Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Who Invented the Future?

Close your eyes and picture, if you will, ladies and gentlemen....the future.

Does it look like this?

Maybe a bit more like this?

Yes---much better.

Luxurious but streamlined glass homes in leafy suburbs, designed for maximum ease and efficiency.

Sunken living rooms with built-in sectional sofas in vivid shades of crimson or sienna. Swedish coffee services on a lacquer tray. Machines for living

What about the office? Who wants to walk or ride a bike to the train station in town just so you can commute all the way to the city on some filthy train or streetcar? So depressing and 1930s! So old-country!

Picture, instead: sprawling corporate headquarters on grassy plateaus, overlooking otherwise pristine lakes or rivers. Away from all the....crowds. Accessed by car! Only by car! Your own spacious yet aerodynamic automobile, complete with vertical stabilizers and jutting tail-lights, helpful in "reducing by 20% the needs for steering correction in a cross wind". What if you need to grab lunch? Have you seen our company cafeteria?

What if you need to get away? Far, far away? Picture gleaming TWA jet terminals with soaring white arches. Elegant air hostess in matching uniforms offering coffee, tea or cocktails at 35,000 feet.

All of these scenarios conjure up images of what many Americans considered utopia after the austere decades of the Depression and WWII. A new, modern utopia promised life without crowds, filth and poverty, a utopia where one didn't have to always share everything.

If you had to answer the question, "who invented the future?" you might do worse than to answer, Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect whose influence is being examined in a retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York.

Saarinen played a pivotal role in building a new, post-war America throughout the ambitious and optimistic 1950s and 1960s. You might even say he "branded" the future. Saarinen's clients were a veritable "who’s who" of the most prominent corporations that projected America’s image nationally and internationally. These corporations' range of influence extended into the popularization of television and other media, the advancement of new information technologies, the expansion of higher education, the promotion of automobile culture and air travel, and suburbanization.

While Shaping the Future looks back at what Americans held dear in the optimistic period following WWII, the exhibition also provides a fascinating road map of everything that went wrong with America following the ambitious, wide-eyed era of the '50s: suburban sprawl, the exaltation of the automobile, white flight and the death of community.

Why was America so in thrall to this high modernist aesthetic? Much has been written on this question and, while we're certainly not architectural historians, we did come across an interesting account online citing the work of a cultural critic named Bram Dijkstra, who, along with Tom Wolfe, foresaw long ago the eventual problems a society might face when it embraced efficiency at the expense of humanity:

"Much of the post-WWII high modernism in America and the rest of the western world is antihumanist, hostile to notions of community, of any form of humanism. It becomes about the lack of meaning, the need to create our own significance out of nothing. The highest level of significance, that of the elite, becomes abstraction. So the concept of the evolutionary elite arises again, deliberately excluding those who 'haven't evolved.'"

Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, on view through January 31, 2010

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029