February 17, 2012
As New York City’s buildings sprouted toward the heavens in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a concern that people on the ground would be deprived of sunlight. The buildings were blocking out the sun for those on the ground and it looked like a problem that was only going to get worse.
The April, 1934 issue of Popular Science Monthly ran this illustration by B. G. Seielstad, which shows the city of the future as it was imagined by British writer R. H. Wilenski. It looks like this kind of design would depend much more on spacing such buildings out, but there’s no doubt there would still be some major shadows.
With modern elevators and living quarters perched high above the ground, Seielstad and Wilenski’s vision of the city of the future appears positively Jetsonian to modern eyes.
Shaped like trees with slender trunks, homes and office buildings of the future may rise into pure air on pedestals of steel. Our artist presents here his conception of this startling proposal, made recently by R. H. Wilenski, noted British architect. The scheme leaves the ground level virtually unobstructed. Each building is supported upon a single, stalk-like shaft of steel or strong, light alloys, resting in turn upon a massive subterranean foundation. Modern advances in the design of high-speed elevators simplify the problems of transporting passengers between the buildings and the earth. Access from one building to another is provided by a system of suspension bridges, and stores and places of recreation contained in the building make it possible to dwell aloft for an indefinite time without needing to descend. Gigantic, luminous globes are placed at strategic points to light the aerial city by night, while by day the inhabitants enjoy the unfiltered sunshine and fresh air of their lofty nests.
November 18, 2011
The January 18, 1925, Zanesville Times Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) ran an article about a proposed 88 story skyscraper in New York. Titled “How We Will Live Tomorrow,” the article imagined how New Yorkers and other city-dwellers might eventually live in skyscrapers of the future. The article talks about the amazing height of the proposed structure, but also points out the various considerations one must make when living at a higher altitude.
The article mentions a 1,000 foot building, which even by today’s standards would be quite tall. The tallest building in New York City is currently the Empire State building at 1,250 feet. Until September 11, 2001, the North Tower of the World Trade Center stood as the tallest building in New York City at 1,368 feet tall. Interestingly, the year this article ran (in 1925) was the year that New York overtook London as the most populous city in the world.
The contemplated eighty-eight-story building, 1000 feet in height, which is to occupy an entire block on lower Broadway, may exceed in cubical contents the Pyramid of Cheops, hitherto the largest structure erected by human hands.
The Pyramid of Cheops was originally 481 feet high, and its base is a square measuring 756 feet on each side. The Woolworth Building is 792 feet in heigh, but covers a relatively small area of ground.
The proposed building, when it has been erected will offer to contemplation some rather remarkable phenomena. For instance, on the top floor an egg, to be properly boiled, will require two and a half seconds more time than would be needed at the street level.
That is because the air pressure will be less than at the street level by seventy pounds to the square foot, and water will boil at 209 degrees, instead of the ordinary 212. In a saucepan water cannot be heated beyond boiling point, and, being less hot at an altitude of 1000 feet, it will not cook an egg so quickly.
When one climbs a mountain one finds changes of climate corresponding to what would be found if one were to travel northward. Thus, according to the reckoning of the United States Weather Bureau, the climate on top of the contemplated eighty-eight-story building will correspond to that of the Southern Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The newspaper ran a series of illustrations to accompany the article that demonstrate the communal features of skyscraper living and new considerations (however ridiculous) of living at 1,000 feet. The skyscraper was imagined to feature billiard rooms, parlors for dancing and bowling alleys. One of the illustrations explains that “the housewife will be annoyed by no petty disputes with butcher and grocer over the accuracy of their accounts.” The latter is a reference to the fact that meals will no longer be prepared at home, but “bought at wholesale rates by a manger, or by a committee representing the families of the block, and the cooks and other servants employed to do the work tend to everything, relieving the housewives of all bother.”
The article looked to history for perspective on what wonders the next hundred years of skyscraper living may bring:
Compare the New York of today with what it was a century ago. May one not suppose that a century from now it will have undergone a transformation equally remarkable? Already the architects are planning, in a tentative way, buildings of sixty or seventy stories that are to occupy entire blocks, providing for all sorts of shops and other commercial enterprises, while affording space for the comfortable housing of thousands of families. Such a building will be in effect a whole town under one roof. The New York of today has great numbers of apartment houses. It has multitudes of family dwellings. The whole system must before long undergo a radical change. A block system of construction will replace it, achieving an economy of space which is an inexorable necessity. It is the only system under which the utmost possible utilization of ground area can be obtained.
