The Spirit of Modernism by matthew c. hoffman
“The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture.” — writer Paul Scheerbart
The Modernist architects believed in egalitarian design concepts; their buildings were for everyone. But in Hollywood, the set designers turned Modernism into a playground for the wealthy. Whether for the nouveau riche or the captains of industry, Modernism in cinema was a distinctly first-class affair. Audiences affected by the Depression loved it and could escape into cinematic luxury. Movie screens offered theatregoers the opportunity to forget about the breadlines outside. Hollywood designed dreams and fashioned a style unlike no other.
Like the movies, the world’s fairs of the 1930s offered visions of the modern life. And they were also the only opportunity for the public at large to experience modern architecture. Two of the most important architectural and technological exhibitions took place in the United States during the heyday of Modernism: Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress, which was influenced by Art Deco, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. By 1939, Deco had evolved into the Streamline Moderne. Technology created efficiency in a streamlined world, and this was the theme of the World of Tomorrow. Exhibits/rides like GM’s “Futurama” gave fair customers a peak at an urban utopia 30 years in the future. “I have seen the future!” was the marketing catchphrase during the 1939 season. Art, science, and architecture converged to elevate our hopes for a better tomorrow.
The world fairs were cultural highpoints because they offered symbols of our nation’s greatness– as well as achievements of a modern society. The Modernism on display at the ’39 Fair, for instance, was more democratic than anything in the movies because these weren’t concepts solely for the benefit of the rich. The streamlined kitchens brought efficiency to the middle class! Like any fair there was an emphasis on commercialism, of course, and there were also the common elements to be found off the midway. But the greater legacy is that these remarkable exhibitions showed us things we could build and achieve. Today we don’t build these grand symbols. We rebuild other countries, but not our own cities. The plans were never realized– the dreams buried like the time capsule in Flushing Meadows.
The Screen Deco program at the Park Ridge Public Library will examine how film reflected these architectural ideals. Modernism fashioned a style; the movies fashioned a future with it. It is a vision of the future seen through a 1930s prism. Science fiction, of course, was the most obvious genre in which to build futurist designs. Modernism was pro-technology and embraced the future. The most famous example of architecture in sci-fi is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but even in non-science fiction films like The Black Cat (1934) we see designs that are ahead of their time. Many of the films in our 2012 series are thematically progressive and forward-looking. They distance themselves from the designs of the past. Screen Deco’s theme is about looking forward with concepts rooted in the past.
Corinne Griffith, Lilies of the Field (1930)
The future is more than smart phones with apps and Facebook. Screen Deco will be about returning the vision of Tomorrow. We will unlock a memory of things past and behold a dream of the future. I’ll even roll out Elektro because our series wouldn’t be complete without a robot.
And we’ll take a trip on the greatest Streamlined rocketship of them all courtesy of Dr. Zarkov. This is the appeal of Screen Deco: the series is suffused with an optimism, a belief that we can be more than what we are now. Though never built, we wish there could be a “Metropolis of Tomorrow” like the one architect Hugh Ferriss envisioned– one which could manage traffic and conjestion. We wish we could live in homes that resembled the movie sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. We wish there were gigantic, streamlined air liners in the sky like the models Norman Bel Geddes designed– not the 40 year old 747 designs of today. Fresh vision leads to new economies. But we don’t dream big the way we did 50 years ago; we only think about surviving the day.
Screen Deco is a universe of nightclubs seemingly floating in space, executive suites overlooking a Manhattan skyline, grand hotels bringing people together, and luxury liners taking them off on the most romantic trips across the Atlantic. Once onboard, the only class is first. It’s a universe where every nightclub has a white piano– and every man a tux.
If we could be inspired by these designs and dreams from architects and set designers long forgotten, we’d have a Tomorrow people could believe in– something that transcends the commonplace. Screen Deco offers a style for a a contemporary society that has none. The program’s relevance is in these dreams we once shared as a culture.
Metropolis of Tomorrow by Hugh Ferriss