Futures past: Visions of the century of progress

The period between 1920 and 1950 witnessed more dramatic changes to the built environment than almost any other 30-year span in history, according to Martin Moeller, a curator at Washington DC’s National Building Museum. As technology and war reshaped cities across North America and Europe, artists responded with striking visions documenting the turmoil around them — and heroic speculations about the world it could create.

I spoke with Moeller, who recently developed an exhibition about this period. We discussed how the work reflected contemporary ideas about the future of cities and design.

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You’ve described this period as one of the most dynamic in architectural history. Can you say more?

We often think of modernism as a revolutionary movement, with Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, and Mies van der Rohe rejecting ostensibly everything from the past. But I don’t think that was ever true; in fact, many aspects of their work drew on the past. Regardless, it was clearly a revolutionary approach in terms of thinking about how people lived, especially bringing about an architecture that responded to the machine age — that responded to social concerns. All those things were relatively revolutionary ideas.

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

There was also a good deal of evolutionary design during the period this exhibition covers. But if you think about a typical building from 1920 or thereabouts, you will probably envision something that is largely neoclassical, or at least eclectic, in nature. You will probably think of something that, especially if it is a public building, somehow draws from the principles of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. That was a wonderful time. It gave us a lot of great buildings, and especially great urban buildings, that were very solid in their own right but went together to create beautiful streetscapes and beautiful cityscapes.

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Grand Central Terminal

Then if you fast-forward to the 1950s, the vast majority of things being talked about in the architectural profession and schools were modern not only in theory but in practice and intent. By 1950 we were already getting some of the earliest glass curtain wall skyscrapers. Pietro Belluschi was in Portland with his Equitable Building. Others were in the works in New York — Lever House and Seagram Building were to come not long after that.

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But also the real influence of the Bauhaus, which had existed for only about 14 years, was now being seen because whole cultures were having to rebuild after World War II. So wholesale rebuilding was in order, and in order to achieve that, a lot of the principles that had been articulated by the Bauhaus were really starting to make sense — that idea of a mass-produced architecture.

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German city after Allied bombing

And that started to have implications for how we planned suburban neighborhoods in the US.

Architecture probably changed more rapidly and more profoundly during this era than in any other 30-year period in history. I just couldn’t imagine any time period where we went from completely subscribing to one school of thought to completely rejecting that and going to something else.

Interestingly, many of the artists in the exhibition had been trained as architects. During the Depression they had to support themselves, so they found other work as illustrators, printmakers.

During that time you had skyscrapers of unprecedented heights going up, buildings of great scale. Cities were changing. All of those things captured the imagination of the artists.

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Howard Cook, “Harbor Skyline,” 1930

How did the pieces you studied for this exhibition relate to broader art movements of that time? Were they typical of representations of the built environment during this period?

Yes and no. The subject matter… was a real mix. There was a section in the exhibition on geometry and abstraction. It’s something that we certainly see in broader movements; it was a broad area of interest for artists at the time.

Charles Turzak, Man with Drill, 1937. Reproduced with permission of Joan Turzak Van Hees.

Charles Turzak, “Man with Drill,” 1937; reproduced with permission of Joan Turzak Van Hees

That of course fits in perfectly well, as you would expect, with the history of art. We had made moves towards modernism through the impressionists and post-impressionists, and we were beginning to get into the period of abstraction before 1920, of course. But things really started to catch on then, and certainly by the post–World War II period, they were at the cusp of the real abstraction we tend to associate with quote-unquote modern art. You can say that term and most people start to think of something abstract.

Jolán Gross-Bettelheim, "Home Front (Assembly Line)," ca. 1942–43.

Jolán Gross-Bettelheim, “Home Front (Assembly Line),” ca. 1942–43

I think that there was a logical connection between that broader movement and this show focusing on the built environment because of the connection to geometry and abstraction. I think that a lot of the artists from the period were fascinated by buildings because they came with an inherent geometry that could be expressed in a variety of ways — sometimes with great drama. Some of my favorite pieces in the exhibition depicted dramatic lighting on a building; you get these great surface lines cutting across and creating triangular or trapezoidal forms against the façade.

A. C. Webb, “The Palmolive Building,” ca. 1930

Beyond that, the fascination with the city as a new kind of landscape, a cityscape, was something that was happening more and more. Obviously it wasn’t something new — you think of Caillebotte or some of the other great impressionists, Monet with his depictions of great urban buildings — going back to the Renaissance.

Gustave Caillebotte, “Paris Street; Rainy Day,” 1877

But there was a real fascination with the scale of the city. Other movements that were going on at the time — suprematism, futurism — there were a lot of artists who were fascinated by ideas of modernity. Whether they related to the reality of modernity or not is another thing.

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Umberto Boccioni, “The Street Enters the House,” 1911

The futurists, in particular the Italian futurists, were fascinated by movement, by speed. And so they tended to create works that picked up on new technology, transportation, etc., and often had a kind of urban component. The futurists also often depicted specific buildings, cityscapes, and some great images of the airplane flying over the cities, because it was very much about the future.

In this period a lot of architects were practically thinking about the future of architecture, and artists were thinking about how that related to their depictions of cities. It also coincides with the time during the ’30s of six world’s fairs in the United States alone. And those world’s fairs were often obsessed with progress — you know, as in the Century of Progress.

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The Futurama exhibits in New York, all these things, were hopeful, optimistic distractions from the privations of the Depression and then from the war, I think. A lot of this was an expression of the optimism of the era, that “somehow we’re going to get through this.”

Futurama exhibit, 1939 New York World’s Fair

Were similar artistic trends seen in both Europe and North America?

Yeah, there was a lot of interchange of ideas at that point between the two places. Lots of Europeans were coming to the United States, fleeing fascism. And of course during the ’20s and ’30s, before the rise of the Nazis and Mussolini, a lot of cultured Americans were going over and spending time there. So there was a lot of exchange.

One of the most fascinating artists represented in the exhibition was a man named Louis Lozowick, who had grown up in imperial Russia, what is now Ukraine. Basically, his childhood was Fiddler on the Roof; he was from a Jewish family and faced incredible prejudice, tremendous hardships. His father, in this incredible selfless gesture, sent him to the United States alone when he was just a teenager because he recognized his talents and the threats not only to his work but also to him personally. As much as he would have loved to go with him, he couldn’t.

So Louis came over early on, but then after World War I, in which he fought in the US army, he went back to Europe, to Paris and then to Berlin, to Soviet Russia. And the thing that was fascinating him was the imagery of American cities that he had seen on a tour he had taken of the country in 1919. So he was doing images of American cities from memory while living in Paris and Berlin.

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Louis Lozowick, “New York,” 1923; courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery

That’s fascinating to me not only because there’s the physical mixing, and presumably he was surrounded by all these French and German artists and absorbing some of their ideas even as he is depicting American cities. So I think there’s a lot of that kind of cross-pollination going on.

So architects and artists — and in some cases individuals who were both — are thinking about the future, thinking of new ways of doing things. Were the two industries talking to each other? Did the art influence the architecture at all?

It’s hard to trace as cause and effect, but I can’t help but think that there was some influence going in both directions. If you think of the work of Hugh Ferriss, who was trained as an architect, his impact was almost entirely as an architectural illustrator, a delineator.

Hugh Ferriss

We know that the depictions that he did of theoretical skyscrapers based on the New York City zoning law of 1916 directly had an influence on the form of many buildings that came after that — the stepped forms, the different ways to approach how you compose the tall building in a dense city.

So there, we know that the art influenced the architects. And I think that was probably a more common phenomenon. We just don’t always have the direct evidence of it.

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