Americanism, the pattern of idealization, imitation and criticisms with which European architects greeted American urban models and building practices, is the subject of Scenes of the World to Come: European Architecture and the American Challenge, 1893-1960.
The skyscrapers, massive industrial plants, and new sense of mobility and efficiency of North America became a symbol of the future to Europeans, who perceived these developments with both visionary excitement and alarm. Scenes of the World to Come makes these responses palpable by drawing together more than 350 objects from collections throughout Europe and North America. The objects include Beaux-Art renderings of hotels “à l’américaine” and futurist visions of the vertical city; projects for skyscrapers by Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos, and the Russian avant-garde; as well as travel sketches and photographs by Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier. Through these materials, the exhibition will vividly convey the impact of America upon cultures as different as Hapsburg Vienna, Stalin’s Moscow, art-deco Paris, and Archigram’s pop-inspired London.
When site engineers and architects from Europe visited Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, they looked behind the official, historicizing fantasy of the “White City” and discovered a surprising new landscape of iron- and steel-frame buildings and advanced mechanical systems. From then on, the European attitude toward America was transformed – a transformation that was confirmed as students of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris sharpened their wits on projects with American themes. Following the First World War, when rebuilding and modernisation became urgent priorities, Europeans looked to America for innovations such as Taylor’s scientific management techniques, assembly line production plants, and the skyscraper which they introduced to their cities – Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and even Moscow. After the Second World War, American building methods, such as the prefabricated house, were widely imitated and Europeans came to share America’s infatuation with mechanisation. In Great Britain, in particular, the circulation of illustrated magazines, comic strips, and images of daily life from America led architects of the 1950s to anticipate pop art and the new architectural utopias of the 1960s.
The exhibition provides an introduction to many of the themes of the CCA’s multi-year series The American Century. The series seeks to cast a fresh eye on critical aspects of modern America’s architectural culture – its promises and disappointments, its roots and offshoots, its unparalleled worldwide impact. Other exhibitions in the series include Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932 (1996); Viewing Olmsted: Photographs by Robert Burley, Lee Friedlander, and Geoffrey James (1996); The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks (1997); and The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life (1998).
In conjunction with the exhibition, a 250-page monograph written by exhibition curator Jean-Louis Cohen, with a preface by Hubert Damisch, Directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, is published in French and English editions by the CCA and Flammarion. The book traces the evolution of Americanism and features illustrations of most of the works presented in the exhibition.