URBAN BEEHIVE A plate from Gillette’s The Human Drift (1894).
One of the curious things about the future, as Nathaniel Robert Walker observes, is that "nearly everyone can recognize the place where no one has been." It's all clean, efficient, gleaming metal and glass skyscrapers; pervasive digital technology; and flying cars. And, it turns out, it's a vision that has been with us for a century.

In the exhibit "Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of Architectural Future" at Brown University's Bell Gallery (64 College Street, Providence, through November 6), Walker, a Brown doctoral student, rounds up photos, drawings, prints, and books of wondrous, vintage visions of the future from the late 19th century to today to mull what has been the effect of all this speculative dreaming. It's one of the best and most intriguing exhibits of the year.

The turn of the 20th century was an era of rapid technological and social change. Between 1875 and 1930, telephones, electric lights, movies, radio, automobiles, airplanes, Einstein's theory of general relativity, and penicillin were developed; Russians overthrew the Tsar; and American women got the vote. With this a Darwinian-inspired idea (his "On the Origin of Species" debuted in 1859) spread through Western society that technological innovation could evolve culture toward utopia — or something considerably closer to it.

The show begins with Robert Owen's 1820s proposal to erect the community of New Harmony in Indiana and King Camp Gillette's 1890s plan to build Metropolis at Niagara Falls. They're steampunk for real. Owen, a successful British factory manager, hated how industry was transforming traditional British society, so he proposed a fortress-like factory town with communal living emphasizing equality, fraternity, and healthiness. It didn't work out. Gillette suggested a city of uniform beehive skyscrapers for work, residences, entertainment, and public services. It never got off the ground; instead he became a shaving razor mogul.

A funny sidelight here are early 20th-century postcards that imagine future Boston by shoehorning elevated trains and flying vehicles into photos of the city.

The vision we have of the "future" today was established in the 1920s and '30s. Pulp magazines imagined skyscrapers linked by trams and bridges and airports straddling, say, the London River. Hugh Ferriss published an illustrated essay of "The New Architecture" in the New York Times in 1922 (his original graphite drawings are here). It's a nerve center of art deco skyscrapers.

SUBURBAN SPRAWL Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company’s Drawings for Southlands.

Walker focuses on the fantasies rather than realities, but these speculative designs take off from the skyscrapers already being built in Chicago and New York, and the designs for more efficient modern homes just beginning to come out of Germany's legendary Bauhaus design school.

Meanwhile major corporations commissioned designs for the future that conveniently showcased their products. In the 1930s, Shell Oil and General Motors hired streamline designer Norman Bel Geddes to craft models of cities of the future — his Futurama model for GM was a hit of 1939 New York World's Fair, and later traveled the country in custom buses. Like many futurists, he addressed burgeoning traffic congestion by running limited-access highways through the hearts of cities. In 1937 Shell Oil advertisements, Geddes said, "Motorists of 1960 will loaf along at 50 — right through town," and "Pedestrians will move quickly and safely on elevated sidewalks above the traffic level."

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Related: Treasure trove, Brown's 'Faculty Triennial 2010', “Nostalgia Machines” at Brown’s Bell Gallery, More more >
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