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December 11, 2011

Norman Bel Geddes' model of city planning for Toledo (detail of the new central station for trains, bus and planes). Photograph by Frank Scherschel. Published in LIFE magazine on September 17, 1945, p. 90.

LIFE: September 17, 1945, p. 90. Norman Bel Geddes’ model of city planning for Toledo (detail of the new central station for trains, bus and planes). Photograph by Frank Scherschel. Source of hi-res image.

The $150,000 model representing what the city of Toledo could look like in a near future was commissioned in 1945 by Paul Block newspapers and designed by Norman Bel Geddes. While describing different part of this hudge construction, LIFE insisted on the big improvement the new plan represented over the “old” Toledo. See below in regard to the existing Union Station:

Existing Union Station near Emerald and Knapp Streets has long been embarrassing to Toledo. It serves 220 passengers train daily, is old, grimy and thoroughly inadequate. Civic-minded Toledoans have erected signs in station vicinity deriding it.

Photo of the actual Station in Toledo (Ohio) as it stood in 1945. Published in LIFE magazine on September 17, 1945, p. 90.
Photo of the actual Station in Toledo (Ohio) as it stood in 1945. Published in LIFE magazine on September 17, 1945, p. 90.

The new station Bel Geddes envisioned was never built. The station LIFE magazine once called “old, grimy and thoroughly inadequate” is still there (see Google Maps; more images at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library).
Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) was an American set designer and self taught architect best known for the way he envisioned the future (from automobile to highway to complete cities). Here’s a more detailed biography taken from a paper comparing both his work and Lewis Mumford’s view on cities and urban planning:

Bel Geddes was born in Adrian Michigan on April 27, 1893. He attended high school in Ohio but was expelled for drawing a caricature of a principal on the blackboard and never graduated. He attended some classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, but never received a formal degree. Bel Geddes gradually developed his artistic talents and attracted attention as a commercial artist for his innovative designs. His interest in the theatre was also strong and, after 1915, he developed a reputation for imaginative scenery, costumes and lighting, including a significant body of work for the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. During the 1920s, Bel Geddes also became interested in the design of manufactured objects and, in 1927, he opened the first office specializing in the new field of industrial design, Norman Bel Geddes & Co. Bel Geddes produced designs for automobiles, trains, ocean liners, radios, stoves, refrigerators, passenger airplane interiors, office interiors and service stations. Although never trained as an architect, he expanded his artistic range to encompass that field as well, designing buildings for the Chicago Century of Progress exhibition in 1933. He developed a partnership with architect George Howe, and the firm of Norman Bel Geddes, George Howe & Co. was founded in 1935.
As an urbanist, Bel Geddes is most famous for the Futurama exhibit that he designed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Sponsored by General Motors and built at a cost of around $US8 000 000, Futurama was besieged by long lines throughout the duration of the fair. Bel Geddes summarized his ideas on the future of the city in Magic Motorways, published in 1940. His other notable foray into city planning occurred in 1945, when he produced a plan for Toledo, Ohio, including a scale model – 60 feet in diameter – of the envisaged future city. Norman Bel Geddes died of a heart attack in New York City on May 8, 1958. (“Lewis Mumford and Norman Bel Geddes: the highway, the city and the future” by Cliff Ellis, Planning Perspectives, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 51-68).

More online resources about Norman Bel Geddes:

  • What the short biography quoted above doesn’t mentioned is Bel Geddes models of American combat operations. The architectural blog This is a456 offers a rich post about Bel Geddes model making activities in the late thirties and forties. It is richly illustrated (with adequate source attribution) and I found the comments to be enlightening. Certainly one of the best introduction to this specific aspect of Bel Geddes’ work.

    The war models he build for LIFE magazine were eventually exposed at The Museum of Modern Art (read the official press release for the exhibition: PDF). More recently, Norman Bel Geddes’ work was feature at the exhibition “Architecture in Uniform. Designing and Building for the Second World War” held at the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).

  • Norman Bel Geddes is most known for his design of “Futurama” exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. It was a gigantic model of what the future was supposed to look like in twenty years (so around 1960). To get an idea of what it was, one can watch the 20 minutes documentary The New Horizon (1940) over at the Internet Archive. The same document is also avaiable on YouTube. Photographs of the exhibition are available at Morrischia.com (the website of two designers). Finally, Wired magazine published an article back in November 2007 about Bel Geddes futuristic model: “The Original Futurama” (Issue 15, no. 12, November 27, 2007; Flash is required in order to play the video embedded in the article; while the original article is not online anymore, Wired published a piece adapted from it on April 30, 2010: “April 30, 1939: The Future Arrives at New York World’s Fair”). Yes, the name of the animated science fiction sitcom created by Matt Groening (IMDb) comes from Bel Geddes’ model. That’s why the Wired article is untitled “The Original Futurama”.
  • Dymaxion has an article (with illustrations) about how Norman Bel Geddes was “the first person to seriously apply the concepts of aerodynamics and streamlining to industrial design”.
  • Google patents has 113 searchable patents by Norman Bel Geddes. Most of them are design patents.
  • American Quarterly: “The Futurama Recontextualized: Norman Bel Geddes’s Eugenic ‘World of Tomorrow’” by Christina Cogdell (Volume 52, Number 2, June 2000). Cogdell wrote this article while she was a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas (Austin). She later developed the ideas presented in this article into a book: Eugenic design: streamlining America in the 1930s, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004 (officiel website).

I first learned about Norman Bel Geddes’ models via Bifurcations.

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