General Motors’ America

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“Contrasting cities of today (top) and yesterday (bottom) in the General Motors Parade of Progress Souvenir Edition promotional brochure, circa 1936.” (Collection of Nathaniel Walker)

How did modern architecture boot classical architecture from its control of the design and planning establishments in America so quickly? After all, it took only about 30 years from the time modernist design hit the streets and the time, about 1960, by which it was the establishment. In 1931, Mencken wrote, “A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.” In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art held its infamous exhibit on “The International Style,” exposing modern architecture to Americans for the first time. By 1960, tradition had been purged from the practice of design and planning, from the curricula of schools of architecture, and had been frog-marched out of the architectural media. Its practitioners surrendered and retired. Its artists and craftsmen went bankrupt, their sons went into other fields. In terms of cultural time, all of this happened in the snap of a finger.

My efforts to unravel this mystery generally focus on how society – high society, in the main – handed top academic jobs to modernists just because they were refugees from Nazi Germany, and how they then acted to purge tradition from the schools. In the face of this challenge, traditional architects fought back (if you can call it that) by bending over to compromise with the modernists, leading to much “stripped” classical work, or, often, premature retirement from a suddenly uncongenial profession. Meanwhile, to judge by critical essays in the journal Pencil Points, tradition had been unchallenged for so long that its defenders had lost the ability to express their aesthetic principles. I would now add industrial-strength propaganda to the mix.

A good example of propaganda used to foist an unnecessary and arguably unwise but massive shift in the American way of life was the campaign by General Motors to make the automobile a “fourth American necessity” with food, clothing and shelter. In 1929, the director of research for GM, Charles F. Kettering, described his job as “to make people dissatisfied with what they already have” – and transform society into a guinea pig for the concept of “planned obsolescence.” Kettering and his fellow execs designed and carried out a propaganda campaign that for two decades pounded GM’s corporate agenda into the American cranium.

That campaign is described in appalling detail by College of Charleston architectural historian Nathaniel Robert Walker. He argues that historians have tended to highlight the roles of government planners and design professionals in this societal transformation, while neglecting the role of industry. In Walker’s lengthy essay “American Crossroads: General Motors’ Midcentury Campaign to Promote Modernist Urban Design in Hometown U.S.A.” – in Buildings & Landscapes, a journal published at the University of Minnesota – he describes the depth and breadth of GM’s role in that effort:

For the automobile to join the ranks of basic human requirements, adjustments would need to be made in the infrastructure of daily life, especially in cities, where walking and the electric streetcar were still important modes of transport. Kettering and his fellow General Motors executives would soon suggest the required reforms, showing the way forward to universal daily automobile use and, consequently, to total automobile dependence. …

It was believed the consumption entailed by nonstop motoring, together with the economic activity generated by the destruction and re-creation of American towns and cities, would contribute to widespread and self-perpetuating prosperity by generating insatiable demand for industrial products, especially cars. This ambition meant that it would never be enough to simply build rural highways connecting cities to one another. American highways would have to be cut through the civic and commercial cores of communities, utterly and permanently transforming them.

From GM’s pavilion at Chicago’s “Century of Progress Exposition” in 1933-34 to its celebrated “Futurama” exhibit (see video at end) at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, interspersed by years worth of traveling exhibits seen by millions in cities and towns nationwide, the campaign concluded abruptly with the passage of the National Highway Act, which codified GM’s goals in law and turned its attack on America’s cities and towns on behalf of industry’s bottom line into national policy. Walker continues:

GM was not alone in prescribing creative destruction as a stimulant for America’s cities; indeed, by the 1930s the term “obsolescence” had “become ubiquitous in the fields of real estate, finance, and city planning,” condemning even sturdy and unblemished buildings, and sometimes whole neighborhoods, to an early demise as a glad concession to the economic dynamism that would replace them with something new. A broad “cult of the new” had become an increasingly dominant feature of American consumer culture since the close of the nineteenth century, as many manufacturers, merchants, and advertisers deliberately worked to produce “a new consumer consciousness,” opening the average American’s “imagination and emotion to desire.”

