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In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes's diagram for 'Highways and Horizons'

By Ady Wetegrove

Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

Forecasting the automobile’s ability to transform society, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes planned his Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair around vehicular transportation systems. The Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” provided an international stage for Bel Geddes to showcase his optimistic and auto-centric vision of the future American landscape. Bel Geddes, along with other modernist pioneers, crafted models, dioramas, and multimedia displays to provide Depression-era Americans with a brighter vision of the future.

Eager to shape national consciousness, Bel Geddes provided attendees of Futurama at the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” pavilion with a choreographed experience on the curvilinear thoroughfares of an imagined 1960 America. One of the World Fair’s most popular attractions, Futurama led exhibit-goers on model highways through a massive model city, complete with miniature buildings, trees, and streamlined automobiles. The holistic urban plan of Futurama borrowed from Bel Geddes’s earlier theater work, in which he created a dynamic and participatory environment for audience members.

Shown here is a 1938 “diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit.” Tear-drop shaped highways bisect the model city and converge at the General Motors Exhibition Buildings, which housed Futurama. Proposing ways to alleviate traffic congestion and increase efficiency, Bel Geddes created imaginative traffic plans to route through-traffic around the city center.

Recognizing the growing importance of automobiles in American society, Bel Geddes modeled his Futurama around an intricate network of streamlined motorways. Futurama’s elevated pedestrian walks and interconnected highway systems would not only accommodate fast and more efficient modes of transportation but would also foster American egalitarianism through the linkage of rural and urban areas. Bel Geddes even fought “to keep large super-billboards off the highways in Futurama.”

With Futurama’s success, Bel Geddes pursued avenues to alter America’s fledgling car culture. Bel Geddes alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Futurama’s “enormous popularity. . . as indicated by the nation-wide press use of the subject matter, and the consequent editorial comment.” In response, Roosevelt appointed Bel Geddes to work on preliminary plans for the National Motorway Planning Authority, which influenced the interstate highway system of the 1950s.

This diagram of a city-traffic plan for 1960 is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Fellows Find: Scholar explores varied creative processes in David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives

By Mary Holland

 

Archival boxes in the Don DeLillo archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Archival boxes in the Don DeLillo archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Mary Holland  is an Assistant Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz. She recently spent time working in the David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives at the Ransom Center. Her work, which was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, will be used in her article “‘Your head gets in the way’: Distortion, Vision, and Influence in Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.”

 

Last August, I spent six glorious days working in the David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives at the Harry Ransom Center, research made possible by a travel stipend generously awarded by the Center. A week is a strange amount of time to spend in a place filled to the gills with archival treasures beyond the imagination of an academic wearied by paper-grading and class prep. At first, encountering this abundance in the framework of a week’s stay threatens to trigger an unhelpful paralysis in reaction to intense frustration. I managed to combat such stultification by using every available moment to gather information that I could examine in stolen moments of leisure once I was home.  During my stay, I looked at most of the Wallace materials and a good portion of the DeLillo materials.

For a longtime lover of Wallace’s work, the archive of his drafts, letters, and annotated books is exhilarating and revelatory. I read with glee his comments, written with his trademark tiny handwriting, in the margins of books I’ve never seen him quote from but knew in my gut he had to have mindfully read; I found in drafts of his work scribblings about other pieces he’d written much earlier or later, establishing how fluid and overlapping his creative process was—that his process for creating fiction was as recursive as the fiction he created.

The DeLillo archive is far vaster than the Wallace one and requires more time for full exploration than I could wrench from my life last August. But I did examine research folders for several of DeLillo’s novels, as well as multiple drafts of a few novels: one could not paint a clearer picture of the enormous differences between Wallace’s and DeLillo’s writing processes than by putting the two authors’ drafts side by side. Whereas DeLillo builds a novel like a house, crafting it room by room, paragraph by paragraph, all aiming to fit a blueprint he’s mapped out well ahead, Wallace’s novels spilled out of him like water, going where they would, joining other unexpected streams, requiring repeated and concerted acts of containment, reshaping, and solidification before becoming the complex crystalline structures they are. I also found some startling connections between novels by DeLillo I had previously not read as connected, and these kinds of discoveries will certainly fuel my next critical work on DeLillo.

