In his wonderful “evocation” of the year 1940 — From This Moment On: America in 1940 — Jeffrey Hart sets the stage with a memorable account of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. “The world of tomorrow” was the theme of the fair; Trylon and Perisphere (the central panel below) were the architectural symbols of the theme.
According to Professor Hart’s account in From This Moment On, the designers of the fair were concerned with three broad issues. “First was the pervasive fact of the Great Depression.” Thus the fair’s depiction of material abundance. “Second, however, was the fact that the fair’s planners were ideological democrats who wanted to assert democratic values against the looming challenges of fascism and the communism.”
Third was the presentation of a planned environment as a cure for alienation in an industrial society. “In the first two of these aims, they were more successful than one might have expected, but the actuality of the fair went far beyond its intellectual rationale, and their prescription of a totally integrated planned environment as a cure for alienation was never very persuasive.”
Yale Professor David Gelernter subsequently took up the subject of the fair in 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. Professor Hart reviewed the book in National Review: “Greatness in Flushing Meadows.” Here Professor Hart juxtaposes the impact on him of Trylon and Perisphere with that of the Soviet pavillion:
The Trylon was, by Fair regulations, the tallest structure there. No other was allowed to be as tall. Of course you can guess what the second tallest structure was: the Soviet pavilion with the Worker atop. He held aloft a huge red star that gazed angrily at night toward the Trylon and Perisphere, which were gleaming white but sometimes bathed in pastel colors.
The Soviet pavilion was a depressing and heavy hulk of Stalinist imperial architecture. All that I can remember from inside were some folk dancers and a replica station from the Moscow Metro, chandeliers and all. You can probably imagine my reaction, even at age 9, to the aesthetics here. Good old Ivan — the Worker — was a stitch. He had a thick neck and thick wrists, infallible signs of proletarian virtue. He seemed disconcertingly stupid. Ah, this was what Stalin was putting up against the Trylon and Perisphere? At 9, I became an anti-Communist at a glance.
Most recently, Professor Hart has returned to the subject of the fair in the January issue of the New Criterion magazine. In this magnificent essay, Professor Hart knits together all the thematic strands that he has found in the fair: “The last great Fair.” New Criterion managing editor Roger Kimball has kindly made it available online at my request. There won’t be a better essay published this year; please avail yourself of the opportunity to check it out.
Looking around on the Web for sites on the fair, I found this one with a collection of images from the fair. It’s a useful companion to Professor Hart’s essay. Before we leave the subject, let’s take an aerial view of Trylon and Perisphere courtesy of that site.