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Dreams of freeway utopias: who benefits?

Futurama viewers

In the Spring of 1937 Shell Oil Company employed stage designer Norman Bel Geddes, to create a scale model of the future, utopian auto city for shows in New York and Detroit. Shell promoted this model, dubbing it the ‘City of Tomorrow’. The head of the Bureau of Street Traffic Research predicted that American cities would be rebuilt in this way in the next 25-50 years. During 1939-40, General Motors (GM) put on a major exhibit at New York’s World Fair, commissioning the same Bel Geddes to expand his Shell model to much bigger proportions. They called it ‘Futurama’.

In the first summer of the Fair, more than 5 million visitors traveled on conveyor belts to look down on the GM ‘Futurama’ model exhibit, as if from an airplane window. In Futurama free movement of autos was evoked across vast panoramas. The film of the exhibit, ‘To New Horizons’ (1940), evoked an America where there was freedom from want, and where mobility – social and physical – meant movement in cars on free-flowing expressways.

In the 1940s South African engineers toured US highway engineering departments and in 1951 the Cape Town City Engineer’s department published ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow’. The document suggests that Futurama-style thinking was important to the South African engineers too.

Sixty-five years on, looking at the Foreshore exhibitions, I wonder: are we still dreaming of a South African Futurama where road space is abundant and a free-flowing utopia is possible? And if so, who benefits from such dreams?

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Detail from Proposal C

 

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