1939: The Modern City Unveiled

Lapel button

1939 New York World’s Fair

General Motors Pavilion Lapel Button 


As Nazi Germans were preparing to take northern Europe and France by Blitzkrieg the top corporations in the U.S. were readying their displays for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Visitors to the General Motors futurama came away with a lapel button inscribed: “I Have Seen the Future” and a brochure containing still photos of a floor-size scale model depicting what American cities would look like in just twenty years. History would show the futurama to have been highly accurate in both detail and scope. Yet, it didn’t tell the whole story.


Tuturama cover

Cover of the General Motors 1939 World’s Fair Brochure


Norman Bel Geddes, credited with popularizing streamline design in the 1930s in the U.S. and the designer of another futurama—the Metropolis City of 1960, a scale model created for Shell Oil in 1936—was commissioned by General Motors to build a large scale model of the American city of 1960 for the 1939 World’s Fair. Rather than build a model of a futuristic city, Geddes created a model of just what modern technology could deliver over the next two decades.


Model view: Futurama 1939



A common sight in any western capital, the temples of old stand side-by-side with the new cathedrals of commerce and automobile viaducts in the General Motors futurama. There is scant old fabric retained in this ‘brave new world’. Over the next six years military planners in Europe would destroy entire city districts at one time in the ensuing bombing raids of WWII. Old was out.



Model view: Futurama 1939



The interchange built at the junction of two or more freeways became the symbol of modern urbanism. Today, such a confluence is seen as a prime strategic opportunity to build something not anticipated in 1939—a regional shopping center. This type of highway interchange was soon realized as governments took on the responsibility of building new major highway systems to make possible the widespread use of automobiles. As a direct consequence of public expenditure profits flowed to the automobile industry in exchange for economic growth in the private sector.


2.1 Four towers

Model view: Futurama 1939



Pictured above four symmetrical towers flank a freeway interchange. This concept had been proposed for the first interchange west of the Arc du Triomphe in Paris in the 1930s. Geddes scale model for Shell Oil (1936) showed a similar arrangement (see below). Here, we see private development attaining monumental scale. This too was not entirely new. In Manhattan in 1913 the Woolworth Corporation had erected what some consider to be the first corporate skyscraper. The message was incontrovertible: the realm once reserved for the expression of collective values would be turned over to privately held interests.


4 Downtown

Model view: Futurama 1939



“Downtown” or the central business district (CBD) as it came to be called in the Cold War era combined investments by public and private sectors to stimulate economic growth and employment. Take away the elevated streets and add a significant amount of “empty lots”—used for surface parking in the holding strategies of the portfolios of land speculators—and this view can be found just about anywhere in large and medium North American cities. The absence of historic districts makes it a poor model for most European centers.


5 Route to Airport

Model view: Futurama 1939



The futurama wrapped the high density downtown core with a low density zone traversed by high-volume freeways. This type of urban landscape is now visible in most major centers joining the core to the airport. In North America the inclusion of transit as a viable alternative to the automobile, and the designation of highway lanes for commercial goods movement—both visible in the model photo above—are laggards.

The futurama predicted with a great degree of accuracy the shape and look of the contemporary city, warts and all. It was also a vivid demonstration of how the automobile would be the great social leveller, enhancing the number and quality of choices for all individuals via increased personal mobility. A weaknesses in the presentation is the amount of elevated highways cutting through downtown in what appears to be an over-reliance on freeways traversing core city blocks. Yet, even these details were built and can be seen in operation today in some North American cities.

What is truly remarkable about the model photographs is how much they resemble contemporary proposals. 75 years later a vision crafted by stage designers and display artists remains the preferred model for the development industry.


6 The automobile

1964 New York World’s Fair



If the primary intent behind futurama remained hidden, or went unnoticed by visitors in 1939, then it became abundantly clear by the time a second World’s Fair came to the same site in 1964—it was all meant to sell cars and all that came with it:

  • The ‘futurama’ contains approximately 500,000 individually designed houses; more than a million trees of eighteen species; and 50,000 scale-model automobiles, of which 10,000 are in actual operation over super-highways, speed lanes and multi-decked bridges’.

We are not told how many scale figures of people populate the gigantic model. However, the ratio of 1 car for every 10 houses seems grossly undersized by current standards. Suburban homes today present between two and four cars per driveway. Thus, a ratio 3 cars per home, or 1.5 million automobiles for 500,000 homes is more realistic. That is 30 times more traffic than was shown in the futurama, raising two important points:

  • Runaway profits for the automakers; and
  • The collapse of private automobile as a reliable form of transportation as gridlock sets in along with shocks in oil supply, and shortfalls in funding for highway construction and repair. [For the purposes of this discussion let us assume that the looming environmental crisis will be avoided by converting the fleet from fossil to hydro-electric fuel sources].

