The Interstates and freeways were the roads of the future; their construction turned all other roads into byways of the past, objects of nostalgia.
—Phil Patton, Open Road
Natural Spaces, Technological Spaces
During the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, which was staged at a time when urbanization increasingly taxed natural resources and local landscapes, an industrial designer and a car manufacturer attempted to sell technological progress as a means to recover a lost Eden and to forge ahead into a new frontier. Norman Bel Geddes’ and General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit paradoxically made use of an urbanized nostalgia for a bygone America of natural, unspoiled landscapes.
Citing the Industrial Revolution as a crucial turning point, historian William Cronon points to an important reversal in Americans’ conception of the natural world:
Wilderness had once been the antithesis of all that was orderly and good—it had been the darkness, one might say, on the far side of the garden wall—and yet [in the late nineteenth century] it was frequently likened to Eden itself (“The Trouble with Wilderness” 71, 72).
One marker of this changing perception of nature was the crystallization in the latter half of the nineteenth century of the frontier myth, the belief in a rugged individualism to be found in the American wilderness, which was dangerously close to disappearing altogether in the push to urbanize, industrialize, and civilize the nation (Cronon, “Trouble” 76, 77).
Technological and economic links were forged between the city and country as a result of developments in agriculture, transportation, food storage, and food processing. As a result, the second half of the nineteenth century saw an increasing dependency on the urban center as the fountainhead of a “new capitalist geography” (Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis 92). The city, defined historically as the place where nature is not, would come to act on the natural landscape through a complex series of technological in(ter)ventions in transportation and communication: the railroad, the telegraph, and, eventually, the Interstate Highway System.
We see this ideological and material transformation of the American landscape and the emergence of Cronon’s “new capitalist geography” played out in the Futurama exhibit. Technology, visitors to the fair were told, promises a way to rediscover nature. To New Horizons, the official sponsored film covering the exhibit, called on narratives of spatial expansion and manifest destiny, daring Americans to move forward with the same pioneering spirit they had shown in the American West of the previous century. Transportation and technology could be used to conquer natural spaces. Superhighways and streamlined, bubble-shaped cars were key to this magical future, at once mechanical marvels and atomic units that would sustain the westward-ho individualistic ideologies of the American imagination.
The Spaces of the Fair
The tension between nature and technology was a compelling trope during this period. As industrialization and urbanization became subjects increasingly on the minds of both urban and rural Americans, the divide between natural and industrial spaces was used to create an explicit critique of the modern era by playing on a nostalgic, even pastoral, mise-en-scène. This hidden longing, for example, is played to comic effect in Charles Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936). The Little Tramp, after being fed through (and in one case, by) several machines, enters a dreamy reverie in which he lives in a house in the countryside, an idyllic place to grow oranges and milk cows. His dream, however, is shattered by the cruel machines of modernity as he awakens to find that the pastoral landscape has been replaced by an industrialized slag heap.
The short polemical film The City (1939), produced for the American Institute of Planners in the same year as the Futurama’s debut, offers a similar critique of urban life. The film pleads for city planners to redress the sprawl and pollution of industrialized cities while at the same time touting the merits of suburban communities. The City uses bleak imagery of industrial waste lands, coal mines, and impoverished urban neighborhoods, along with an energetic orchestral soundtrack and doleful commentary written by Lewis Mumford, well known for his criticisms of technology and urban sprawl. The film emphasizes the poverty, filth, and chaos of urban life, contrasting it with order and serenity offered by the pristine landscapes of suburban and exurban life.
Unlike the Little Tramp’s traumatic movements between destructive machines and productive nature, the Futurama exhibit combined both the natural and the mechanical into a harmonious whole, creating in three dimensions the vision offered by urban planners. The technological transformation of the landscape was seen as the solution to the problem of development and a way to achieve a pastoral re-membering of America. The attendees of the fair were also “fed through” a kind of machine—in this case, the exhibit itself—but this time, the passage served to unite rather than divide nature from technology by using the medium of the ride to give attendees breathtaking, transcendent views (meant to suggest that one was seeing the landscape from an airplane) of a thoroughly planned urban-pastoral landscape. This was, in short, the utopian dream of suburbia dispersed across a vast American landscape.
This view of a reinvigorated roadway system had already been explored in promotional films such as 1937’s Conquering Roads. This film, commissioned by General Motors to promote the Chevrolet brand, shows how both natural and urban landscapes could be reconfigured. It presents two different versions of a technologically degraded landscape: the early muddy roads, unpaved and tree-lined but deeply rutted by cars, and the urban scene, completely paved and congested by automobile and pedestrian traffic.
