the Superhighway
from Bel Geddes
to Ballard

Helen J Burgess
Washington State
University Vancouver

two: futurama

[6] The 1939 World's Fair, held on the cleaned-up site of a former ash-dump in Flushing Meadows, New York, set the stage for a powerful vision of the future. Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes' model America of 1960 was an immense diorama stretching over 35,000 square feet; it was housed in the impressively modern General Motors Pavilion. The "Futurama ride" was the highlight of the Fair, attracting up to 28,000 people a day over the two-year duration of the fair (Corn, 49). According to the accompanying tour guide, the model consisted of "a half-million buildings and houses -- thousands of miles of multi-lane highways -- more than a million trees -- rivers, lakes and streams -- snow-capped mountains -- rich-flowering countryside -- industrial centers -- college and resort towns -- great, towering cities" ("Futurama," 24). Visitors were seated in a "carry-go-round" consisting of 552 plush chairs, which moved slowly around the sides of the diorama as simulated night fell and the sun rose again. The tour was narrated by a voice issuing from a sound-box in each chair.

[7] Futurama was a part of a larger exhibition offered by General Motors called "Highways and Horizons." Its purpose was twofold: to offer a model of improved highways of the future (thereby clinching the sale of more cars), and to spike consumer confidence more broadly in goods, cars and appliances of the future. The issue of America's reluctance to be involved in the rapidly escalating war in Europe was temporarily quashed by visions of a grand, utopian future of spectacular superhighways, ironically borrowed from Hitler's Reichsautobahnen (begun in 1933).

[8] To help sell its dream of a mechano-utopian future, General Motors enlisted the popular modern narrative of progress, arguing that "history shows that the progress of civilization has run parallel to advancement in transportation" ("Futurama," 2). Even the General Motors Pavilion itself, a white deco-curved giant of a building, featured superhighway-inspired ramps to allow public entrance. Superhighways, thus, were seen as a symbol of progress, in this case imagined as a road leading into a bright, utopian future.

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