Posted by: Kristen Hicks | November 19, 2012

Seeing the Future of the Past at the Harry Ransom Center

Human beings throughout history have conjured visions of how they imagined the future would look. None of us can ever fully grasp what will be different 10 years from today, much less 100 or more, but we can re-visit the predictions of those that came before us and compare the imaginings of times past with the realities of our present.

At the wonderful Harry Ransom Center in Austin, the current exhibit, “Futureland,” collects the drawings, models, photographs, films and more of Norman Bel Geddes, a forward thinking visionary of the first half of this century. Through the works of Geddes, we can gain a sense of where members of our recent past hoped and dreamed we’d be today. Even more, we can explore the thoughts and creations of a man who played a key role in creating many aspects of the world as we know it today.

In spite of having no academic or professional training in the fields he mastered, or perhaps because this lack of formal education allowed his imagination greater freedom to roam beyond the known, Geddes managed to influence how people think about and experience theatre, architecture, urban design, advertising and the world in general. He started out designing innovative theatre sets and costumes and then moved his talents from the fictional world of the stage to everything from designing buildings, inspiring the modern highway system, product design and inventive, influential advertising campaigns.

One of his most memorable and popular contributions to history was his Futurama installation at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40, in which visitors could ride through his vision of 1960. This vision included such far-fetched ideas as widespread personal car ownership and a highway system (it’s no coincidence that the exhibit was sponsored by GM). Easily the most popular attraction at the fair, it was visited by a number of luminaries who walked away inspired. Walt Disney viewed the exhibit and likely drew from it in his later design of Disney World. Franklin D. Roosevelt contacted Bel Geddes soon after seeing the exhibit to get his input on what would become the Federal Highway Act in 1956.

You can get an idea of the experience of viewing the Futurama exhibit here, although it’s hard to really wrap our heads around how different this would all look to someone seeing it in 1939 than it does today.

The Futurama exhibit has largely trumped Bel Geddes many other achievements in the memory of the public, but he had a number of other ideas that made a lasting impression. He was behind the concept of revolving tower restaurants, now popular in big cities throughout the world. He designed the first stadium with a retractable roof, an “All Weather, All Purpose Stadium.” Long before war photography was common, he built models to help people visualize the major battles of the war.

Norman Bel Geddes was a man who seems to have never been fully content sticking with the present, he always had one foot in the future. It’s hard to imagine what our world would look like today without his influence.

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