In 1943, when Architectural Forum coined the term "194X," the editors had their eyes on the unknown year when World War II would end and architects and planners could finally be set free to design America's homes, towns, and cities. In the meantime, while jobs were scarce and resources directed to the battle front, these designers were left to plan the future. In 194X, architectural historian Andrew M. Shanken chronicles the cultural anticipation that consumed architects and the general public alike during World War II. This beautifully illustrated book focuses on the intersection of architecture, economics, advertising, and a wide-ranging obsession with planning on the home front during a time when hope for future prosperity helped comfort Americans accustomed to Great Depression poverty and wartime rationing.
Planning of all types became remarkably popular during the 1940s, especially as a means for promoting America's progress. The National Resource Planning Board (NRPB) was central to the acceptance of city planning by Americans. A New Deal cabinet, the NRPB helped to remove planning's ties to authoritarianism and centralization in the minds of many by calling for local democratic plans developed with citizen involvement. Henry Luce even used the unlikely platform of Fortune magazine to sing planning's praises, despite its inherent pull away from free-market capitalism. Planning also seeped its way into very personal areas of Americans' lives during this era: the American Birth Control League changed its name to Planned Parenthood, and psychologist Erik Erikson promoted a plan for society's mental hygiene. Planning permeated American society.
An American take on Keynesian economics, trumpeted by Alvin Hansen, helped to further justify large-scale planning. Hansen dubbed the United States a "mature economy," arguing that the United States had lost much of its vigor after the closing of its frontier at the turn of the century. A new type of frontier, however, existed in unplanned, "sick," and blighted cities. Planning could cure the cities' ills, such as slums, while preparing them for the future needs of the country. The "mature economy" theory touted by Hansen and others lent authority to the deficit-spending projects proposed by planners.
Advertising helped to bring planning further into the homes and minds of the American public. Businesses tied to war commissions and unable to continue their domestic production used advertising as a way to maintain a public face. With the added help of government incentives, they went about propagandizing the war while promoting their companies. Shanken tries to delicately navigate the combination of patriotism, public interest, and self-interest that combined in the advertisements they published. Many of these companies, especially in the building industry, hired architects to draw plans for the future and published them in magazines and pamphlets. Some companies, such as General Electric, eagerly inserted the ways their products would be used in the postwar world, while others chose to just show support for the planners' vision. Shanken shines in his dissection of these mostly unrealized plans—showing coherence in the "unbuilt environment" of 194X. The profusion of Modernist architecture in advertisements helped mainstream Americans build a taste for it and see the esthetic value in reconfiguring cities and towns. The ads also connected Modernist designs with social and economic uplift.
With the war coming to a close and America finally nearing 194X, a backlash mounted. Shanken places the beginning of the end of planning with the conservative congressional wins of 1942. With the change in power came the death of the NRPB and other reform agencies described by foes as "un-American." Increasingly, critics argued that collective planning would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. With the growing distaste for all things Communist, unfavorable comparisons to Soviet projects did not help the field of planning. Businesses and magazines shied away from futuristic designs and instead promoted more conservative or practical products and changes. The public's desires seemed to shift from elaborate redesigns of homes, cities, and society to a return to normalcy with additional luxuries like radios and lawn mowers. The planners felt the backlash personally as mainstream Americans grew increasingly disdainful of such visionaries. In the end, planners were unable to adapt to the changing needs of the...