A ready-made ideal city

“Since the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, world’s fairs and expositions returned continuously to the concern with creating idealized cities. The Chicago World’s Fair was especially significant in establishing what would later become integral not only to the logic of expositions, but to theme parks like Disneyland and EPCOT and urban destinations like Odaiba that would follow in their wake: in all instances, a ready-made ideal city was created, one that was technologically driven and reliant on commercial imperatives and popular culture. As James Gilbert has explained when discussing early exposition visitors, ‘the visible future they encountered was a carefully engineered vision, a prophecy […] of the coming relationship between work, leisure, and culture’. But unlike the dystopian futures often delineated in science fijiction, in the future visions of the expositions, the inclusion of technological and scientifij ic innovation within the social environment was intended to inspire the creation of utopian spaces.

“Events like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-1934 (also called the Century of Progress International Exposition) and the New York World’s Fair of 1939 took the first important steps not only in forging a relationship between sci- ence, technology, industry, and society, but also integrating these concerns with the visions and consumer pleasures offfered by science fijiction and entertainment. Rydell explains that, in the wake of the Great Depression, ‘1930s scientists, confronted by a “revolt against science”, joined corporate backers of the fairs in trying to pin popular hopes for national recovery on the positive results expected from the fusion of science and business’. Specifically, combining the speculation familiar to science fij iction with the realities of the scientific and technological innovations of the time, these fairs specialized in presenting the public with future utopian realities made possible through technological advancement.

“A look at pre-World War II futuristic utopian thinking, as envisioned by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors. This was designer Bel Geddes masterpiece — the “Futurama” exhibit in GM’s “Highways and Horizons” pavilion at the World’s Fair, that imagined the distant future of a faraway time 1960.”

It was the New York World’s Fair of 1939 that became one of the most famous examples to showcase a new urban landscape, one that featured the utopian possibilities of technology and science. On the opening night, after Albert Einstein switched on the lights that would bring life to the fair’s motto – ‘Designing the World of Tomorrow’ – the fair proceeded to create a vision of a world in which ‘science could become a way of life and utopia would be nigh’. The fair showcased the latest technologies offfered by corporations (such as Rotolactor, an automatic cow-milking machine). Numerous other technological inventions were presented to an eager public as well: Voder, a synthetic human-speech device by AT&T; television sets by RCA, GE, and Westinghouse; and Elektro, a walking and talking robot by Westinghouse. However, it was the representation of a ‘city of the future’ that drew crowds by the millions…”

Text: Angela Ndalianis, Disney’s Utopian Techno-Futures: Tomorrow’s World That We Shall Build Today, in Tourist Utopias: Offshore Islands, Enclave Spaces, and Mobile Imaginaries, ed. Timothy Simpson, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2017.