Futurama (New York World's Fair)  

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Futurama was an exhibit/ride at the 1939 New York World's Fair designed by Norman Bel Geddes that tried to show the world 20 years into the future (1959–1960). Sponsored by the General Motors Corporation, the installation was characterized by its automated highways and vast suburbs. Compared to other "visions of the future," Bel Geddes' was rather achievable—the most advanced technology posited was the automated highway system, of which General Motors built a working prototype by 1960.

Futurama is widely held to have first introduced the general American public to the concept of a network of expressways connecting the nation. It provided a direct connection between the streamlined style which was popular in America between 1928 and 1938, and the concept of steady-flow which appeared in street and highway design in the same period. Bel Geddes expounds upon his design in his book Magic Motorways, stating, “Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country – across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns – never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy.” He had acknowledged this in the belief that “A free-flowing movement of people and goods across our nation is a requirement of modern living and prosperity.”

The modeled highway construction emphasized hope for the future as it served as a proposed solution to traffic congestion of the day, and demonstrated the probable development of traffic in proportion to the automotive growth of the next twenty years. Bel Geddes assumed that the automobile would be the same type of carrier and still the most common means of transportation in 1960, albeit with increased vehicle use and traffic lanes also capable of much higher speeds.

To meet these assumptions, four general ideas for improvement were incorporated into the exhibition showcase. First, that each section of road be designed to receive greater capacity of traffic. Second, that traffic moving in one direction could be in complete isolation to traffic moving in any other. Third, segregating traffic by subdividing towns and cities into certain units that restrict traffic and allow pedestrians to predominate. And fourth, consequent traffic control for predetermined maximum and minimum speeds. Through this, the exhibition was designed to inspire greater public enthusiasm and support for the constructive work and planning by engineers and public officials who had contributed so much toward improvement of streets and highways.

The popularity of the Futurama exhibit fit closely with the fair’s overall theme “The World Of Tomorrow” not just in its emphasis on the future, but also in its redesign of the American landscape. The highway system was supported within a one-acre animated model of a projected America containing more than five hundred thousand individually designed buildings, a million trees of thirteen different species, and approximately fifty thousand motorcars, ten thousand of which traveled along a fourteen-lane multi speed interstate highway. It prophesied an American utopia regulated by an assortment of cutting-edge technologies: remote-controlled multi lane highways, power plants, farms for artificially produced crops, rooftop platforms for individual flying machines and various gadgets, all intended to create an ideal built environment and ultimately to reform society.

Bel Gedde’s ‘future’ was synonymous with technological process, no less in its simulated low-flying airplane journey through the exhibit. The aerial journey was simulated by an eighteen-minute ride on a conveyor system, carrying 552 seated spectators at a time, covering a winding path a third of a mile long through the model. Along with light, sound and colour effects the ride moved at a rate of approximately 120 feet per minute, allowing spectators to look down through a continuous curved pane of glass towards the model. The virtue of this elevated position allowed spectators to see multiple scales simultaneously, viewing city blocks in proportion to a highway system as well as artificially controlled trees in glass domes. This scale was modelled off 408 topographical sections based on aerial photographs of different regions of the US provided by the pioneering company Fairchild Aerial Surveys.

Critical reception

Before General Motors invited Bel Geddes to submit a proposal for the exhibit, they had planned to put in another production line as was featured at their exhibit in the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933 in Chicago. However, after they heard Bel Geddes outline his project all other plans were scrapped as they favoured his design for its appeal to a broader audience. The Futurama exhibition was subsequently presented as one of the 1939 New York World Fair’s main attractions, as it was the “Number one hit show.” It captured the fancy of the public and critics alike, with journalists competing to find adequate words to convey Bel Gedde’s “ingenuity”, “daring”, “showmanship”, and “genius”. One neutral survey of 1000 departing fairgoers awarded the General Motors exhibit 39.4 points to only 8.5 points for second place Ford as the most interesting exhibit. Business Week described the scene: “More than 30,000 persons daily, the show’s capacity, inch along the sizzling pavement in long queues until they reach the chairs which transport them to a tourist’s paradise. It unfolds a prophecy of cities, towns, and countrysides served by a comprehensive road system.”

His ideas of the future had a remarkable degree of realism and immediacy, striking a chord with an American audience slowly recovering from the Great Depression and that was longing for prosperity. At the time, Futurama’s imaginary landscape of 1960 was seen not as just a novel physical space, but as a glimpse of future time.

In media

  • The name and opening sequence to the popular American animated sitcom Futurama was derived from the exhibition.

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