Rockefeller Center & the 1939 World’s Fair (2007)

Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).

Mark Pimlott
artdesigncafé - design | 28 November 2011

Tomorrow: Rockefeller Center and the 1939 World’s Fair

Through the combination of New Deal initiatives and the private market’s adaptations of them (understanding that many aspects of these initiatives appealed to consumers), the United States, at the advent of the Second World War, felt itself on the brink of realising an environment of Tomorrow. With the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, two different initiatives in New York, both private, attempted to project and build fragments of such a city. The first was Rockefeller Center; the second was the 1939 World’s Fair. The Rockefeller Center (1932-39) was a speculative development devised by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. Taking advantage of the prevailing, much-reduced costs of property, materials and labour, the scheme coincidentally acted as a stimulus to the city’s suddenly unoccupied construction industry. The enormous project— which involved the structuring of several city blocks with a programme dominated by lettable office space— was under strict control in terms of the management of its costs and the activities of all participants in the project, on a day-to-day basis. [1] The team of architects— the Associated Architects— which included Raymond Hood, were reduced to mass- and form-giving exercises directed to maximising office space in relation to a network of street-level public spaces. [2] The architectural team was part of a construction organisation, an element in a system. The organisation of both the building process and the groups responsible for various aspects of its delivery paralleled in miniature the system-like nature that the New Deal administration had envisaged for regional planning. The complex, which at one point was going to include a home for a Metropolitan Opera, was seen as a fragment of an elite Manhattan, and so was close in spirit to the inner-city set pieces of the City Beautiful movement. The home for the Opera never materialised, but a radio theatre did. The Radio City Music Hall, after beginning with a high-brow programme, quickly adapted itself to more populist tastes, entertainments utterly at odds with the deprivations of the Depression era. [3]

The buildings were designed as abstract masses— reflections of the utilitarian considerations at their heart— framing spaces that could be read as having civic significance. The connections between buildings and the significance of the spaces between them remained undecided until just before the project’s completion. The famous sunken skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza, providing entrance to an underground shopping arcade, serves as a kind of Futurists’ display of people in frenetic motion. The other public spaces at street level are pedestrian streets, permanently busy because of the enormous populations of the offices above them. The Rockefeller Center provided an image of what a city centre could be like, in which buildings of great volume would be composed in a hierarchy of masses and set off by the symbolic movement of people around them.

The Center’s plan was developed at the same time as a number of its architects— particularly Raymond Hood and Harvey Wiley Corbett— were experimenting with the hypothetical form of a future Manhattan. Broadly, they envisaged a city in which various modes of transport and communication would occupy dedicated and separate levels [4] and skyscrapers would find themselves in concentrated lines and nodes, with open spaces of parks and public buildings between them. [5] They advocated a kind of three-dimensional urban design which is only partly realised in the Rockefeller Center. It became, nevertheless, very influential for other architects and planners considering urban centres, [6] who accepted the density of its working population and its activity, but sought clarity for its operations through three-dimensional, machine-like solutions. The Rockefeller Center’s image became important, furthermore, for those envisaging the future of the city with a view to its publicity. The popular success of the Radio City Music Hall and the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza were testified to by their attendant crowds and their perpetual movement. The imagery of this movement served in turn as a motif for the imagery of the displays of the central pavilions at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The World’s Fair was devised by a group of New York businessmen in 1935. [7] It was ostensibly conceived to mark the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President in New York. [8] Once more, a great exhibition (although not officially categorized as a World Exposition) provided an outlet for escapism, an opportunity to administer a tonic for the deprivations of the Depression, and an occasion to reflect upon what might be possible to achieve given the enforced annulment of activity of those years. Its timing echoed that of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, similarly conceived in the midst of a national economic crisis. This condition lent it a fantastical, dreamy quality, in which the exhibition’s sponsors were able to propose their Worlds of Tomorrow. The Fair’s pavilions were zoned according to themes such as Transportation; Communications; Production and Distribution; Government; Food; and the Amusement "Area". [9] These zones were organised about a central avenue called the Constitution Mall; at its head were two monumental structures that became emblematic of the Fair: the Trylon and the Perisphere (architects Wallace K. Harrison, involved in the Rockefeller Center and, after the Second World War the United Nations complex; and J. André Fouilhoux). Painted pure white, they employed a fanciful staginess reminiscent of the White City of the 1893 Exposition. Set pieces like the Great White Way enhanced the image of a campus, designed on principles close to those of the Chicago Fair, the 1901 plan for Washington and the City Beautiful movement, made to seem strangely consistent with those of New Deal-era regionalism.