Predictions of communal kitchens in the future were quite popular in utopian novels of the late 19th century, like Edward Bellamy’s 1888 tome “Looking Backward.” But this 1925 vision of tomorrow’s kitchen shifts focus to the kind of ordering out that we may be more familiar with today. The illustration contends that “all the housewife of tomorrow will have to do is select the kind of meal she wishes and order it, just as she now phones the butcher for a roast or fowl.”
Interestingly, the pneumatic tube still rears its head in this vision of urban living in the future. The Boston Globe article from 1900 that we looked at a few weeks ago included predictions of the pneumatic tube system Boston would employ by the year 2000. Delivery of everything from parcels to newspapers to food by pneumatic tube was a promise of the early 20th century that would nearly die during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
On a recent occasion the possibilities of the pneumatic tube for the transportation of eatables was satisfactorily demonstrated by the Philadelphia Post-office, which sent by this means a hot dinner of several courses a distance of two miles. For the community block a trolley arrangement might be preferred, with a covered chut and properly insulated receptacles, lined with felt, will keep foods at a piping temperature for a dozen hours.
October 21, 2011
The first decade of the 20th century was, for many people, a period characterized by incredible optimism for the future. The November 22, 1908 Sunday New York Times ran an article titled, “Inventions Which the World Yet Needs.”
The dreams of yesterday are the realizations of today. We live in an age of mechanical, electrical, chemical, and psychical wonder. On every hand the human mind is reaching out to solve the problems of nature. In those solutions are hidden the mysteries and revelations of all things. While the dreamer may dream, it is the practical man of affairs, with a touch of the imaginative in his nature, who materializes and commercializes new forces and new conceptions. Step by step these men lead in the vanguard of progress. What is their conception of the needs of the world? Toward what is their imagination reaching? What in their viewpoint, is the world waiting for—what are the immediate needs of the world in practical, scientific conception and invention?
The article then looks at the predictions of inventor and businessman Thomas Edison; Edward Bruce Moore, who was head of the U.S. Patent Office; Frank Hedley, who would eventually become president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company; Lewis Nixon, a naval architect; Cortlandt E. Palmer, a mining expert; and Peter Cooper Hewitt, an electrical engineer and inventor.
Edison had nine predictions for the 20th century, touching upon everything from electricity and movie technology to flying machines and the extinction of the locomotive. His first prediction concerned the future of concrete architecture—a topic that, for him, was not purely academic. The inventor had founded the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899 in order to use excess sand, which was a waste byproduct of his iron ore milling process. Edison had hoped to revolutionize the building of homes by using relatively inexpensive concrete. As Neil Baldwin notes in his book Edison: Inventing the Century, “Always with an eye for spin-offs, Edison went on to produce cement cabinets for the phonograph, and seriously considered building a concrete piano.”
While Edison’s concrete was used in the construction of New York’s Yankee Stadium in 1922, his company and efforts to build homes made entirely of concrete was considered a failure. Edison’s modular homes, measuring 25 by 30 by 40 feet high, failed largely because of the difficulty in creating the reusable, metal molds that were needed to fabricate and mass-produce houses made of concrete. Perhaps, deep down, Edison was skeptical of the venture from the beginning. His predictions in the Miami Metropolis—just three years after his New York Times interview—would quickly swing in favor of steel as the building material of the future.
An excerpt from the New York Times piece appears below.
NINE NEW INVENTIONS CERTAIN
They Will Come Soon — and Pave the Way for Hundreds More
Interview with Thomas A. Edison
The next era will mark the most wonderful advance in science and invention that the world has ever known or hoped for. So vast will that advance be that we can now have scarcely any conception of its scope, but already a great many of the inventions of the future are assured. It is only of those which I regarded as practical certainties that I speak here.
First — Within the next twenty or thirty years — and it will start with the next two or three — concrete architecture will take enormous strides forward; the art of molding concrete will be reduced to a science of perfection and, what is equally important, of cheapness; there will rise up a large number of gifted architects, and through their efforts cities and towns will spring up in this country beside which Turner’s picture of ancient Rome and Carthage will pale into nothingness and the buildings of the Columbia Exhibition will appear common. But great expense will not attend this; it will be done so that the poor will be able to enjoy houses more beautiful than the rich now aspire to, and the man earning $1.50 a day, with a family to support, will be better housed than the man of to-day who is earning $10.
Second — Moving-picture machines will be so perfected that the characters will not only move, but will speak, and all the accessories and effects of the stage will be faithfully reproduced on the living picture stage. This, of course, will not be done as well as on the regular stage, but its standard will approach very near to that, and the fact that such entertainment will be furnished for 5 cents will draw vast numbers of the working classes. The result will be that the masses will have the advantage of the moral of good drama, they will find an inexpensive and improving way of spending the evening, and death knell of the saloon will be sounded.
