Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity


A maverick theater and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes is best remembered for creating the undisputed hit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Mounted in the midst of the Great Depression, the Fair focused on America’s promise of a utopian tomorrow. Geddes’s Futurama, a piece of “immersion theater,” took six hundred visitors at a time on a swooping, simulated airplane ride across America circa 1960. Few people in 1939 had ever ridden in a plane. Looking down, they saw everything from experimental farms and “floating” airports to seven-lane highways, multi-decked bridges, and radio-controlled traffic moving beneath suspended pedestrian walkways—all radical concepts at the time. More than twenty-four million people waited for up to five hours, in rain and hot sun, to experience it. Today, Futurama is considered the most iconic Fair exhibit of all time. Sponsored by General Motors to the tune of seven million dollars, the equivalent of ninety-one million dollars today, it was the largest animated model ever built: 35,738 square feet. It required the labor of some three thousand carpenters, electricians, draftsmen, and model-makers, and the manufacture of five-hundred thousand miniature buildings varying in scale, two million handmade miniature trees (eighteen different species, with imported moss for foliage), and fifty thousand futuristic silver automobiles—ten thousand of them designed to move.

more from B. Alexandra Szerlip at The Believer here.