Reports

30 October 2015 -

At “‘How We Live, and How we Might Live’: Design and the Spirit of Critical Utopianism,” I presented “Conceiving an Ideal Democratic Neighborhood” as part of “Domestic Bliss,” a panel chaired by Catharine Rossi. This paper investigated how two traveling poster exhibitions—Look at Your Neighborhood (1944) and Planning Your Neighborhood (1945)—outlined the pattern of a democratic life. In the United States and Britain, respectively, this pattern was vital to establish because each nation found itself at the center of a housing crisis in the 1930s—a problem that the war only exacerbated. American and British architects thus endeavored during World War II to conceive an egalitarian future by designing a better world to reward citizens’ wartime sacrifices. Architects sought to accomplish this feat by planning neighborhoods that integrated housing, schools, healthcare facilities, shops, employment, recreation and transportation. In so doing, they hoped to provide the inhabitants of such neighborhoods with the tools to facilitate the full, enjoyable lives that would enable residents to be active citizens within democratic nations.

As part of this dialogue, neighborhood-planning exhibitions addressed non-professional audiences to gain support for these transformative ideas. My paper centered on two small-scale circulating exhibitions. The first of these, Look at Your Neighborhood, was assembled and designed by Rudolf Mock under the advice of the planner Clarence Stein for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In addition, Elizabeth Mock, interim director of architecture at MoMA during the war, prepared the exhibition for display and circulation. The second exhibition, Planning Your Neighborhood, was researched and designed in 1945 by Ernö Goldfinger and Ursula Blackwell for Britain’s Army Bureau of Current Affairs. In series of portable panels, both exhibitions presented the postwar world as it might be by considering equally the needs of men, women and children, and by emphasizing neighborhoods as dynamic components of human activity. Each design team conceived the panels for maximum legibility and intelligibility and aimed to stimulate direct viewer involvement. By analyzing the panels’ simplified graphic imagery, my paper illustrated that the designers intended for these displays to communicate modern planning’s egalitarian promise clearly and directly to visitors. Moreover, this presentation demonstrated that through these exhibitions’ use of the possessive “your,” the curators targeted exhibition visitors as individual voters by instilling in them a sense of personal accountability, encouraging them to advocate for planned neighborhoods as part of a democratic citizenry.

This paper comprises part of the second chapter of my dissertation project, “Tomorrow on Display: American and British Housing Exhibitions, 1940-1955.” Exhibitions of town planning, domestic architecture, and home furnishings proliferated during these years, as architects on both sides of the Atlantic seized an opportunity during wartime to rethink housing on a mass scale. My dissertation examines these housing exhibitions as interfaces that enabled a non-professional public to access, understand, and demand transformative modern architectural ideas. In addition, it studies the curatorial work of planning professionals, who sought to counter totalitarian propaganda on the home front through exhibiting forms of more democratic living. By analyzing a range of these exhibitions, my project illustrates how architects and curators—many of them women—visualized ideas about planning, dwellings, and furniture. In addition, it illuminates how exhibition coordinators called upon individual visitors to advocate, personalize, and consume as democratic duties, arguing that exhibitions’ underlying ideological agendas constructed and reinforced a democratic citizenry to combat the totalitarian regimes against which the U.S. and Britain were unified. As part of this larger project, chapter two analyzes how exhibitions instructed visitors to demand planned neighborhoods through voting and voluntary action.

Overall, my experience at the DHS Conference as a conference bursary recipient provided thoughtful and useful feedback and raised productive questions at a critical juncture in my PhD. Within the “Domestic Bliss” panel, on which Ben Highmore and Rachael Luck also presented, all of the papers engaged the concept of democracy as a utopian theme, specifically the notion that designers should focus on people’s actual wants and lifestyles. Moreover, the discussion among the panel participants and audience raised the question of access across the three papers presented. Highmore’s presentation raised questions about who could access Habitat’s objects and the accompanying lifestyle they created. Luck’s paper addressed the efforts to make Milton Keynes accessible through planning. Finally, my own paper showcased how designers during and following World War II insisted that democratic neighborhoods must provide access to amenities. Our conversation thus suggested that access forms an integral component of a design’s egalitarianism, and in the context of this conference, its utopianism.

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