Is it possible that both of these results seemed improbable to the designers in the late 1930s? Or was it already clear that either one might whittle away public support for the project in general, and the reputation of the host company in particular?

On a more down to earth level the futurama was a weak predictor of the importance of making human-scale environments in the city to support social functioning. The scale model amounted to the reverse-engineering of the city to fit the automobile and the corporate tower. In other words, western urbanism was being turned on its head to serve corporate profits. Commentators on ‘the most popular exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair’ failed to address these and other key points. For example, the question was never raised about who would profit most from all this change. The impracticality of the whole scheme was never called into question either: What lies under the raised streets and sidewalks? Searching out such places today we encounter a wasteland under elevated freeways, overpasses and commuter trains. Acres and acres of valuable city land lie feral, or serve low intensity uses like storage yards and overflow parking.


9 people mover_7

Futurama 1939: Photomontage of visitors sitting in high back chairs outfitted with speakers, viewing the scale model from a moving conveyor belt.


Seated in chairs moving around the huge exhibit hall on a conveyor belt, visitors were passive spectators hovering over new and artistic arrangements of buildings, highways and landscapes. Seeing the scale-model from a vantage point of an airplane flying at a height of 500 feet (150 m) they were turned into disconnected observers in a new political bargain where they would not play an active role.


On 17 January 1961—twenty years after the futurama closed its doors to the public—departing U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 5-star general and commander in chief of the allied forces in WWII, warned of a realignment underway in the structure underpinning western democracies [italics mine]:

  • This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

For an American public inclined to heed the words of Hebrew Scripture, the warning of the prophet held particular currency as WWII rolled over into the Cold War overseen by the Eisenhower administration (Isaiah 2.4):

  • [T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

The facts on the ground could not have been more different. The technology developed under the Third Reich was captured by the conquering armies—along with the very scientists responsible for its development—and was used to fuel a global arms race. Technical advancement in weaponry grew in leaps and bounds. Inventions pilled up one upon another. Yet all these victories were won in the military-industrial sector. As the Cold War decades marched on, however, private corporations began to attain a scale and magnitude sufficient to allow them to acquire total influence over local, regional and federal governments. The trail blazed by military contractors was soon followed by large interests in the private sector. This left individuals doubly burdened: having to compel proper meshing between private corporations and communities, on top of taming the huge industrial-military machinery of defence. Thus, in the final analysis the modernist landscape resolves itself as a contest pitting private corporate interest—with governments acting alongside—against values of community and values of place. The latter upheld by individuals acting through ad hoc organizations while the former operate with deep pockets to win political influence and media exposure.


 7 Gedes model shell oil

“Well-spaced towers rise amid light and air in tomorrow’s city.” Gedes model city for Shell Oil (1936)



After completing the World Fair pavilion for General Motors Geddes published a book entitled Magic Motorways (1940). In the closing pages he articulates an argument for building towers that is still heard today in municipal halls across North America spoken by proponents of tall towers and their apologists:

  • Tall towers are not a problem as long as they are spaced far enough apart to allow for light and air.

Driving this vision is a will to concentrate real estate holdings in the hands of a select few who then wield their economic power to put another elite group in control of City Hall.

Viewed with an analytic eye—including the understanding of over 2500 years of urban development in the west—there are flaws in the Geddes futurama: Building scale, economic impacts and social functioning are on the retreat for no apparent reason at all. Rather, it becomes apparent that corporate profits—or the bottom line—are the force driving tower and highway construction. It is important to underscore here that all of the futurama’s vision can be achieved by human-scale urbanism served by a mix of public transit and private vehicles. There is no need for all that gigantism—none but one. Only large-scale development can guarantee competitive advantage to the large corporations. In the human-scale paradigm both small and large enterprises—Davids and Goliaths—compete on a level playing field. The same is not true for the futurama. In that model project size restricts competition to an elite. From there, the leveraging of political influence is only a matter of course.

The tall towers and the mega-highway paradigm is problematic as a generator of sprawl, energy hog and gross polluter. Design, construction, financing and livability—all experience higher levels of risk or stress as public infrastructure and private development projects ramp up in scale. The alternative is well known: small is beautiful. Mega projects in the private sector introduce distorting effects in neighbourhoods by destabilizing the local economy. Politics soon follows. When only a select group profits from every new venture the pressure is on to serve the highest bidder.