In his 2011 exhibit “Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future” at Brown University, Walker explained how expression of the idea of the future shifted over time from traditional styles handed down over the centuries to untested modernist styles that prefigure the “Jetsons” cartoon show. It may be usefully asked whether an industrial society requires a machine aesthetic. I do not believe there is any intelligent argument for any such necessity. More to the point here, did General Motors wrongly seek to force societal change to accelerate from a more natural pace to a more abrupt and disruptive pace? It is, in my opinion, difficult to argue that America is better off, or that people anywhere lead lives of greater contentment as a result. Arguably, a slackening of that pace in the design of our built environment would serve as an anchor enabling people (and society) to more easily accommodate rapidity in other types of change.

According to Walker, GM sought to infuse the very culture with the idea that what America had built thus far was “obsolete” and that the only valid modernity was a future based on ever more equipment and ever more speed. And to the extent that this idea of progress required a new aesthetic, the supposedly streamlined design not only of automobiles but of buildings (which do not need to overcome much wind resistance) was jack-hammered into the popular American imagination starting at a young age.

More than Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, whose work GM emulated in its displays, and even more than Norman Bel Geddes or Robert Moses, whose work it directly sponsored and promoted, GM was strategically positioned to capture the imaginations of everyday Americans – to affect their perceptions of their hometowns and their expectations and hopes for the future of the same. The company exhausted tremendous resources “to set a boy to dreaming” for a new, modern, high-tech, and high-speed alternative to the “obsolete” sidewalks along Main Street.

“Industry has joined science with art,” GM asserted in literature promoting its cross-country parade of propaganda. Perhaps. Asserting so did not make it so, and if it were so it might not necessarily be “progress,” let alone something considered unarguably good.

The Parade of Progress’s urban design exhibit was primarily dedicated to transportation infrastructure, but aesthetics were also deployed to sharpen its message. Echoing the before-and-after rhetoric of the domestic interior displays, two mechanized cityscape dioramas were presented, one of 1900 and one of 1936. In the city of 1900, buggies and trolleys plodded through the city grid, whereas in 1936 motor-cars and streamlined diesel trains flowed on and along an urban freeway at a rapid pace unencumbered by intersections. The appearance of the architecture in each diorama heightened the contrast between old and new; the smaller, wooden-and-brick, ornate mixed-use streetscape of 1900 was pitched against the gleaming highrise business district of 1936, with many of its simple, streamlined masses broken by horizontal ribbon windows and, in one instance, capped by a rooftop airstrip. This didactic display was understandably described in one newspaper as a comparison not only between old and new modes of travel but also between past and future eras of living – as a presentation of “The City of Yesterday and That of Tomorrow.”

How difficult it is to determine, at first glance, which image is today and which is yesterday! Except for the high-speed rail, the International Style building at the far left, and the overall scale of the cityscape of “tomorrow,” both seem far less “modernist” than many cities and even smaller towns are nowadays. It only goes to show how far toward a Jetsons “future” cities have come and how the GM vision has been realized since its “Parade of Progress” opened eight decades ago. It ran from 1936 to 1939, until GM’s Futurama pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and then ran for a longer postwar stint, updated, from 1941 to 1942 (with a break to retool for war), and then, updated again, from 1953 to 1956. In 1939 there was no interstate highway system. It is hard today to think that the future that the Futurama had in mind was 1960. Bel Geddes almost persuaded GM to send a model of the Futurama around the country by zeppelin, but this (unlike the concept of superhighways) was torpedoed as too unsafe.

