Saturday, March 9, 2013

Micromegas and the World of Tomorrow

 Micromegas, c. 1939, Frank Paul, designer and delineator; airbrushed tempera and watercolor on board, an unrealized building proposed for the 1939 New York City World’s Fair.  Many of the realized buildings from the Fair clearly took cues from futuristic visions promulgated by science fiction pulp magazines of the year.  In this fantastical scene, a warrior clad in Roman gladiator garb sits astride a domed pavilion with a star-shaped base reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty's architectural foundation.  Frank Paul, one of the principal science fiction illustrators of the day, perhaps took his revenge on an unresponsive Board of Design, who had rejected his Micromegas building design proposal, with his 1939 cover of Science Fiction No. 2 showing the Trylon and Perisphere being attacked by invading spaceships.  Photo by The Map Monkey

I went to the Museum of the City of New York this week to hear a talk by Marguerite Holloway, author of the new biography on John Randel Jr, (the man who mapped Manhattan), the book titled “The Measure of Manhattan,” as detailed in my recent blog post.  While there, I also visited the Museum’s exhibit on the World’s Fairs of the 1930’s, which I recommend to all of you who are in the NYC vicinity - go soon, since the exhibit will close at the end of March 2013.  
The story of the Depression-era Fairs, all of which featured some sort of a “World of Tomorrow” focus, is a fascinating one to me.  Although I have long been aware of the importance of the 1939-1940 New York City World’s Fair in this regard, I was not as knowledgeable about the OTHER 1930’s World’s Fairs in the U.S., which were all, to some extent, looking forward to the future and promoting the brave new world of technology, new materials, new design philosophies, and a new and improved way of life for the masses.  This was, I’m sure, welcome news for the masses themselves, who flocked to the World’s Fairs in record numbers, looking for a hopeful vision of the coming decades, and put the past troubles (and impending troubles) behind them, or at least out-of-mind for the time they spent at the Fair.  The Fairs “offered visions of unalloyed progress, lives of increased ease, an exhilarating future,” (Rothstein, 2012 “World’s Fairs of the 1930s Showed Boundless Vision of Prosperity”)
Oblique-Perspective Map Pastel Painting of 1939-1940 New York City World’s Fair
These World’s Fairs took place in Chicago (“A Century of Progress” in 1933-4), San Diego (1935-6), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936-7), San Francisco (1939-40) and finally in New York, “Building the World of Tomorrow” (1939-40).  For me, (and, of course, not having seen any of them first-hand!) I was in love with the New York World’s Fair, which was the culmination of the decade of World’s Fairs, and was probably the most ambitious and also the most bittersweet, being held on the brink of the U.S.’s entrance into WWII.  In fact, several of the international pavilions didn’t re-open for the Fair’s second season in 1940, since they were no longer countries in the political sense, having been taken over by Hitler in the meanwhile (Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.) or due to crumbling resources and other realities, such as the Soviet’s Hitler-Stalin Pact (the Soviet Republics, Lithuania, etc.).  Germany, of course, was famously absent from the very beginning of the Fair. 
Despite the overtones of escalating world conflict, the New York World’s Fair, and indeed all of the fairs in the 1930’s, held out the promise of a better world, a World of Tomorrow.  An official pamphlet for the 1939 New York World’s Fair spread the Gospel of Optimism:  “The eyes of the Fair are on the future-- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.  To its visitors the Fair will say: Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world.  These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made.” 

I grew up with all my mother’s World’s Fair memorabilia, including salt and pepper shakers of the Trylon and Perisphere, a flimsy bridge table with those icons emblazoned on top, a complete set of decorative silver spoons with a different one of the various World’s Fair pavilions on each handle, and many other kitsch items, but most of all I remember her stories/rhapsodies about Billy Rose’s Aquacade, the Parachute Jump, General Motors “Futurama” exhibit - a vast scale model of an American city in the 1960’s - and the overall magic and beauty of the place.  My mother’s brand of can-do optimism seems emblematic of the times, and the World’s Fair endorsed and validated those feelings.  And although we may now look with a jaundiced eye at all the corporate-industrial-governmental alliances and their attempts to distract the public with gadgets and gee-gaws to be purchased while the world was about to explode, the World’s Fairs did serve a higher purpose, even if most of the Fair-goers were more interested in the amusement park and side show aspects of the fairs as opposed to the more educational exhibits. 
Probably one of the reasons I have a soft spot in my heart for World’s Fairs (and the New York World of Tomorrow one in particular) is that designers, architects, and urban planners were not only allowed free rein to present their visions for the not-so-distant future, but they were very much admired, looked up to, and even revered by the general populace.  When was the last time in recent memory that anyone (aside from those in these very self-referential fields) admired, or even better yet, listened to, professionals in the design fields?  All those industrial/product designers were almost demi-gods back then.  They were the people who would help us achieve our goal of better living through chemistry. 