The most pernicious economic impact of the towers and the mega-highways is the gutting of the middle class. When wage earners can no longer afford to move up the home ownership ladder a new economy sets in. By pricing clear-title ownership of residences out of the reach of working and entrepreneurial families, or driving affordability to the fringe edges of the suburbs where a two-hour commute is the hidden burden, industry gains a competitive advantage in the all-important real estate market. The sale price per square foot of the entry-level unit in a tower starts the upward spiral in the cost of housing. In towers 15% of the tower floor area is uninhabitable space reserved for circulation and exiting. The cost of construction and maintenance of this ‘common area’ is added on to the unit cost. Other costs that only present in large scale projects also inflate the price of each unit, including: The costs of elevators, heating, water, air, storage, parking and recycling. The tower scale necessitates investment in plant and equipment not necessary in human scale buildings. Significantly, the comings and goings in human-scale buildings happen in the public realm where they animate the street and fuel social functioning in the neighbourhood.

As housing prices rise, home ownership falls. Soon owning a home becomes an impossibility for an ever increasing segment of the population. Then, as the city and region house an ever greater proportion of rent-paying citizens, the local politics soon bends to the interests of the landlords. The prospects for renters drop while the elite collecting rents see soaring opportunities. The interests of the wealthy few outstrip those of a majority shut out from owning property. Two polarized groups with vastly differing needs face one another across political lines with no one left in the middle.

The problem is not just that the towers are too high severing the connection between the inhabitants and the ground plane while shadowing the public realm from distances far, far away. Or that the economic effects can have predatory consequences. The problem is that the physical spaces in the city traditionally reserved for social mixing are missing. What we are given instead lacks the qualities necessary to support social functioning. Public space in the futurama has been dumbed down. Put in the left over spaces between the towers and the highways the areas are too large to support social mixing. What were once the pocket park, the square, and the piazza are turned into a ‘no man’s land’ where nobody ever goes. Empty, spaces in the city are soon filled by the criminal element—urbanism abhors a vacuum. The futurama is foreshadowing the private security guards roaming vast spaces that only look inviting when seen in a floor model from far away and high up. A common place today is also not represented: entire downtown blocks used for surface parking. This and other holding strategies in large real estate portfolios are not depicted in the futurama where the parking is all underground (the most expensive form of vehicle storage) and the slum areas are non-existent. 


8 intersection outside

Futurama 1939: Internal open spaces at the 1939 GM Pavilion

with GM cars on display


Even if we concede universal car use and parking below grade, the time it would take to move into an underground garage, find a parking space, and then an elevator to take us to our destination would—in actual fact—result in travel times and distances much greater than found in the walkable, human-scale cities. Never mind hour-long back ups that occur daily in multi-level garages when everyone leaves at the same time at the close of the business day. Or the bland spaces that result around garage ramps and entrances, corridors and elevators. Of course, there are many instances where the automobile has been a generator of opportunity helping to put all social strata on a level playing field. The tower once provided the only means for stacking all the functions of a large corporation in a single site. However, even the original corporate skyscraper—the Woolworth Building in New York City (1910) carried many floors of speculative office space for rent. As the trend builds, the clustering of towers in one district loads too many trips into to small urban footprint. What is more, the digital age has made it so that housing an entire corporation in a single tower is no longer necessary to sustain internal communications. The private car works best off-peak for non-commuter trips. Thus, the death knell has sounded for the corporate tower. Not only was it overbuilt to include some floor for generating rental income over and above corporate needs, but the impersonality of working in a tower brought with it obvious limitations. There is just no comparison between bumping into people in a town square or an arcaded sidewalk, and taking an elevator ride to the 42nd floor with strangers. One experience is full of motion, light, air and opportunity. In the other we just feel ‘stuck’. Countless opportunities for social mixing are simply lost in the futurama never to be recovered. While each one may seem insignificant on its own, ultimately their cumulative effect proves decisive—corporate interests dominate decision making.

It took just four decades for the automobile utopia of the futurama to return disastrous results: oil shocks; economic crisis; grid-lock; environmental degradation and the public realm of the city given over almost in its entirely for the use of vehicles. Seventy five years ago it all seemed too easy: Just sit back and watch the world go by. Gaze down at the scale model and enjoy the show… Having nothing to compare it to all were amazed. The corporations were going to get it right! Futurama was an experience completely alien to its visitors.

In 2005 GM would show a different edge. As we recount here  the corporate giant turned on the citizenry, pulled from production and yanked out from the garages of customers, the GM EV-1. Prompted by California legislation that they challenged in the courts, the company had produced a mass-assembly car that ran on electricity. It’s widespread implementation would have cleaned the air and ended the monopoly of oil as the primary energy source. There in the most powerful global corporate boardrooms the future was quashed. Private corporate profits were more important.


Promotional film from the exhibit (23 mins)


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