The 1939 Fair made a concerted effort to sell a future world to visitors, who were given lessons in politics and consumption all at once. The pavilions at the centre of the fair described an imaginary future condition which was to be experienced by all, achieved by advancements in technology and the cooperation of government and industry. Inside the Perisphere was a huge diorama (a dominant form for the disclosure of ideas at the Fair) showing a Democracity. It purported to demonstrate that a properly planned city was one that guaranteed fresh air, prosperity and freedom for everyone. [10] It was a fantasy-city that was resolutely modern, featuring tall buildings separated by open spaces traversed by parkways and freeways. The layout resembled the distribution of buildings at the Fair itself, reinforcing the Fair’s role as model of the future. Within the spherical space, the spectators looked upon a world they had just walked through; they became gods of their own— spectacular— future world. The fair used such spectacles as propaganda. Its messages, moreover, were predominantly delivered by corporate industry rather than government. The fair featured some two hundred films reiterating the inter-related themes of technology and utopia, and the prosperity that technology would deliver given the correct conditions. The future, this propaganda advertised, would be technology-driven, and in the image of technology.

Among the most popular of the exhibits was the pavilion, diorama and auditorium for General Motors— Highways and horizons: The futurama— conceived in its entirety by Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), an industrial designer who made projects for buildings, stage sets, automobiles, and flying craft, typically employing modern aerodynamic forms, and known for his gift for publicity. [11] After entering the building via a series of ramps that resembled freeway flyovers (which had yet to be introduced in the United States), spectators were seated in a circle that rotated around a huge 38,000 square foot (3,800 square metre) diorama showing a territory with towns, cities, freeways and intersections, and an airport. The roads were filled with teardrop-shaped cars designed by Bel Geddes and devised to accommodate travel at high speeds; exits and intersections were essentially prototypes of their contemporary equivalents. The imaginary city centre was marked by broadly-spaced skyscrapers, and surrounded by parks, traversed by more freeways. The beautiful, efficient and prosperous city was implicitly indebted to both the automobile and the extensive freeway infrastructure that ensured its free mobility. The pavilion’s sponsor, General Motors (one of the United States’ largest producers of automobiles and biggest employers) conveyed to its captive audience the message that this future utopia would be realised through the existence of universal automobile ownership and a nation-wide network of freeways that connected and integrated cities and regions. Futurama, and the film Magic Motorways championed the inter-dependence of "Democracity (as seen in the Perisphere), greenbelt and the new superhighways". General Motors determined to convince the visiting public that if it wanted the mobility the automobile could realise, it would have to endorse the complete reorganisation of city and territory. [12] This reorganisation entailed the construction of freeways, which would only happen if the government built them (an enormous expense); the delivery of government programmes that could only be ensured through their popular support and an expansion of private initiative that would flourish only if the publicly-funded system was there to support it. Thus the future was dependent upon the simultaneous co-operation of industry, government and populace.

Much of the Roosevelt administration’s budget was in fact spent on motorways, rather than other mass transport infrastructures, such as railways. [13] The administration advocated solutions that were dependent on the specific potentials of new technologies; railways were remnants of nineteenth-century technology. Other corporate contributors to the World’s Fair reinforced the idea— a propaganda— that deliverance from the present would come through technology, which would affect all aspects of American production and consumption, from energy to food and entertainment. The cumulative message of the World’s Fair was that technology was good for both public and private life, which would be unified by technology, and that by participating in its revolution— via consumption— technology would lay the path to a realisable, utopian, future. Even the Regional Planning Association of America contributed to this message. Their ideas were conveyed in the 1938 film The City, made by Norman Bel Geddes and shown at the Fair. Its text, employing the ideas of Mumford and other RPAA members and scenes by Bel Geddes, described a futuristic, stream-lined, technological Utopia of green belts, modern buildings and open spaces, with high-speed motorways as a central organisational structure. [14]

The interiors of the Perisphere and the General Motors pavilion continued an American tradition established in the late nineteenth century: they relied upon spectacle to entrance and instruct their audiences. They regarded their public as an audience to be inculcated, in the manner of a public service announcement, [15] in the case of the Fair’s audience, they were repeatedly asked to be at once citizens, voters, workers and consumers. The pavilions’ interiors and their displays which must be considered as a totality— conflated these identities through the force of publicity. In publicity, there is no difference between the individual and the group; no distinction between the individual’s status as citizen, audience, worker or consumer. The address of each pavilion obliged their captive audiences— put upon as citizens with the obligation of duty— to agree. In this agreement, a contract of sorts was formed between industry, state and citizen, wherein consent led to the obligation to consume. With its fulfilment would come Utopia.

However, in 1939 there was considerable anxiety about the future. The manifestation of the future in the form of a technologically fuelled, democratic, equitable Utopia, seemed— despite the rhetoric of corporations and government— fantastic. Europe was descending into War. The tensions of geo-political reality were present at the fair in the national pavilions of the Government Zone (some of the nations, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland had ceased to exist during the first of the Fair’s two year run; Germany did not exhibit).

Investment in this future world, from the point of view of industry, state and public, was a gamble. Yet it proved to be a gamble that paid off, unexpectedly and spectacularly after the hostilities of the Second World War had drawn to a close.

Rockefeller Center & the 1939 World’s Fair: 1 | References: 2