"View of Industria," by Katherine Roy, pencil on paper and digital color, 2011. Click to enlarge. (David Winton Bell Gallery/Brown University)
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List Art Building (1971), Brown University
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John Hay Library (1910), Brown University
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New Harmony (1826), Indiana, Robert Owen (Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College)
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1921 ad for Greys cigarettes, London Illustrated News (Maison d'Ailleurs)
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Le Corbusier's "Cities of Tomorrow" in January 1930 issue of Science and Invention, edited by Hugo Gernsback (Maison d'Ailleurs)
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Ad for Shell promoting faster city streets and gasoline "savings" (Private collection)
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Futuristic imagery has been catnip to me since boyhood. Put me in a room surrounded with images of the future, however, and I will gravitate to those that look like the past.
So it was with the bedazzlement of a boy in a toy shop that, on Monday evening, I wandered around a large collection of imaginary futures with its curator, Nathaniel Walker, a doctoral candidate in the history of art and architecture at Brown University. Titled "Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future," his exhibit at the David Winton Bell Gallery, in the List Art Building on College Street, in Providence, runs to Nov. 6.
Walker has assembled more than just a collection of images. The exhibit frames a critique of the futures conceived by inhabitants of the past -- and of their assumption that the future will improve upon the past, largely via advances in machinery and industry.
The central paradox of a progressive future may be summed up by two buildings standing next door to each other in space but separated by six decades in time: the List Art Building, where Walker's exhibit is on display, and the John Hay Library. The Hay, finished in 1910, is classical in style; the List, finished in 1971, is modernist (designed in the Brutalist style by the celebrated architect Philip Johnson).
If the List is an improvement upon the Hay, then I am wearing a tinfoil hat.
In his lecture at the exhibit's opening, Walker said, "No one has seen what tomorrow looks like, so who gets to decide, in the end, what does and does not look 'progressive'?"
Visions of the future here run from a traditional look to a modernist look. The exhibit begins with images of a utopian community, circa 1826, of Gothic townhouses surrounding a glass conservatory planned by British industrialist Robert Owen, who emigrated to America and founded New Harmony, in Indiana. But in Owen's vision, smokestacks co-opt the role of church steeples. New Harmony failed even before its plan could be carried out.
A 1921 advertisement for Greys cigarettes in Illustrated London News depicts the London of A.D. 2500. It shows a classically domed building and a bridge -- beneath which are visible the roofs of ornate skyscrapers below. Rococo aircraft with glass domes, staircases and balconies zoom about. I love it! Almost all visions of the future, whether traditional or modernist, have oddball aero-pods buzzing around amid universally ridiculous phallic architecture.
Perhaps the most engaging of the visions is a beautiful painting commissioned for the exhibit: "View of Industria," by Katherine Roy, of Providence. Industria is a metropolis imagined in the novel Ignis (1883), by Comte Didier de Chousy. He describes a city whose energy comes from the Earth's molten core but whose slaves revolt, only to be replaced by robots, who rebel. Roy captures Industria at a more idyllic moment, but you can still see the robots plotting as fashionable ladies fly about town with their cats. "Ignis" was among the earlier visions of the future to hint at the dystopia of utopia.
In the mid-20th Century, major corporations got into the futurist act, propagating a sleek optimism with ad copy. Seeing the Paris towers of Le Corbusier in a pulp sci-fi magazine sure popped my eyebrows! General Motors, U.S. Steel and Shell Oil pitch a tomorrow of superhighways speeding us to superskyscrapers: "Tomorrow's children will not play in the streets," exults Shell. Well, let's hope not.
If we let this vision of the future complete its trajectory, the children of those children will join the teeming masses in the grungy streets below the gleaming corporate towers of tomorrow's Los Angeles -- depicted in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," the 1982 film that finally put the frown to the future's modernist grin. Its case for tomorrow's pessimism plays out in today's multiplicity of seemingly insoluble crises.
The exhibit does open a crack in the door to an optimistic future. Among these images are the traditional communities cropping up today all around America, courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk, the New Urbanist firm whose vision of tomorrow looks a lot like our memories of the pleasant yesterday that did in fact precede our premature modernist "future." (Might DPZ be solicited to help Providence's Route 195 panel avoid a dystopian "Knowledge District"?)
Here I can only scratch the surface of this vast and compelling exhibit. Go see it. Prepare to luxuriate in other people's visions of hope (and of despair, and of humor). Bring your tin-foil hat. After leaving, you'll look around and realize that you can see tomorrow today.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at providencejournal.com is called Architecture Here and There. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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[Maison d'Ailleurs, a museum of science fiction, utopias and fantastic voyages, in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, from which many items in the exhibit are on loan, may be visited online here.]
[The Journal's art critic Bill Van Siclen wrote a preview of the exhibit on Aug. 28 here. On Sept. 6, I did a brief blog post previewing the exhibit, which linked to a press release from Brown. The post is here.]
Concept art of Los Angeles, 2019, for "Blade Runner" (1982), by Mentor Huebner (David Winton Bell Gallery)
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Southlands, British Columbia, by Duany Plater-Zyberk Co. (DPZ)
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"What We Are Coming To" by Grant E. Hamilton in the Feb. 16, 1895, issue of Judge magazine (Maison d'Ailleurs)
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Postcard of Copley Square, Boston, Reichner Bros. Publishers (Private collection)
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Futuristic vision of mankind reaching out beyond the stratosphere, with satellites connected to Earth by elevators, from "Globus Cassus," by Swiss and American artist Christian Waldvogel (courtesy of the artist)