The degree of difference between the model and the present city of the 1930s was extensively debated – should the future city be an evolution or a revolution? Some staff members pointed out how baroque radial city plans, such as that of Washington, D.C., or Detroit, were efficient movers of street traffic, but Bel Geddes tersely countered, in a gesture toward revolution, “This type of plan is obsolete now.” At the same time, Bel Geddes felt ambivalent about the idea of existing cities being penetrated by the biggest roads. Limited-access express boulevards superimposed over old city grids were certainly desirable, but he believed that twelve-lane superhighways should probably be limited to city peripheries. This may seem a minor distinction today, but it would later put a degree of distance between Bel Geddes’s work and GM’s view of the ideal future city.

The popular success of the “Futurama” designed by Bel Geddes for the GM pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York further exposed the rift between the plans of Bel Geddes and the even more radical plans of GM.

R. L. Duffus, critic for the New York Times, expressed frustration at the power of the Futurama to infiltrate the minds of the public: “Maybe we would enjoy [Bel Geddes’s] kind of United States and maybe we would be terrified by it or wonder what was gained by going to so many places at such speeds. But the crowd is almost silent, wholly fascinated. Despite all disappointments these Fair-goers still worship the future.” The public was not alone; in a turn of events that surely thrilled GM, Bel Geddes was invited by President Roosevelt to the White House for a special summit on future traffic programs. [New York planning czar] Robert Moses, however, was less complimentary about the Futurama. … He publicly criticized as “bunk” Bel Geddes’s belief that the largest superhighways should be kept to open countryside rather than driven through the hearts of cities. Bel Geddes responded by willfully maintaining his position in a book he published in 1940 to capitalize on the success of the Futurama, entitled Magic Motorways. GM would soon purge such ambivalence from its urban design campaign by turning away from Bel Geddes and instead enlisting Moses to help develop future exhibits.

Here, in Walker’s description, is how the new version of the urban exhibit, dubbed “Our American Crossroads,” operated (see video at end):

Whereas the original 1936 Parade of Progress urban exhibit had consisted of two separate city models, one old and one futuristic, Our American Crossroads used machinery and an audio recording by actor Parker Fennelly to brilliantly combine three epochs into a single model that, over fourteen minutes, mechanically evolved from old to new before the viewer’s eyes.

The exhibit performance began with the tiny, backwards village of Pleasant Corners in the year 1900. Dirt roads linked a general store, a blacksmith’s shop, a humble schoolhouse, a quaint church, and a thin scattering of Victorian farmhouses. Its scarce citizens were described as either very old or very bored. Then, primitive motorcars slowly began to trickle into town, confounding the sleepy villagers. The exhibit’s large dirt road mechanically flipped over to be replaced with a paved one, courtesy of the state government. The trickle of motorcars became a quick and steady stream. The local economy shuddered to life, and old buildings were rotated out for enlarged and improved versions. Houses popped up as commuters moved to the area, abandoning city neighborhoods for a subdivided piece of former farmland. A bank, a playhouse, and new shops all rotated into view. By 1920 the formerly bucolic place had become a full-fledged town, all courtesy of the paved road and automobiles that connected it to the larger world. Then, that road rotated yet again to reveal a four-lane, high-speed freeway. The pace of change quickened. The buildings, until now mostly traditional in style, were flipped out for modernist specimens, with flat roofs, large streamlined masses, and horizontal and corner windows. A motor inn made a conspicuous debut. The cars in the display were by this point whizzing past quite quickly, and there could be no question Pleasant Corners had become a suburban dynamo, with no end to progress in sight. Anyone resisting the required advances had been proved an old fool. Main Street had become a roaring highway, and obsolescence had been overcome.

A third version of the urban exhibit, called “Out of the Muddle,” expanded the theme of radical change even further. To solve the traffic problems caused by flooding the zone with cars, on-street parking was barred, with automobiles funneled onto parking lots created by demolishing old buildings, with two-way streets giving way to one-way streets.