Third — In perhaps fifteen or twenty years — depending on the financial condition of the country — the locomotive will pass almost altogether out of use, and all our main trunk railways will be operated by electricity.
Fourth — A new fertilizer will spring into existence, containing a large percentage of nitrogen. This will be drawn from the air by electricity, and will be used to increase the arability of the land.
Fifth — All our water power will be utilized by electricity to an extent now almost unthought of, and will be used with great advantage, both industrially and for railroads.
Sixth — A successful serial navigation will be established — perhaps for mails — and will achieve a sound practical working basis.
Seventh — We shall be able to protect ourselves against environment by the use of serums and things of that sort so that the general state of health will improve and the average span of life will increase by a large percentage. The grand fight which is being made against tuberculosis and cancer will reach a successful culmination, and those diseases will be entirely mastered.
Eighth — A new force in nature, of some sort or other, will be discovered by which many things not now understood will be explained. We unfortunately have only five senses; if we had eight we’d know more.
Ninth — We will realize the possibilities of our coal supplies better, and will learn how to utilize them so that 90 percent of the efficiency will not be thrown away, as it is today.
Finally, let it be said, hardly any piece of machinery now manufactured is more than 10 percent perfect. As the years go on this will be improved upon tremendously; more automatic machinery will be devised, and articles of comfort and luxury will be produced in enormous numbers at such small cost that all classes will be able to enjoy the benefits of them.
These are some of the inventions which the world is awaiting which it is sure of seeing realized. Just how they will be realized is what the inventors are working now to determine.
October 18, 2011
Brown University has an exhibit running through November 6 called “Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future.” The exhibit catalog has some fascinating write ups: one on King Camp Gillette (yes, the razor guy) and his vision for a utopian community near Niagara Falls; another about postcards from the turn of the 20th century that envisioned cities of the future; and a great piece on architect Hugh Ferriss and how his stark 1920s visions for New York influenced popular culture.
The objective of the exhibition—which spans from the 19th century to the present day—is to ask a number of basic but important questions:
What do people stand to gain from designing “futures”? How do people, individually and collectively, decide what does and does not look futuristic, what is and is not permitted to inhabit “the future”? Is it merely a process of extrapolation, in which we attempt to imagine the fulfillment of trends and patterns that are gaining power in the present—or is something more subjective, more arbitrary, more rhetorical, and/or more creative taking place?
Below is one of the featured illustrations. Drawn for the February 16, 1895 issue of Judge magazine, the architectural future is used as a humorous foil for the social and political concerns of the era.
“In this satirical take on the trajectory of urban evolution, Hamilton pokes some rather pointed fun at the tendency of capitalist industry to relentlessly intensify the scale of real-estate development, in this nominally residential building are found not only shops, living space, and a steam-powered mass transport system, but also religious institutions and the houses of government —the public realm has been totally absorbed by the monolithic power of the private.”
The exhibit is free and open to the public at the David Winton Bell Gallery, inside the List Art Center, Monday through Friday from 11am until 4pm and on Saturday and Sunday from 1 until 4pm.
October 12, 2011
The incredible rate of production for the war effort during the 1940s meant that Americans had to make certain sacrifices. The government instituted a rationing program for products like gasoline, meat, butter and rubber, and citizens were encouraged to plant “victory gardens” to grow their own food. It was common for advertisers of the early 1940s to use language that invoked a sense of shared struggle and promised that if we could just be patient, great things — usually in the form of exotic consumer goods – were waiting for Americans after the war.
This advertisement from the November 1944 issue of Pencil Points magazine is a bit unique in that its audience isn’t consumers, but architects who would be building stores after the war. (Pencil Points would later change its name to Progressive Architecture.) This particular ad was touting Westinghouse air conditioning units, which were “hermetically-sealed for dependability.” The ad begins by saying, “Every method to attract and retain more customers will be employed in the postwar stores which owners are commissioning their architects to plan today.”
Ironically, the downtown department store—even with the bubble cars and hermetically-sealed climate control portrayed in this ad—would increasingly become an anachronism in the aftermath of the war. Consumer habits changed due to migration to the suburbs and increasing traffic congestion (and less parking) in the cities. By 1949, the January issue of the Journal of Marketing was reporting on a new trend, the suburban “shopping center”:
“Even though [this] trend might be transitory in nature, the justification of the controlled-integrated shopping center is such that the probability of its future acceptance by the consumer, the retailer, and the manufacturer seems assured.”