30 September 2012

I Have Sniffed the Future, and It Smells Like Pittsburgh

Circa 1932:
"When you stand on a hill along the Monongahela River, looking out over miles of steel mills, hundreds of stacks belching flame, you are experiencing an emotion. You may have had the same experience in a chateau in France, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or when looking at a piece of furniture, or even at a fragile wineglass. Likewise, if the sight of the Akron or of Man o' War leading the field down the home stretch excites you, you are reacting to an emotion. When automobiles, railway cars, airships, steamships or other objects of an industrial nature stimulate you in the same way that you are stimulated when you look at the Parthenon, at the windows of Chartres, at the Moses of Michelangelo, or at the frescos of Giotto, you will then have every right to speak of them as works of art.

Just as surely as the artists of the fourteenth century are remembered by their cathedrals, so will those of the twentieth be remembered for their factories and the products of these factories."

From the opening chapter of Norman Bel Geddes's Horizons, reproduced -- with alternated illustrations -- at The Charnel-House. Geddes having been, for the unfamiliar, the designer who would a few year later envision the General Motors-funded "Futurama" exhibition for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Geddes was one who was "of name" back in the day, a definitively forward-thinking designer for his time, a designer of influence during the postwar years. His 1940 publication Magic Motorways is said by some to having influenced the design of what would be implemented as the Interstate Highway System.

Still, the introductory chapter -- including its evocation of an industrial sublime -- is absolutely the most bewildering read I've come across in quite some time; the sort where (or me, anyway) every other sentence drips with so much unintended, retrospective irony that I nearly find myself rolling over with guffaws. Not the least of which is the assertion that the designer would never conscionably lend a hand in designing shoddy goods, never be party to any sort of industry whose bread and butter hinged on narrowing and calculated degrees of planned obsolescence. Or the part where the author offers a casually fantastic revisioning of art history, and by doing so effectively places himself as an equivalent of a Renaissance Man, with his corporate sponsors as the modern-day Medicis. And there's the seventh paragraph, which in some ways almost anticipates some aspects of Warhol by almost 3 decades...

"Until recently artists have been disposed to isolate themselves upon the side of life apart from business; apart from a changing world which, in their opinion, was less sympathetic because its output, in becoming machine-made, was losing its individuality. The few artists who have devoted themselves to industrial design have done so with condescension, regarding it as a surrender to Mammon, a mere source of income to enable them to obtain time for creative work. On the other hand, I was drawn to industry by the great opportunities it offered creatively."

After which follows an extended spiel of self-aggrandizing bombast. Other chapters in the same volume sport the tiles, "Speed -- To-morrow," "New Houses for Old," "Architecture for the Amusement Industry," and "What Price Factory Ugliness?" And while the chapter on speed at least sounds like it might be promising, in the end it winds up being little more than an extended sales pitch for the author's own design for a new class of luxury ocean liner.

Full text of Horizons available via the Archive-org. Plenty other background info on Geddes on the web, but here's an interesting side item courtesy of The Believer.

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