Celebrating talent, bowing to marketing ingenuity, corralling hope in a brighter future. Phrases that may describe a season of American Idol just as comfortably apply to the world’s fairs held in Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco, and New York in the 1930s. Considering economic and political distress then and now, Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s, at the National Building Museum, couldn’t feel more relevant. The exhibition reminds us that Americans both repeat their mistakes and skillfully invent mood stabilizers and long-view salves for them.
Curators Laura Schavio and Deborah Sorensen keep the mood of the exhibit upbeat without shying away from the less flattering realities. The first of seven galleries is impressionistic. Layers of black-and-white photos and world’s fairs artifacts—wide-eyed advertisements and brochures, radiant magazine covers, a charming 1937 Milton M. Duke model of the New York fairgrounds, and more esoteric memorabilia like an entry to the Sears Century of Progress Quilt Contest—survey the Depression Era, positing world’s fairs as escapist counterpoints to unemployment, unhygienic urban life, and dust-swept farms. They channeled collective frustrations and hopes through compelling visions of time-saving consumer technology and transportation.
The big event of their day, the fairs boasted attendance figures to their one and two seasons rivaling text-message vote tallies of today.
Kauffman & Fabry, Co. / Courtesy Jim Sweeny
Motives were not exactly innocent. Schavio and Sorensen simultaneously reveal the fairs as tremendous efforts in goodwill and opinion shaping. American corporations in particular cast themselves as heroes redeveloping blighted or empty urban sites and creating job opportunities. They also marketed society’s progress as contingent precisely on consumerism. Whereas antecedents to world’s fairs instructed attendees how to adapt to the industrial world as producers of goods and services, the fairs of 1930s America culminated a tradition of promoting shopping by the acre.
At the fairs themselves, though, there was little place for challenge, or dialogue about reflection versus influence. These were events of showmanship, and Designing Tomorrow shows how contemporary architecture and design were conscripted into that overshadowing. The second gallery of the show plays the counterpoint to the introduction. Visitors circle around a ring-like volume with embedded vitrines that provide vital stats—such as attendance figures and event theme—for each of the expositions. Sparingly mounted wall displays provide some picturesque background and descriptions of each fair. The subsequent galleries don’t differentiate between the individual world’s fairs explicitly, allowing the exhibition themes and their accompanying materials to speak for their spectacular selves.
The fairs were ostensible coming-out parties for architecture that until then had been confined to the European academy. Yet the transatlantic journey subtracted some of the cerebral quality from the work, and Designing Tomorrow introduces viewers to four commercialized versions of Bauhaus purity. Categories range from the amusing, such as the corporate expressionism exemplified by the Havoline Thermometer building, to vaguely Federal stripped-down classicism, nostalgic streamlined moderne, and verge-of-offensive regional exoticism.
Whether or not the geometry of expression was altered for popular consumption, the architecture of America’s world’s fairs materialized up-to-the-minute practice. Surfaces were largely planar and finished in colors befitting an Oskar Schlemmer costume study. Buildings were made with high-tech materials, such as load-bearing glass (if also asbestos), and by nascent methods like prefabrication. The Chicago fair goes down in history as the first major architectural application of neon. Even the sites were unprecedented: Treasure Island was formed from 25 million cubic feet of material dredged from San Francisco Bay for the construction of the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges.
In addition to setting new standards, the world’s fairs were active crucibles of technology, culture, and politics, and Designing Tomorrow represents this back-and-forth evocatively. Buildings were configured according to Beaux Arts rules, while Henry Dreyfuss’ Democracity installation posited how future planning efforts would subscribe to the values of Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright. Houses of the future, as well as aluminum and laminated furniture, heeded the call for residential buildings to be more like cars and their interior finishes to take advantage of industry’s cutting edge. Vehicle manufacturers used exhibits to campaign the federal government for a national highway system; in San Diego, so-called Modeltown seductively dangled new FHA mortgages established by the National Housing Act of 1934 in front of white, middle-class men.
Whether its visions were hypothetical or prototypical, world’s fairs’ dreams came true. The final gallery of Designing Tomorrow draws a direct line from the namesake fetes to mass electrification, widespread ownership of domestic appliances, and mass communication phenomena like radio. Most of these accomplishments took place by mid-century, although Schavio and Sorensen peppered their finale with double-takes. A filmed demonstration of Elektro the Moto-Man is laughingly reminiscent of a ShamWow! commercial, and HGTV proffers advice that could very well have been uttered by Victor Civkin and his colleagues at the GE kitchen planning department. These moments only solidify American Idol–style comparisons.
The very intimate link between the world’s fairs of Designing Tomorrow and this moment demands some extra contemplation. The United States dropped out of the business of hosting world’s fairs in 2001, and that alone says something about current realities of geopolitics and economic development. The creative community can transcend borders and employ a different yardstick: If we are inhabiting the imaginations of our great-grandparents today, then do our fantasies of architecture, urbanism, and industrial design have equal power to travel time?