Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Whirling Futuramas: Norman Bel Geddes's Practical and Aesthetic Transport

Lines of people entering NBG's Futurama

Image Credit: Magic Motorways

Following up on my previous post about Norman Bel Geddes's ambitious application of hydro/aerodynamics to develop concept vehicles which imparted a strong sense of motion, I would like to follow up on the legacy of Bel Geddes's aesthetics of transportation in contemporary popular culture, taking a journey from his famous World's Fair exhibit, Futurama (pictured above), to Matt Groening's contemporary television show, Futurama. Bel Geddes's futuristic view of a world of connectivity involved literal as well as aesthetic transport. By looking at aspects of his work that have been translated into modern title sequences, I suggest we can get a better sense of his ability to capture a feeling  of crossing threshholds and ushering us into  strange, exciting, and entertaining worlds.

Bel Geddes vehicle

Image Credit: Harry Ransom Center

Bel Geddes's Futurama, the predominant feature of the 1939 World's Fair, was geared to give people a sense of the future of transportation by 1950. He tried to simulate this feeling by giving World's Fair Guests a simulated "plane-ride" through the exhibit that was powered by a conveyer belt system that moved them through the system. This was meant to give Depression Era spectators of flying through the air as they pondered the possibility of an increasingly connected future--one that they might help build. Of chief interest was to fulfill the deeply seated needs of human community without presenting a dehumanizing future. "Throughout all recorded history," Geddes writes in his 1940 manifesto, Magic Motorways, "man has made repeated efforts to reach out farther and to communicate with other men more easily and quickly, and these efforts have reached the climax of their success in the twentieth century. This increasing freedom of movement makes possible a magnificently full, rich life for the people of our time. A free-flowing movement of people and goods across our nation is a requirement of modern living and prosperity" (10). However, he was concerned that contemporary traffic conditions--characterized by stops and starts, traffic lights and standstills, would make people feel more like sheep than human beings.

 Sheep compared to Humans in Magic Motorways

Image Credit: Magic Motorways

Futurama, Bel Geddes argues, "gave them a dramatic and graphic solution to a problem which they all faced" (4).

Matt Groening has acknowledged that Bel Geddes' Futurama was an inspiration for his television's show which bears the same name, and the show's title sequence captures some of the reasons for this perfectly. Viewing the opening  title sequence for Matt Groening's Futurama and the image of Groening's fictive New York pictured below, we notice a similar sense of continuous motion. Flying vehicles of all sorts follow one another in perfect lines, as do people flying from place to place in tubes. And yet, they do not appear like sheep. People and objects maintain their individuality while moving in harmony . The same goes for the tubes that transport people through the city.

 New York Cityscape Futurama

Image Credit: Futurama Wikia

Geddes' aesthetic helped poeticize the value of transportation at a time when the first major U.S. freeways were beginning their construction, and by the end of the Eisenhauer Presidency the Interstate Freeways system was rapidly growing, connecting disparate parts of the nation with roads that emphasized speed, flow, and forward momentum over intersections and frequent stops. The world of possibility is especially emphasized in the title page of his manifesto, Magic Motorways. The shadows which make up the words on the title page emphasize that he is pointing to what's possible with the motorways, and the sharp angle of his lettering gives a sense of a new horizon being approached.

Title cover of magic motorways and Lost Highway

Image Credits:  Magic Motorways and David Lynch's Lost Highway

We might also notice that the opening credits to David Lynch's Lost Highway bear some resemblance to the font and word angling that Bel Geddes used in Magic Motorways. Though his stories are rooted in the present, Lynch's films frequently invoke a sense of nostalgia for bygone times, and the most consistent trope of his work involves tight focus on the roads of America. Though a dark, gothic film, the metaphor of the highway invokes the same kind of feeling of possibility that Bel Geddes associated with the road. And the opening credits emphasize that the film's erratic portrayal of split identities is more about motion and connectivity than it is about stagnation and fragmentation. If Bel Geddes helped invoke a sense of magic in the motorway, I suggest the possibility that Lynch might be riffing off of Bel Geddes, like the title credits for Futurama, demonstrate Bel Geddes's powerful strategy of inspiring spectators--past and present--with the feeling of crossing into the threshhold of a strange and exciting new world, characterized by motion and awe.

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