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Impossible Heights

Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Impossible Heights
    Book Description:

    The advent of the airplane and skyscraper in 1920s and '30s America offered the population an entirely new way to look at the world: from above. The captivating image of an airplane flying over the rising metropolis led many Americans to believe a new civilization had dawned. InImpossible Heights, Adnan Morshed examines the aesthetics that emerged from this valorization of heights and their impact on the built environment.

    The lofty vantage point from the sky ushered in a modernist impulse to cleanse crowded twentieth-century cities in anticipation of an ideal world of tomorrow. Inspired by great new heights, American architects became central to this endeavor and were regarded as heroic aviators. Combining close readings of a broad range of archival sources, Morshed offers new interpretations of works such as Hugh Ferriss's Metropolis drawings, Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion houses, and Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Transformed by the populist imagination into "master builders," these designers helped produce a new form of visuality: the aesthetics of ascension.

    By demonstrating how aerial movement and height intersect with popular "superman" discourses of the time, Morshed reveals the relationship between architecture, art, science, and interwar pop culture. Featuring a marvelous array of never before published illustrations, this richly textured study of utopian imaginings illustrates America's propulsion into a new cultural consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4295-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Aesthetics of Ascension
    (pp. 1-20)

    A distinct cultural consciousness came into focus in America during the interwar years with the excitement over airplanes and skyscrapers and their anticipated roles in the creation of an ideal world of tomorrow. For many observers, aerial movement and height opened up new perspectives from which to rediscover the world. This, in turn, emboldened many visionary designers and thinkers to imagine the future in their own terms. The mobile “eye” of the airplane seemed to distinguish the twentieth century from earlier times by virtue of its promise to transform fragmentary earthbound experiences into the “mingling lines of Picasso,” as noted...

  5. ONE Hugh Ferriss and the “Harmonious Development of Man”
    (pp. 21-84)

    In a series of sublime views of modern cities and their high-rise buildings, the New York architect, illustrator, and poet Hugh Macomber Ferriss (1889–1962) grappled with what was a subject of intense literary and sociocultural inquiry in the first decades of the twentieth century: the psychological conditions of modern city life (Figure 1.1).¹ Published collectively in his bookThe Metropolis of Tomorrow(1929), Ferriss’s chiaroscuro drawings of the 1920s offered a two-pronged commentary on the rapid urbanization of early twentieth-century America.² First, his renderings explored the vertiginous environment of sky-scrapers and brought to the fore the multifaceted ways “upward...

  6. TWO Ascension as Autobiography: Buckminster Fuller and His “Land to Sky, Outward Progression”
    (pp. 85-152)

    Richard Buckminster Fuller presented his Dymaxion House before the Architectural League of New York on July 9, 1929.¹ A staged photo, taken for promotional purposes shortly after this presentation, offers a glimpse into the mind of the New England native and emerging social provocateur (Figure 2.1).² Looking every bit the suave salesman in his crisp suit, the thirty-four-year-old Fuller poses with a scale model of his proposed single-family house, ready to insert a triangular duralumin panel on its second floor. A teardrop-shaped car is parked in front of the model. Strikingly, a die-cast miniature airplane sits in the ground-floor garage....

  7. THREE The Master Builder as Superman: Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama
    (pp. 153-220)

    On April 30, 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated the New York World’s Fair, designed to be “the biggest world’s fair in history.”¹ While it celebrated a historic moment—the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as the first U.S. president in New York City—the fair was planned to show that, as Roosevelt said during his opening speech, “the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.”² Conceived by the New York elite and their corporate sponsors to dispel the economic woes of the Great Depression by revitalizing consumerist beliefs, the 1939 fair, with all of its...

  8. EPILOGUE: The God’s-Eye Vision
    (pp. 221-228)

    With his mind in the clouds, the master builder sought to create his utopian World of Tomorrow. Hugh Ferriss, Buckminster Fuller, and Norman Bel Geddes assumed, with a heavy dose of idealism, that the technologies of ascension had provided them with a powerful perspective that would, in turn, enable them to create a world of aesthetic perfection, technological superiority, and social advancement. They imagined themselves as the deserving master builders of their designed world. They were the heroes of their own narratives. The modern, technology-driven Worlds of Tomorrow that these visionaries imagined were as much about their protagonist creators as...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 229-274)
  10. Index
    (pp. 275-291)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 292-292)
  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)