This futuristic vision was admiringly described as a “dream city” by a number of reporters. Today, it is perhaps best understood as a corporate-vernacular rendition of the automobile-centric modernist planning theories espoused in works such as The Athens Charter, published in 1943. A side-by-side visual comparison of the “dream city” and the old downtown in the lower register of the exhibit makes it clear the latter would have to be either abandoned or totally demolished for the former to take shape. The mild scruples of Bel Geddes regarding urban superhighways had been ousted. In both parts one and two of Out of the Muddle, the new ideal presented was a revolutionary change in traffic circulation as well as in the essential nature of building; the grid and its coordination in scale to the human foot were gone, and in their place rose a sprawling suburban landscape of far-flung houses and towers set in manicured parks. Here, the “fourth American necessity” would always be required for the most basic participation in economic and social life.

Some 19.5 million Americans saw the Parade of Progress. At the time, that was one in eight Americans. Quite extraordinary. And its influence on the American built environment was profound. But by the same token, 40 years earlier some 27.5 million Americans living in a less populous nation visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, over six months, to see the White City – a classical city quarter built to full scale, but designed to be torn down after the fair. Those visitors represented a quarter of the U.S. population at the time. Nor did the exhibit come to them – they had to travel to the exhibit, mostly by train (local or interstate), with neither the automobile nor the aeroplane yet in existence.

Were it not for the City Beautiful Movement inspired by the White City’s classical architecture, who knows what impact GM’s effort would have had on cities? In the three decades after 1893, many cities sought to refashion downtowns, civic centers and commercial districts according to an urban style expressly devoted to beauty. Were it not for that, the existing American city would have been even easier for the modernists to mow down. GM’s campaign certainly shows how propaganda was another powerful facet in taking down the architectural establishment between 1930 and 1960.

Walker’s essay explores the power of the ideas spread by General Motors and its allies. The product of their ability to kidnap our future and hold it ransom to the needs of the bottom line of industry is much clearer today than it was during GM’s campaign for the automobile. The most extraordinary facet of Walker’s essay is the skepticism he brings to the subject, the way he raises his eyebrow, to say the least, at the baldfaced bromides deployed to defend the indefensible. Maybe even more surprising than what has been lost is how much beauty remains part of our built heritage. After all, America is not all crudscape, not yet. One need not be against cars – I certainly am not – to recognize that their dominance in our lives has had its downsides, on civic design in particular. Thankfully, another movement has arisen in the past half century to resist further erosion. Let’s hope the preservation movement, after a few decades of inattention, comes to understand the importance of a very deep rethink of its role in civic design. Nathaniel Walker’s scholarship, erudition and eloquence is likely to bring that about sooner than otherwise.

Here, from Wired magazine online, is a video of five minutes showing the 1939 World’s Fair “Futurama” exhibit. You must see it to believe it. More extraordinary than the exhibit itself is the narration of the video, taken, I must suppose, from the exhibit itself. And here is a video of the American Crossroads traveling exhibit.

(I am trying to find a way to link to Nathaniel Walker’s full article. For now, the journal that published it hesitates to promote a public link to its contents.)

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Audiences in moving chairs observe the Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair. (Chateaustyle)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to General Motors’ America

  1. Thanks for the lengthy review of Walker’s article — I’ll look up the original. On YouTube there is this video that has details about the Futureliner display vehicles and some documentary footage of the Parade of Progress on tour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcgzgv41uaU

    And this video describes the Parade of Progress from the point of view of a young staff member. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DinaiK0k5NM Look at 3:30 and you can see the modernist landscape model that Walker describes. It’s an accurate forecast of the suburban edge cities that began to appear in metro areas in the 1970s and 80s. Now some of them, like Tysons Corners, VA, are struggling to retrofit themselves as more pedestrian-friendly.

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    • My grandmother spent the last couple decades of her life in Reston, Va., which one of LBJ’s Model Cities (or a private version of one). It was reached from D.C. (where I grew up) by a route that went almost entirely through wooded areas and farmland. Subsequently Tyson’s Corner was built between Reston and D.C., and then doubled or quadrupled in size. I’m glad to hear that its leaders are now trying to bring some civility back to the place.

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