Gosh, Wow, Aircars!

The typical inspiring image of the East is or was the Buddha, meditating in stillness; the typical inspiring image of the West was and is “the man on horseback”, or his high-tech equivalent. How many millennia, I wonder, will it take to get the Age of Migrations out of our systems?

By Futurism I mean not Marinetti but the sort of architectural fetishism popularised in vintage science fiction illustrations, what William Gibson has called “Raygun Gothic”, and the attempt to incarnate it in the real world. This technological fever-dream gave us mile-high cities with elevated highways stacked a score deep, or traffic-jams of aircars; as the Star Wars prequels still do. No self-respecting Futurist is interested in who is in the vehicles, where they are going, what they will do when they get there, or why. The movement itself, and how it is accomplished, is all. Look! Anonymous people moving rapidly about up in the sky, isn’t it exciting?

The Futurist fails to reflect, however, that no established technology appears gosh-wow to its actual users. I am old enough to remember a TV series whose action hero was a cool airline captain – this was before the era of package holidays in Benidorm – and the opening shots showed us the revolving radar device atop the Heathrow control tower. Steampunk tries to recapture the spirit in which 19th-century inventions were gosh-wow at the time; I wish someone would take it all the way back to the domestication of the horse, the first time we ever travelled faster than we could run, but treated as Futurism rather than magical fantasy. No doubt someone thought that Equotech would solve all our problems.

The all too real Futurist city of Brasilia has a high mortality rate. For there are no pedestrian walkways, and so the menials who keep the buildings running have to walk beside and actually cross the beautiful planned highways, marring the symmetry with their blood.

In some Futurist utopias, all this movement is determined, but at the same time without purpose, because there is nowhere to go, except between work and sleep. There may also be some form of regimented athletics and recreation, in order to keep the ants of this human hive healthy. Sometimes, of course, this is a deliberate dystopia, but the frightening thing is how often it isn’t. We cannot truly grasp this aesthetic until we understand why people thought that “food pills” would be a good idea.

In the Nazi and Stalinist versions of Futurism there is a less stress on rapid movement than in the American edition, but more on creating vast spaces for slow movement: that is, for parades and march-pasts. Neither the capitalist nor the socialist vision understood how real people actually want to use their cityscape: which is neither to whiz about nor to march about, but to amble about, snack, get drunk, chat and flirt. Futurism never shows us people listening to buskers, puking in the gutter, or having a knee-trembler up against the graffiti-laden wall. Nor do architects today.

The wide straight boulevards of Hausmann’s Paris, the ancestor of modern city planning, had two main purposes: for gentlemen of leisure to cruise for ladies of the afternoon; and for an uncluttered field of fire against demonstrators. But where, in the architects’ high-minded impressions, are all the cannons and courtesans?

Posted on April 12, 2009 at 09:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, The Futurist Fever-Dream

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