of course, think of it in more flattering terms:

“One of the references was the Tower of Babel. There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long, winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it. What I’m interested in is the way 21st century thinking about older technologies allows one to go both forwards and backwards. The form straddles Eiffel and Tatlin.”

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London

Not surprisingly, the Orbit seems to automatically generate comparison to the Eiffel Tower which was constructed for another kind of international gathering/competition, the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Arial view of the Exposition Universelle of 1889

And not unlike the Orbit, the Eiffel Tower also received a mixed reaction:

“We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”

Signatories included: Guy de Maupasssant, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Charles Gounod, and Paul Verlaine. But, of course, opinions have mellowed since.

The Eiffel Tower was not the only oversized structure built for a world’s fair. There was also the world’s first ferris wheel standing at 264 feet and offering passengers an awe-inspiring view of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, best remembered as the site of President William McKinley’s assassination, featured the 375 foot Electric Tower. At a time when many Americans had yet to witness an electrified city-scape, the tower and surrounding buildings became instances of the American technological sublime.

The iconic Space Needle that has come to symbolize the city of Seattle was built for the Century 21 Exposition that was held in 1961.

The two observation towers that comprised part of the New York State Pavilion for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair still stand today.

Sex Sells the Future

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century world’s fairs were instrumental in transitioning America from an economy of production to one of consumption. Their role in bringing about this shift is fascinating. Here is but one of the more interesting dimensions of this role described by Robert Rydell in World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions:

“Fundamental to this effort was an assault on remaining vestiges of values that were associated with what some historians have called a ‘culture of production.’ To hasten the dissolution of this older emphasis on restraint and inhibition, already under siege by world’s fairs at the beginning of the century and by the steady barrage of advertising that saturated the country during the 1920s, world’s fair builders injected their fantasies of progress with equally heavy doses of technological utopianism and erotic stimulation.”

We’re more familiar with the technological utopianism of the world’s fairs; the manner in which this technological utopianism was alloyed to erotic representations is less commonly noted. For example, Norman Bel Geddes, who famously designed Futurama, the fair’s most popular exhibit, also designed “Crystal Lassies,” “A Peep Show of Tomorrow.” Rydell continues:

“As if to liberate these fantasies from their Victorian moorings, exposition promoters gave increasing prominence to female striptease performances on exposition midways that, by the end of the decade, gave way to fully nude female performers in shows replete with world-of-tomorrow themes.”

Of course, this makes a great deal of sense. Chastity is to sexual desire what thrift is to economic desire. Rydell goes on:

“By suffusing the world of tomorrow with highly charged male sexual fantasies, the century-of-progress expositions not only reconfirmed the status of women as objects of desire, but represented their bodies as showcases that perfectly complemented displays of futuristic consumer durables everywhere on exhibit at the fairs.”

We know sex sells. This is a commonplace in our society. But we often think it operates by association. Pair the model with the car and somehow the attraction to the model will infuse the car. Perhaps. But some marketers appear to have understood the relationship somewhat differently. Eliminate restraint in one domain and you will eliminate it in the other as well.

E Simms Campbell in Esquire, 1939