In an introduction to his new exhibit in the David Winton Bell gallery, Nathaniel Walker GS described himself as a student of the word "progress."
The exhibit, entitled "Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future," explores how architectural imagery has been used throughout history to "reform, sell and market" ideas of the future, often for political or commercial purposes.
"Progress," Walker said, has been "used to build the expectations and imaginations of citizens all around the world for three centuries," causing them to believe that "tomorrow will be better."
Walker explained that he was inspired by a moment when he returned to Nashville, Tenn., from a trip to Europe. Walker said he was struck by how Nashville had become "an automobile-dependent wasteland … designed more for cars than people," in stark contrast to the "walkable" cities of Europe. Nashville, he said, had been completely changed in the name of progress.
The first portion of the exhibit focused on architecture that attempted to reform the future, often with a political agenda. This idea, "in support of the industrial supremacy," was based on an "imperfect reading of Darwin's theory," Walker said, that resulted in the belief that man began in the jungle and should end in the factory. Many of the images, including prints and posters as well as memorabilia, showed colorful, complex structures in the sky, but also items like a one-hour labor "bill" which Robert Owen, a British industrialist, believed should replace our current monetary system.
The next portion, Selling the Future, was about a time when the future was "imagined, designed, packaged and sold as a commodity." Items in this portion included magazines like "Everyday Science and Mechanics" as well as trading cards and post cards featuring futuristic visions of family life or the city of Boston. Walker called these artifacts both "prophetic and comedic." There was a sense of false, forced optimism in these images — one could almost tell that the creators of these objects were indeed trying to sell consumers something.
Marketing the Future, the third portion of the exhibit, involved "visions created by corporations to sell products and services that already existed," Walker explained. By using the idea of a better future, corporations like General Motors and Seagull whiskey could "glamorize their goods" and "transform them into imported luxuries."
These three parts made up the retrospective portion of the exhibit — that is, they looked at past visions and manipulations of the idea of the future. But Walker's exhibit also sought to explore current beliefs about the future in a separate section, housed behind a mosaic-covered wall. Made of small stones arranged to form flowers and birds, a piece by local artist Pippi Zornoza was described on an accompanying plaque as a "powerful, fresh and defiant take on future architectural possibilities."
The exhibit also contained a mat of glowing orange, red and green shapes. As people walked across the mat, their shadows caused the shapes to change and move. Other interactive aspects of the exhibit included a mounted TV advertisement screening on the wall, and a short documentary about the idea of creating a new Earth.
Rhode Island School of Design alum Agata Michalowska said the history in the exhibit was "really fascinating."
"It's almost frightening to see how the future was imagined," she said.
Morgan Calderini, who attended the event to support Zornoza, said she found it "wonderful to see a combination of historical pieces and commissioned works from artists in Providence."
The exhibit hit close to home for one attendee, Ken Orenstein, an architect and city planner. Orenstein's father was born in 1906 and lived through the Great Depression. At the age of 33, he went to Futurama, an exhibit and ride at the 1939 New York World's Fair that envisioned the world in 20 years. Photographs from Futurama were on display at "Building Expectations."
"It gave him hope," Orenstein said. "Hope that the future would be better." This power of architecture to both inspire and manipulate is at the heart of Walker's compelling and informative exhibit.
"Building Expectation" will be on display in the David Winton Bell Gallery through Nov. 6.