In 1939, a worldwide exhibition was organised in New York and called the New York World’s Fair. It was the first exposition to be based on the vision of the future and its opening slogan was "Dawn of a New Day". There were different zones such as the transportation, the government, the business, the food zones… The American firm General Motors had its own pavilion called “Highways and Horizons” that included an exposition called Futurama designed by Norman Bel Geddes.
Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) is an American theatrical and industrial designer. He drew a lot of modern commercial products and had his proper vision of the future. Indeed, he was really interested in aerodynamics and created different kind of futuristic transport such as a teardrop-shaped automobile. He also wrote different books explaining his futuristic vision, like Magic Motorways published in 1940.
Other firms have different pavilions in the New York World’s Fair, in the transportation section. For instance, the Ford building had on its roof race car drivers driving on a figure eight track. Chrysler pavilion included a theater with air conditioning where the audience could watch one of the early 3D films. However, the exhibition Futurama in the General Motors pavilion was one of the 1939 fair’s main attraction, as we shall see after.
Futurama presented a possible future model of the world 20 years into the future in 1960, characterized by its automated highways and its vast suburbs seen as a symbol of improvement. It introduced to the American public the concept of a network of expressways connecting the entire nation. In his book Magic Motorways, Norman Bel Geddes described his exhibition ‘’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.’’
The model of the projected America included in the pavilion was 3500 square meters. It was built during three years by a hundred of skilled artists and craftspeople supervised by Bel Geddes himself. You can have an idea of the way they were working and assembling the different parts of the model on a video. It contains more than five hundred thousand individually designed buildings, a million trees of thirteen different species, and approximately fifty thousand motorcars. The 408 separate sections, which composed the model, showed an imaginative future landscape. However, it was based on aerial photographs of different regions of the United States, provided by the pioneering company Fairchild Aerial Surveys. Bel Geddes and his staff studied really precisely the photographs in order to establish the environmental effects of various geographic and urban elements.
The visitor’s experience
Futurama was not only a model you can see from above, it proposed a low-flying airplane journey through the exhibit. Carried above the massive model on a conveyor belt, 552 seated spectators had a bird’s eye view at the same time. It was a 18-minute ride, an experience of a flight with a speed of 120 feet per minute (or 0.6m per second). They used a suspended and winding conveyor belt to simulate it. Thus, the spectator looked down through a continuous, curved pane of glass toward the model. This ‘virtual plane’ was like changing altitude, as the model changed of scale. Indeed, the general part was built at the scale of 1:2000 but with close-up views at 1:20 (approximate scales we can presume looking at pictures with its builders on it). There was for example the main zoom on the busy intersection of the General Motors headquarters with detailed aerodynamic automobiles. There were also different parts of the landscape such as the development of suburbs, the amusement parks, a seven-lane continental highway with cars moving…
Today we don’t have a lot of records of the experience that the visitors had in the General Motors pavilion. We can just guess how it was through the different writings and with that home movie.
The General Motors exhibition brochure described the experience enthusiastically “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. Now we have arrived in this wonder world of 1960!”. You can watch the promotion video of 1939 to have an idea of the intentions of the Futurama exposition.
To conclude, this installation was presented as one of the main attractions of New York World’s Fair of 1939. There were more than 30,000 daily visitors a day and 5 million in total during the two seasons (1939 and 1940). At the end of the ride, all these spectators received a souvenir pin where it was written "I have seen the future".
Bel Geddes considered his project as a ‘’scientific and educational’’ panorama viewed through the eyes of a spectator ‘’as though he were in an airplane’’. In that case, the use of the aerial viewing was strategic, since it allows him to demonstrate his own vision of utopia. As the spectator circles high above the city, he is able to compare the badly planned area of the 1930s with the well-organised districts of the newer American landscape.