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Visionary Norman Bel Geddes - We Need Another Optimist

On The Line

Kevin Clemen
Mar 5, 2010 SHARE

The other day, while writing a review of a photo archive book about Chicago trains and stations for my new automotive and transportation book review website (which in a shameless plug I will tell you is located at speedreaders.info), I was struck by something about train travel in the 1920s and '30s: It had style. Locomotives in that period followed the Art Deco motif, featuring the use of graphical elements and design that made a train an elegant way to travel.

Epcp_1004_01_o+visionary_norman_bel_geddes+editor_kevin_clemens Photo 2/3   |   Visionary Norman Bel Geddes - We Need Another Optimist

The train cars themselves followed the styling of their engines with streamlined shapes often rendered in sleek aluminum. Looking at the pictures made me want to hop aboard the San Francisco Chief, the Grand Canyon Limited, the Dixie Limited, the Capitol Limited, the vaunted Twentieth Century Limited, or any one of the dozens of other christened trains that served passengers out-bound from Chicago.

By the '50s and '60s, the styling of locomotives and trains themselves moved away from glamour, becoming more efficient but much less interesting. The drive to efficiency actually got a big push when the Electromotive Division of General Motors introduced a hybrid diesel-electric passenger locomotive in 1938 and one capable of carrying freight in 1939. These game-changers quickly displaced steam, but were much less stylish and eventually resulted in boxy locomotives that looked more like refrigerators than sleek means of transportation.

At the same time that General Motors engineers were developing hybrids for the rail industry, a designer named Norman Bel Geddes was making a name for himself. Bel Geddes trained at the Cleveland Art Institute and the Chicago Institute of Art, but never received a formal degree. He started his career as a set, scenery, and lighting designer for the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, but in 1927 opened a design office and found work creating designs for automobiles, trains, oceanliners, radios, stoves, refrigerators, passenger airplane interiors, office interiors, and service stations. His designs fully embraced the streamlined looks of the style called Moderne-also often referred to as Art Deco.

During the Great Depression, Americans looked to futurists to help escape the drab and dreary realities of everyday life and envision a brighter future thanks in large part to the wonders of technology. The masses wanted optimism, and Bel Geddes' rosy vision of the future included high-speed automobile travel and cities whose design permitted unobstructed transportation. He became adept at building scale models into dioramas that aptly demonstrated his plans for urban America. Largely because of his persuasive and vivid dioramas, he was hired by General Motors to create its Futurama exhibit at the company's pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. His mission was to create an image of "The City of 1960."

Epcp_1004_02_o+visionary_norman_bel_geddes+superhighway Photo 3/3   |   Visionary Norman Bel Geddes - We Need Another Optimist

The Futurama exhibit cost $8 million to build and as many as 45 million visitors waited an average of two hours in line to have a chance to see it. Viewers sat in plush chairs, each with its own speaker system, which were carried by a conveyer, hovering over Bel Geddes' models of cities, towns, and countryside. His vision included skyscrapers, massive suspension bridges, airports, and superhighways. Bel Geddes described it thus: "Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country-across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns-never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy." Visitors to the exhibit came away with a button that read "I have seen the future."

Look at Bel Geddes' concept today and it's not hard to see how our interstate highway system developed and the genesis of our urban sprawl and suburbs came to be. Bel Geddes envisioned massive superhighways that connected large cities and ring roads that surround large metropolitan areas, allowing the heart of the city to be bypassed by cross-country travelers. His dioramas do not include the suburbs that grew up between those concentric rings, nor the congestion that would be created each day at rush hour when each commuter, traveling singly in his or her own car, traveled from the heart of the city to those outlying suburbs. The things missing in General Motor's Futurama were any transportation systems beyond automobiles and airplanes: gone are the buses, trains, trolley lines, and subways that efficiently served as transportation in the 1920s and '30s. There is some irony in this as in his 1932 book, Horizons, Bel Geddes had included rail and bus transportation in his vision for the future.

For millions of Americans, the Futurama exhibit was the future, but things were cruelly interrupted by the Second World War. In 1945, after the fighting ended, General Motors set about bringing that optimistic future to reality. The Depression was over and, flush with prosperity, every American needed a new car. Bus companies and trolley lines disappeared before the onslaught, railroad passenger service declined and freight locomotives didn't need to be stylish, while new roads, built to the overarching futuristic view demonstrated by Bel Geddes, spanned the nation.

For a time it worked. Interstates allowed people to cover distances easily, automobiles provided unprecedented freedom, and gasoline was cheap. By the mid-'60s, however, Bel Geddes' model began to fall apart. Too much traffic caused congestion, white flight from the inner cities to the suburbs changed downtown, spans of superhighways isolated portions of cities and communities, and ever-expanding cityscapes made his utopian vision into more of an urban nightmare. Pollution and energy issues would further hasten the decline of Bel Geddes' city of tomorrow. Unfortunately, although the car-centric vision had a good run, and although it was becoming clear that his model no longer fit our reality, nothing was proposed to take its place. Urban planners kept designing more freeways, adding lanes and off-ramps, pushing the suburbs further and further out and not really understanding why it didn't all work the way it was supposed to. They kept building and building until they built us into a corner.

Which brings us to today. We have to do something about congestion, pollution, energy, equitable access, and safety in practically every transportation system in the world. In the U.S., true to the Futurama vision, we have built our entire transportation system around the personal automobile. I like cars. I like the freedom that they offer. But if I had a chance to ride across town or even across the state on a train pulled by a modern, stylishly interpreted equivalent of a 1930s Art Deco locomotive, I'd do it. I could save my car for longer, more specialized trips, drives in the country, or going to those places not served by rail, light rail, bus, or trolley. In other words, I'd like to see a return to the transportation picture that existed before the 1939 Futurama and the fabulous world envisioned by Norman Bel Geddes.

Bel Geddes died of a heart attack in New York in 1958. His ability to persuade the masses through his dioramas had ended up overwhelming any competing ideas about how cities should look or the role the automobile would play in our transportation system. Perhaps what we need today is a new visionary like Bel Geddes, one who can build a persuasive and optimistic model to show us what the future could bring.

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By Kevin Clemen
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