Archive for April, 2011

Designing Tomorrow

Washington DC is filled with museums. The Smithsonian is the one everyone thinks of immediately with its sprawling complex of buildings around the Mall, but smaller quirkier ones can be found in DC as well. One of my favorites is the National Building Musuem, located across the street from the National Law Enforcement Memorial. The building itself is quite a treat in itself, a rusty brick color covered in friezes. I still remember a memorable pre-dawn morning I came out of the Metro stop and saw the building against a reddish sky.

Until July 2011, the National Building Museum has a lovely exhibit called Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. I toured the exhibit on my lunch hour one day. The exhibit covers all the 1930s era World Fairs from Chicago through New York, showcasing everything from the architecture and art through to the science and transportation exhibits. I’ve always adored the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair with the Trylon and Perisphere, but it was interesting to learn about the others as well. I did however have a thoroughly unexpectedly geeky moment as a comic book fan when I encountered the massive Elektro, the Westinghouse robot. In DC Comics’ “All Star Squadron”, based at the fairgrounds, they had a similar robot named Gernsback.

If you’re interested in one particular World’s Fair, you might find the exhibit frustrating, since all the Fairs are mixed and mingled together, so you learn about all the architecture together. But it’s equally fascinating to see the different styles side by side for comparison. The emphasis was architecture and interior design, but there were also sections on technology and transportation. Major industries¬† used the World’s Fair to show off their latest and greatest or try to predict what would come next. There seemed a heavy emphasis on speculating on the future.

I loved the aviation section. I’d known that the Graf Zeppelin had visited Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. The exhibit even had a cancelled mail envelope from that trip. However I hadn’t known that the Goodyear Blimp was on the fairgrounds itself. Or their massive Sky Ride, a tramway that crossed the lagoon. That would have terrified me no end. For all my interest in airships, I don’t do well with heights.

What struck me most was the scale involved and the amount of work and preparation that must have gone into each one. In the heart of the Depression, they provided much needed jobs, but I could also see someone asking “What’s the point?” The Fairs were a strange source of hope, an escape from the everyday. You could wander around them and see all the wonderful gadgets and cars and houses and forget all the problems. You could imagine living a different life in a prefabricated house with fancy new appliances.

We still don’t have flying cars or robot maids (or personal airships), but we can still dream, can’t we?