Monday, October 19, 2009

A History of the Future.

By Donna Goodman.

New York: The Monacelli Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN-13: 978-1580932073, $45. 280 pages.

Review by Yves Laberge, Laval University, Quebec

How did artists, writers, filmmakers and architects from previous centuries imagine and represent their idea of times to come? Now that we more or less live in what could be called their future, can we verify how precise and accurate were their visions and predictions? Did things actually evolve as planned by visionaries from the past? Were architects and artists imagining the past right in their intuitions? In other words, did we follow their plans as we built “the future”? In order to explore these questions, this richly illustrated book explains the many facets of futuristic aesthetics through the past centuries.

Scholars and students in American Studies will find here an exhaustive investigation that also works of the imagination but also real projects that were achieved in real life: for example, Harvey Wiley Corbett's vision of New York in the future, with many skyscrapers and multilevel highways, as illustrated here with early-twentieth-century color postcards and excerpts from Scientific American (38). We find as well countless representations of modernity and visions of utopian future in various feature films, from Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1927) to Busby Berkeley's beautifully designed musicals, and William Cameron Menzies's Things To Come (1936), adapted from H.G. Wells's novel.

The first section is dedicated to Europe, with many accurate references to Renaissance thought, philosopher Thomas More (who wrote the first "classic" book about utopia), but also Le Corbusier in France, Futurism in Italy, Expressionism and the Bauhaus movements in Germany. But most of the seven chapters focus on the USA during the twentieth century, especially in chapters 2-5, the "Machine Age," the "Automobile Age," and the "Space Age.” In a way, one could argue that the future has always been a part of our lives. For example, public events like World Fairs were immensely popular and depicted many forecasts of the future, as demonstrated here with the New York City case and the famous 1967 Montréal Man and His World Fair, which is commented upon and is shown on the book's cover.

Chapter 6 centred on the media age also mixes various elements and mottos which characterized the post-World War II era, from Marshall McLuhan's famous predictions about the role of television in our daily lives, to the utopian visions of the Disneyland park (that incidentally included a street named "Tomorrowland"), which was then nicknamed "the happiest place on Earth" (203).

The book's final chapter focuses on "The Environmental Age," which began with Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring in 1962. In this case, explaining how environmental thought evolved during the recent decades is done through numerous examples taken from architectural projects featuring nature-friendly aspects. The explanation takes into account the role of ideologies, often pessimistic, about the new challenges (and the appropriate solutions, like eco-tourism) for the near future, from overpopulation to global warming. In that sense, the author succeeds in bringing many accurate examples and a strong theoretical framework, which comprises recent trends like deconstruction and postmodernism (212). In other words, this thought-provoking book is not just a collection of fascinating images, but rather an invitation to reading and exploring other salient works. However, the conclusion remains open, as there is no final chapter or recapitulation about what we could tentatively name "the evolution of the idea of the future.”

Many interesting ideas emerge from all these chapters. First, the idea of the future has been present in many cultures and countries, in all facets of arts and culture, from novels to movies, from architecture to fine arts, and in urban planning as well. Second, we realize that the idea of the future and the projects that can illustrate the years to come do not often become a tangible reality; furthermore, these "old images of the future" tend to become obsolete and sometimes look naïve afterwards — but not at the moment when they are being made or released. This phenomenon can demonstrate the fundamental distinction between something new (that is never been seen) and something futuristic ("that announces what is likely to happen sooner or later"). Nonetheless, some examples remind us of the important links between fiction and reality: for example, the U.S. military "Star Wars" defense system, named after a popular movie series (192). From what I learned here, I concluded that studying the many representations of the future can serve as an examination of the contemporary ideas and mentalities of a given moment, and therefore, inform us indirectly about the beliefs, values, fears, and hopes of the past.

In sum, because this excellent book tells us more about the past than the future, A History of the Future is already an essential book for historians in many fields (culture, ideas, literature, science, and technology), as well as a very stimulating study of modernity itself. I would define that concept of modernity as the capacity to show how things are changing at a particular moment, focusing precisely on the change in itself. In this case, modernity should not be confused with modernism, another twentieth-century concept that is presented here, as is the reaction against it that occurred during the 1960s (196). Perhaps the only major artist missing in this book is French filmmaker Marcel L'Herbier (1888-1979), who directed a modern masterpiece, L'Inhumaine, in 1924, which remains difficult to find nowadays.

For students in architecture, design, and Cultural Studies, this comprehensive History of the Future will be a delight. The author's style is jargon-free, with short paragraphs that are always easy to follow; her lavish book should be ranked in the category "history of ideas.” It could be appreciated by undergraduates and non-scholars as well; in my eyes, this History of the Future seems to be essential for public libraries and universities as well. Once again, this gorgeous publication reconfirms the reputation of Monacelli Press as a high-class publisher of art books.

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