Against these images of degraded landscapes and overcrowded streets, Conquering Roads showcases the picturesque natural views that appear at the side of the new highways. The “old” unruly nature is paralleled by an “old” technology, the covered wagon. “New” nature consists of farmed countryside and the manicured median strips of the new parkways being driven at low volume by clean automobiles, thus integrating nature and technology into an attractive whole. Conquering Roads also prefigures the Futurama exhibit by showing the smooth, natural-looking curves of highway interchanges as seen from the air, a point of view that promised freedom through technological transcendence.
The Futurama exhibit continued to play on this harmonious view of nature improved by technology. In the diorama, fruit trees flourish under glass domes; humans and the natural landscape come together, mediated by sweeping highways and scientifically engineered (but nevertheless charmingly pastoral) farms and recreational parks. The commentary of To New Horizons proclaims:
Sunshine, trees, hills and valleys, flowers and flowing streams: this world of tomorrow is a world of beauty. These eternal things, wrought by god, are lovely, and unchanging.
In the Futurama’s post-natural world, highways and farms are integrated into the landscape without detracting from its beauty—indeed, enhancing it. Futuristic cars traverse the groomed landscape in twelve-lane superhighways. Even the industrial areas and airports are carefully surrounded by parklands. Roads, the film promises, will bring people closer to nature:
. . . without tedious travel, the advantages of living in a small town are within easy reach, bringing the people who live there into closer relations with all the world around.
The design of the Futurama also privileged autonomy and individuality over community and public life. Privately owned cars could be used to enjoy the newly created yet nostalgically imagined countryside far from the bustle of the city and, ironically, the annoying presence of other cars. This was a narrative not much different from the freedom promised by SUV advertisements: getting away from it all, out into “Nature.” Unlike public transportation, private cars could be taken out whenever the driver wished and driven however far.
This rhetoric of freedom and escape was designed to appeal to a sense of individualism rather than the enforced community experience of urban public transport. The sense of “private space” was reinforced by the intimate space of the plush moving seats on which attendees of the Futurama rode, each with his own built-in speaker and each with his view of other attendees obstructed by large protruding “wings.” Unlike the crowded and lively public spaces that housed other exhibitions at the Fair, the Futurama “ride” encouraged a private, passive glimpse into the future, rather than an active or communal experience.
Looking Forward, Looking Backward
The two spaces imagined by the fair, natural and technological, were accompanied by two competing notions of time: nostalgia (for natural spaces) and progress (toward technological spaces). Progress and nostalgia are peculiar companions, traveling both forward and backward in time. This pairing, invoked in the service of technological interventions into social institutions and natural environments, helped define the Futurama exhibit by suggesting that the pastoral landscape could be rediscovered through technological innovations like the highway.
Nostalgia, an affliction first diagnosed in American Civil War soldiers far from home, is associated with travel, whether through space or time. Svetlana Boym, in her discussion of the relationship between technology and nostalgia, points out that nostalgia is “a disease of displacement” marked by a desire to return to a former space. Transportation technology was viewed as a way to achieve that return:
As a disease of displacement, nostalgia was connected to passages, transits and means of communication . . . In the nineteenth century, many believed that railroads would take care of displacement and that the speed of transportation would accommodate trips to and from home. Some thought that the modern metropolis would provide enough excitement and stimuli to quell people’s longings for the rustic life. Yet this did not come to pass. Instead, nostalgia accompanied each new stage of modernization, taking on different genres and forms, playing tricks with the timetables. (346)
Lawrence W. Levine argues that late nineteenth-century Americans created the memory of an Edenic America to go along with their narratives of progress, forming a kind of contradictory logic. The entangling of these two impulses has created a belief that the future could never be as good as an imagined past:
The central paradox of American history, then, has been a belief in progress coupled with a dread of change; an urge towards the inevitable future with a longing for the irretrievable past; a deeply ingrained belief in America’s unfolding destiny and a haunting conviction that the nation was in a state of decline. (191)
In other words, the progress narrative looks to an imagined future, while the nostalgic narrative looks to an idealized past that, ironically, can be defined only in opposition to a polluted, dehumanized present (like the Little Tramp’s industrial slag heap). Technology, in both cases, holds a central place as constitutive of a modernity that will save us but also from which we must be saved. Longing for a simpler past way of life, unmediated by complex technologies, thus also becomes a signifier of the modern and is achievable only through technological interventions.
