Such ideas are the basis of much urban design of the mid-20th century, epitomized by New York planner Robert Moses's government projects from the '30s to '50s, which constructed expressways and urban renewal projects atop bulldozed New York neighborhoods. Which invites questions of whether speculative designs predicted the future or if people building things took their designs from the futuristic notions. How did the dreamy models shape society's ideas of what was possible and desirable?

The steel industry commissioned artist Syd Mead to envison the future — and promote its wares — in 1969. He painted a stylish James Bond/Playboy tomorrow with buff guys and curvy ladies racing around in Batmobile-style vehicles. In one image, the gang parks at the Grand Canyon to marvel at a building erected right in the crevasse that resembles the Space Mountain structure that would be built at Disney World in 1975. As is often the case with these things, it turns out in the future everyone is white and nature is represented by parks (if there's much green at all). Which explains a lot about the trouble we've gotten ourselves into today.

Also, some of Mead's futuristic architecture is actually from the past — like the reinforced concrete umbrellas resembling ones Felix Candela built for markets and train stations in Mexico in the '50s. Which is part of what makes futurism so curious —its idea of the future is more about looks than time or technology. For example, the streamlined locomotives that Raymond Lowy designed in the 1930s (not here) were often shells put over existing steam locomotives that added weight to the machine and made it more difficult to access for maintenance, but looked fantastic.

SUPERHIGHWAY Echte Wagner Margarine's trading card, Future Fantasies: A New Driving Power (ca. 1932).

The final section of the exhibit transitions (somewhat awkwardly) from antique visions of the future to contemporary artists responding to the old futurism. The Florida design firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company imagines sprawling, struggling malls transformed into active neighborhoods, basically applying Jane Jacobs's 1960s new urbanist idea of walkable, mixed-use communities. However their designs seems overly optimistic to me, in part because they retain the gigantism that often alienates people.

Providence artist Pippi Zornosa fashions a mosaic of black-and-white pebbles for a doorway. It features Medieval-inspired designs of vultures and interlaced flowers that echo the 19th-century British Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and friends. Disgusted by what they saw as dehumanizing factory work, environmental destruction, and crass mass-produced commercial crap, the Arts and Crafts gang founded communal workshops, revived traditional handcrafts, and made beautiful, often functional, objects.

There were always critics of futurism. Walker includes late 19th-century cartoons that satirize predicted dense, sprawling future, as well as Mentor Huebner's sketches of a dystopian metropolis for the 1982 film Blade Runner.

Wide-eyed futurism hasn't left us (see the sensation sparked by each new Apple product), but a new sense of technological possibilities slowly emerged after the concentration camps and atomic bombs of World War II. The Bauhaus' utopian vision of flattening class distinctions by producing elegant but affordable mass-produced designs resulted in spare, clean, geometric, minimalist design — as well as endless drab glass, steel, and reinforced-concrete box buildings. The masses never really embraced it. Eliminating architectural decoration, sentiment, clutter, and customization removed what many people most loved about buildings. But Bauhaus style proliferated because glass, steel, and reinforced concrete buildings remain the cheapest thing going.

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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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