Landing at such a place as the Ransom Center with only a week to stay before shoving off again is certainly a real test of fortitude and focus. (Yet I gladly set both aside for lost hours when I became passionately absorbed in this or that planned or unplanned thing: I think I spent an hour just reading letters from Gordon Lish to DeLillo. Lish’s cocky, melodramatic persona is not to be missed.) But every time I jogged up the stairs to the reading room on an energized morning, or down again on a tired evening for that well-earned beer on Sixth Street, I did so with enormous gratitude that the Center exists, that its staff members are so helpful and kind, and that I was afforded my week of work there.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ransom Center staff interviewed novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Ransom Center staff interviewed novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Central Market Cooking School Chef Louis Ortiz leads cooking demonstrations of dishes inspired by the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.” Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Central Market Cooking School Chef Louis Ortiz leads cooking demonstrations of dishes inspired by the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.” Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Library Assistant Megan Dirickson works on a project to digitize and catalog the materials of artist Frank Reaugh, including rehousing works after they have been documented. Funding for the Frank Reaugh project is made possible with support from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) and TSLAC (Texas State Library and Archives Commission). Photo by Edgar Walters.
Library Assistant Megan Dirickson works on a project to digitize and catalog the materials of artist Frank Reaugh, including rehousing works after they have been documented. Funding for the Frank Reaugh project is made possible with support from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) and TSLAC (Texas State Library and Archives Commission). Photo by Edgar Walters.

Before and After: A set of Sicilian marionettes

By Io Montecillo

The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes before custom housing was built.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes before custom housing was built.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes in their custom-built housing.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes in their custom-built housing.

The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes, constructed between 1850 and 1960, consists of 60 marionettes and a backdrop curtain. The marionettes, which were originally purchased by entrepreneur Stanley Marcus in 1960, form a troupe of characters from the religious allegorical poem “Orlando Furioso.”

The figures, which are made of painted wood and metal components, stand about four feet tall and are dressed in fur, leather, cloth, and metal armor. The human marionettes have wooden heads, torsos, hands, and legs. Their arms are made out of folded cloth. A few figures have glass eyes, and some even have human hair adhered to their heads. Protecting the marionettes posed a particular challenge for the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation team. Read the full article about the preservation efforts relating to the marionettes.

Xeriscaped plaza helps conserve water

By Edgar Walters

This past summer, the Harry Ransom Center underwent a sustainable landscape makeover, replacing two plots of Asian jasmine, holly, and nandina bushes in front of the building with handsome rock gardens filled with plants especially suited for the Austin climate. The project is part of campus-wide efforts to promote xeriscaping, or landscaping that saves water by reducing the need for irrigation.

Two seniors working on their Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, Tim Eischen and Hank Star, spearheaded the project by submitting a proposal to the University’s Green Fee Committee, which agreed to fund the project. The new gardens feature drought-resistant plant species and are expected to conserve 72,000 gallons of water a year.

To maximize water conservation, the landscape features a new irrigation system specifically designed to meet sustainable watering requirements. In addition to facilitating dramatic reductions in irrigation, the landscape is also contoured to maintain its role as a local drainage basin. Central to the goal of xeriscaping is using native plant life, which drains far less water than the invasive Asian jasmine that previously filled the planters. The new drought-resistant plant species featured include rosemary, Mexican heather, soft leaf yucca, barrel cactus, cholla, red yucca, sedum, Easter cactus, Texas mountain laurel, prickly pear, Mexican bush sage, pride of Barbados, purple fountain grass, agave, and Texas sotol. Eischen’s father also donated an olive tree.

More than being aesthetically attractive, the new landscape will reduce another of the Asian jasmine’s undesirable qualities: bugs. Crickets and other insects laid eggs in the jasmine beds, posing a concern for Ransom Center collections. The rock gardens are also cleaner and more resilient, which diminishes the risk that the new plots will succumb to diseases that afflict Asian jasmine.

The final plot on the plaza has yet to be renovated, but plans for upgrades are in the works. The Ransom Center is exploring the possibility of a more interactive space, where events could take place and visitors could enjoy the beautiful landscape.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.