Writing in The Believer, B. Alexandra Szerlip offers a fascinating profile of Norman Bel Geddes, the man who built the Futurama at the 1939 New York Worlds' Fair. I didn't know that Bel Geddes had started out with elaborated electro-mechanical games and that these game him the skills and insights he needed to build the Futurama.
The miniaturization and three-dimensional landscaping that Geddes devel for his games made Futurama possible. The War Game’s imaginary countries morphed into a reconfigured United States—California’s coastline juxtaposed with the Mississippi, cities composited, mountain ranges borrowed and shifted—and instead of waxed felt and papier-mâché, as in the past, Futurama’s geographical surfaces were made of a quick-hardening material that various textures could be applied to. Thirty-five thousand square feet were covered “with the stuff used to stuff birds,” presumably excelsior; after asking a taxidermist for twenty-five tons of it, Geddes ended up buying his shop. And along with all the handmade buildings, trees, and silver automobiles, Geddes’s fanatical attention to detail now manifested as “working” waterfalls, low clouds (fashioned with chemical vapors) clinging to mountainsides, and exacting replicas of clotheslines and cow paddies that World’s Fair visitors would never notice. What he called “human interest” details, his workforce referred to as “nuisance architecture.” Much of the crew considered him “nuts.” Geddes got his first look at the on-site office they built for him when the 408-panel model was trucked to the fairgrounds for assembly. The desk was nailed to the floor and a lamp nailed to the desk. There were bars on the window, and the walls were upholstered to resemble a padded cell.
A quarter century after the 1939 World’s Fair, and six years after Geddes’s death, General Motors reprised Futurama as Futurama II for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Aside from the “updates” of underwater vacation resorts and a trip to the moon, it was the same concept and design. Geddes might well have been proud. Then again, he might have wondered why, after twenty-five years, they hadn’t come up with something even better. He would have.
Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity [B. Alexandra Szerlip/The Believer]
(Image: Street intersection Futarama, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)