When you hear the word "futurama," you probably think of Matt Groening's cartoon robots, cyborgs, and aliens. This is unfortunate for two reasons. One, the animated TV series by the Simpsons creator, Futurama, is neither interesting nor funny. Two, its presence has totally eclipsed the existence of an exhibit with the same name that played a very important role in transforming the American city and way of life. That Futurama was an installation at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes and bankrolled by General Motors, it was a massive model of the future to come. An estimated 15 million Americans entered the exhibit at the General Motors Pavilion and saw a glimpse of what their lives would be like by the 1960s. They would live in cities that were designed for cars and a few helicopters. Traffic jams were not of this world. Cars had all the room they needed on expressways that flew across the countryside and cut through the heart of towns. Every problem you experienced or could imagine would be solved by fast cars.
From this exhibit emerged a concept of transportation that linked 19th-century progressivism with the automobile. Such a concept did not come to the mind naturally. It had to be constructed and marketed aggressively. Modernism made homes machines for the living, and made cars machines for moving. Because Americans are terrified of the words "social engineering" (that's something socialists do), we describe Futurama and all the pro-car promotions that followed it as "imagineering," a word that has a Disney ring to it.
Indeed, the Center for Architecture & Design named a recent event "Imagineering a Postcarbon Seattle" for its current, dense, and informative exhibit Futurama Redux: Urban Mobility After Cars and Oil. Among the imagineers at the event was Vienna-based ecological designer Florian Lorenz, who curated Futurama Redux for Seattle with the clear understanding that a post-carbon Seattle or Vienna or any other major city in the world demands a top-to-bottom reconstruction of the popular imagination. New concepts about modernity must replace those established and funded by the still-powerful auto industry.
The exhibit—which uses Vienna in 2050 as its model and is presented by Coltura, Smarter Than Car, and DLR Group—is no Futurama (a theatrical production), but a sketch of the large-scale social engineering that's needed for a total revision of the human future.
The millions of people who saw 1939's Futurama were told that cars would be much safer. The issue of safety was repeated over and over because, of course, cars are not safe at all. (Car crashes send around 120 Americans to eternity every day.) We are also dealing with climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The Futurama display of our day, as sketched out by this exhibit, and which would need billions of visitors for it to be as effective as GM's 1939 installation, cannot be all positive. It must contain many warnings and nightmarish images.
My favorite section of the exhibit begins with a statement titled "The Carbon Bubble." It covers an entire wall and is composed of pictures and data about the evolution of urban transportation. The past, present, and future of Seattle and Vienna are featured on this chronological map, which ends with a picture of city people wading, standing in, and driving through a flooded street circa 2071. One woman is pushing a bike through the water. She looks pissed.