In the Spring of 1937, the Shell Oil Company employed stage designer Norman Bel Geddes, to create a scale model of a future, utopian ‘City of Tomorrow’ for shows in New York and Detroit. The head of the Bureau of Street Traffic Research predicted that American cities would be rebuilt in this way in the next 25-50 years. During 1939-40, General Motors (GM) put on a major exhibit at New York’s World Fair, commissioning the same Bel Geddes to expand his Shell model to much bigger proportions. They called it ‘Futurama’.
In the first summer of the World Fair, more than 5 million visitors traveled on conveyor belts to look down on the GM ‘Futurama’ diorama, as if from an airplane window. In Futurama, free movement of autos was evoked across vast panoramas. The film of the exhibit, ‘To New Horizons’ (1940), evoked an America where there was freedom from want, and where mobility – social and physical – meant movement in cars on free-flowing expressways.
In the 1940s, South African engineers toured US highway engineering departments and in 1951 the Cape Town City Engineer’s department published ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow’. With its similar evocations in photographs and words, the document suggested that Futurama-style thinking was important to South African engineers too.
Sixty-five years on, looking at the 2017 Foreshore exhibitions, I wondered: are we still dreaming of a South African Futurama where road space is abundant and a free-flowing utopia is possible? And if so, who benefits from such dreams?