Within this double-logic of modernity, technology comes to be characterized as the ultimate fix, a way to reunite past and present into a single narrative trope. As Boym suggests, technology holds a place in the public gestalt as a way to reconcile, rather than drive apart, the narratives of progress and nostalgia:
Technology is not a goal in itself but an enabling medium. While nostalgia mourns distances and disjunctures between times and spaces, never bridging them, technology offers solutions and builds bridges, saving the time that nostalgia loves to waste. (346)
The Futurama’s complex rendering of the relationship between nature and technology promised that the technology of the superhighway could return us to a more productive “natural” state. But, as Christopher Lasch notes,
Nostalgia is superficially loving in its re-creation of the past; but it evokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history’s hold over the present. (The Revolt of the Elites 242)
The Futurama exhibit called upon these nostalgic impulses, such as the dream to “get away from it all,” while also implicitly pronouncing the death of the pastoral. The Futurama was not a wild, unpopulated “natural” space, but a groomed countryside, created at the expense of the natural/wild landscape that it was designed to replace.
Nostalgia for the Future
Geddes’ artistic anticipation of the Interstate Highway System, both in the Futurama and later in his book Magic Motorways, is primarily aesthetic: sweeping curves, multiple lanes, idyllic public rest stops. Despite his emphasis on speed, efficiency, and productivity, it is unlikely that Geddes could have anticipated our very different landscape of today: the concrete-and-trash world of strip malls, fast food joints, gas stations, and turnpike “comfort centers.” These two scenes, mirror images reflecting the best and worst of the Interstate driving experience, have sparked a longing to recover the original aesthetic of the Futurama without its degraded flipside.
By the mid-1960s, the American public had begun to see highways, not as paved roads to a brighter future where city and country were seamlessly integrated, but as unsightly “serpentine monstrosit[ies]” that destroyed the landscape and fouled the air (Rose 101). Even now, the movement for the preservation of historic roads, ironically, calls upon the narratives of pastoral-human interrelations manifested in the Futurama exhibit, pitting the aesthetic beauty of “historic” highways, regarded as more fully integrated into the natural landscape, against the technical efficiency of the modern Interstate Highway System that, in the 1950s and 1960s, rammed its way through urban neighborhoods, displacing urban minorities to ease traffic for predominantly white suburban commuters.
Reporting on the 1960s’ attempts by the Kentucky Transportation Authority to widen the old historic Paris Pike, for example, Paul Daniel Marriott reports:
The battle, not unfamiliar to many, pitted advocates of the scenic countryside—with its stone walls, board fences and green pastures—against an engineering policy that emphasized safety and capacity with little regard for aesthetic effects. (162)
At the heart of historic highway activists’ efforts is a desire to recover the spirit of the bygone driving experience, connected with and owing its aesthetic pleasure to a pastoral visual register. This desire for the integrated landscape of nature and highway is an implicit rejection of the impersonal nature of the modern superhighway and hearkens back to the original vision of Geddes’ Futurama.
Meanwhile, we also seek to return to an era where technology would carry us into the future and solve the problem of nostalgia altogether. David Gelernter, in comparing the 1990s with the 1930s, suggests that the difference between the optimistic futurism of the World’s Fair era and the pessimism of the 1990s is the later generation’s lack of belief in “the future” itself. In fact, he suggests, the utopia imagined in the 1930s was in many ways achieved, although perhaps not in the way its dreamers hoped:
The fair predicted that Americans would move out of the cities into the suburbs, and we did. It claimed that the automobile would remake the landscape, and it did. It foresaw working and middle classes that were rich enough to live “the good life”, and in the fair’s terms that is exactly what we have done. (367)
Suburban development, though, exchanged one set of social problems for another: inner-city overcrowding gave way to suburban alienation; high-density housing and transportation systems (which, although not spacious, were energy-efficient) yielded to low-density houses and automobiles, increasing the energy and infrastructure necessary to heat and cool large houses, provide water for appliances and lawns, and transport single humans in large automobiles. Instead of promising a reconfiguration of living, “the future” promised more of the same: move from a “starter home” to a bigger house; upgrade a small car with a larger one. Instead of inheriting the “good life,” many Americans found that they had inherited what Tim Kasser calls “the goods life,” the culmination of a never-ending fordist cycle in which a ceaselessly laboring middle class both produces and consumes more and more “goods” in its quest for the promised utopian horizon.