Hugh Ferriss, delineator; Harrison and Fouilhoux, architects; charcoal and gouache on board.
More familiarly known as the Trylon and Perisphere, this instantly recognizable symbol of the Fair consisted of a 610-foot-high pyramidal tower (the Trylon) and a spherical structure 180 feet in the diameter (the Perisphere) set within an 18-foot-wide, 950-foot-long ramp (the Helicline). The Perisphere seemed to float above a reflecting pool, elevated 17 feet on eight tubular steel columns and ringed by fountains.  

The Trylon (derivation: a triangular pylon) and the Perisphere (a sphere which was all encompassing, surrounding) were known as the Fair’s “Theme Center,” and inside the giant globe of the Perisphere was Henry Dreyfuss’ “Democracity,” a diorama of a utopian urban environment where everything was accounted for through design.  Some were fanciful and never made it past the prototype stage, (the 7 foot tall robot that sang, smoked cigarettes, and counted with his fingers, and the “rocketgun” mode of transatlantic travel) but many of them came to fruition and enjoyed wide-spread usage (dishwashers, television, plexiglass, electric refrigerators, Tampax, color film – Kodachrome -, direct dial long distance telephone service, etc.).  All of these incremental innovations and labor-saving devices we now take for granted helped to usher in the far-reaching social transformations of the mid-20th century.
American Telephone and Telegraph Building – Lighted Map showing Demonstration Toll Calls (long-distance calls) that ordinary Fair-goers could place for free. 

            What of Micromegas himself?  Aside from the fact that he was never built for the Fair, what or who is Micromegas?  Well, it turns out that he was a visitor (a very large visitor!) to Earth from another galaxy, as told by Voltaire in 1752, in one of the world’s first science fiction novels.  Having an outsider such as Micromegas commenting upon the current state of affairs in the world was a well-know literary device for criticizing intolerance, religious dogma, and the government without getting into trouble, since it was the “outsider,” not the author, who was doing the talking.  Upon first encountering our fair planet, Micromegas’ traveling companion said “Truly, that which makes me believe there is no inhabitant on this sphere, is that it seems to me that no sensible being would be willing to live here.”   “Well, then!” said Micromegas, “perhaps the beings that inhabit it do not possess good sense,” from Micromegas: A Philosophical History (1752).  In keeping with Voltaire’s famous secularism and satirical irreverence, when the travelers from the far-away galaxy hear the theory of Thomas Aquinas that the world was made uniquely for mankind, they fall into an enormous fit of laughter.

Interactive map with photos of individual buildings of the New York World’s Fair

Cool article and videos of the “Futurama” ride in the General Motors Pavilion, which promised Americans a new way of life, including a car in every household.  The first video opens up with a shot of a car traveling across the Whitestone Bridge to get to the Fair.  The Bridge was brand new at the time (opening in April 1939, just in time for the Fair!).  In E. L. Doctorow's wonderful novel World's Fair, “A family exits the [Futurama] ride, and the father says, ‘General Motors is telling us what they expect from us: we must build them the highways so they can sell us the cars.’”

“The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair”
This drama illustrates the contribution of free enterprise, technology, and Westinghouse products to the American way of life.  The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair pits an anti-capitalist bohemian artist boyfriend against an all-American electrical engineer who believes in improving society by working through corporations.  The Middletons experience Westinghouse's technological marvels at the Fair and win back their daughter from her leftist boyfriend. 

“The Original Futurama: The Legacy of the 1939 World's Fair” 
Seventy years after the closing of the 1939 New York World's Fair, The Daily Show writer Elliott Kalan looks back at its past vision of the World of Tomorrow. 

The Museum of the City of New York exhibit: “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s”

Designing Tomorrow: American’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s” Yale University Press, 2010

New York Public Library’s collection of photos and videos of NYC World’s Fair:

“To New Horizons”  General Motors Futurama exhibit 1940.  Definitive document of pre-World War II futuristic utopian thinking, as envisioned by General Motors. Documents the "Futurama" exhibit in GM's "Highways and Horizons" pavilion at the World's Fair, which looks ahead to the “wonder world of 1960.”  The Futurama part starts at 7:50.

This post is dedicated to my mom, who loved ALL the World’s Fairs, and we went to several of them whilst I was growing up - most notably, of course, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, held in the same former garbage dump in Queens as was the 1939 World of Tomorrow Fair.   I was exactly the right age for the 1964 World’s Fair, being old enough to go over there on my own (and often!), but young enough to still be thrilled by it.  I am also reminded of my great-grandma, Maggie Barnacle, who used to sing me to sleep with renditions of “Meet me in Saint Louie, Louie, Meet me at the Fair,” about the 1904 World’s Fair (“The Louisiana Purchase Exposition” celebrating the centenary of the 1804 Louisiana Purchase) in St. Louis, MO.  Both the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the “New World”) and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 were big deals in her younger years, and they exerted a large influence on the day’s popular culture, including popular songs.  There are about 88 stanzas, but the chorus goes like this:

Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair
Don't tell me the lights are shining
Anyplace but there
We will dance the "Hoochie-Koochie"
I will be your "Tootsie-Wootsie"
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair.

(You may have seen the Judy Garland 1944 film Meet me in Saint Louis where she sings the same song, and probably better than my Nana did!)

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