Gelernter suggests that:
should we ever wish to change things and return to a world view like the high thirties’, . . . our biggest task will be to see something where today we see nothing; to imagine the future, period. (369)
Yet the idea of “returning to a world view like [that of] the high thirties” is in itself a rejection of our own future in favor of a past future. We are, in effect, nostalgic for a time when we believed nostalgia could be cured. We long, in other words, for the world of the fair, where nature and culture, past and future, dwelled harmoniously together on a rehabilitated ash dump.
Paris Pike, also known as the Lexington Turnpike, the Paris-Lexington Road, and U.S. 27/68, is an historic highway in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region. The 12-mile corridor stretches between Lexington and Paris, and is known both for its rolling hills through rural agricultural lands and old-growth woodlands. Its appeal to tourists continues to generate millions of dollars each year in revenue (Schneider 1). In 1969, when state transportation authorities announced plans to widen the road to four lanes to improve safety and increase capacity, preservationists, environmentalists, and land-owners intervened to halt the project. A federal injunction held the proposed expansion at bay for more than a decade while a lengthy and large-scale collaborative planning process for reconstruction was developed and implemented.
The Paris Pike historic preservation project now stands as a case-study for successful civic process, public participation, and conflict resolution. For preservationists, who successfully argued that landscape and aesthetic appeal must be considered as an essential part of highway design, the Paris Pike project marks a turning point in the battle to save historic highways. The design plans for the road were completed in 1994 and the reconstruction project, done in stages, was finally completed in 2001.
Marriott, Paul Daniel. Saving Historic Roads: Design and Policy Guidelines. National Trust for Historic Preservation. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
Schneider, Krista. The Paris-Lexington Road: Community-Based Planning and Context Sensi- tive Highway Design. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2003.
Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was an American historian, literary critic, and philosopher of science and technology. He is most noted for his studies of urban industrial life and architecture. In his 1934 study, Technics and Civilization, and in subsequent volumes, Mumford theorized the interaction between technology and human culture, particularly as this interaction is manifested in the modern industrial age. Critical of industrial capitalism’s slavish dependency on machinery, Mumford saw modern technology or “megatechnics” as an oppressive and unnatural force. He revisits this notion throughout his career, writing in 1970:
If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems). What can be known about life only through the process of living—and so is part of even the humblest organisms—must be added to all the other aspects that can be observed, abstracted, measured. . . . Once an organic world picture is in the ascendant, the working aim of an economy of plenitude will be not to feed more human functions into the machine, but to develop further man’s incalculable potentialities for self-actualization and self-transcendence, taking back into himself deliberately many of the activities he has too supinely surrendered into the mechanical system. (Pentagon of Power, 395)
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1934.
———. Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, Volume II. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970.
Notes from the Polyrhetor:
The City is a short polemical film produced in 1939 by Civic Films for the American Institute of Planners. The film pleads for city planners to redress the sprawl and pollution of industrialized cities while at the same time extolling the virtues of suburban communities. The film features bold uses of bleak imagery of industrial slag heaps, coal mines, and impoverished urban neighborhoods, along with an energetic orchestral soundtrack and doleful commentary written by urban historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford, well known for his criticisms of technology and urban sprawl. Through the aggressive use of these cinematic techniques, the film emphasizes the poverty, filth, and chaos of urban life, repeatedly contrasting it with serenity and pristine landscapes of suburban and exurban living.
Still image from The City. Dir. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke. Prod. Civic Films, Inc. American Institute of Planners, 1939. Film. Prelinger Archives.
Notes from the Polyrhetor:
Modern Times (1936), “[a] story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness,” was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, who also starred in the film as his recurring comic hero, Little Tramp. The film, the last of Chaplin’s silent films, also stars Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, and Chester Conklin. Considered by many to be Chaplin’s greatest achievement, Modern Times is perhaps best known for its iconic representation of Little Tramp frantically trying and ultimately failing to keep up with an industrial assembly line which eventually pulls him in and through the machine. The film was considered controversial given its overt, albeit comical, socialist commentary on the alienating effects and dehumanizing conditions created by industrial automation.
Modern Times. Dir. Charles Chaplin. Perf. Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, and Chester Conklin. Charles Chaplin Productions, 1936. Film.
“Publicity photo of Charlie Chaplin for the film Modern Times (1936).” 1936. United Artists. Wikimedia Commons.