The Best of the Past Saved for the Future


About Retrofuture

Filed under: — Eric @ 8:07 pm

Illustration by Fred. T. Jane

Visionary thinkers dream of what can be. They base their ideas on the premise that the near future holds unlimited promise. Technology is always on the cusp of bringing a revolution that will reshape our society but we must dream it first.

Fantasy and reality meet at the crossroads–that’s where the Retrofuture exists. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick releases the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey where moon landings are routine. One year later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are walking on the moon.

For every one giant leap there is a wholly implausible, impractical and unfeasible plan or product or political party platform that fails to measure up to the irrational exuberance of its creator.

Even when visionaries fail something new is always being born—in this case an imaginary universe of obsolescent optimism called Retrofuture, a place where implausible, impractical and unfeasible plans live and thrive, where yesterday’s tomorrows are always in our future and always alluring.

That’s why July 20, 1969—the day the Eagle landed—was paradoxically both a crowning achievement of the space age and a dead end for a millennium-old fantasy. Suddenly the far-off moon, the subject of so many romantic songs, was just a box of rocks. To paraphrase the old Peggy Lee song “Is that all there is?”

In the Retrofuture the allure is always over the horizon—you can’t see it yet. Exciting, mysterious, full of potential. The future the way it ought to be…but isn’t. At least not yet.

But the unattainable in the present moment has never detracted the world’s great thinkers. The fantasy future provided the pallete for Leonardo da Vinci, the patron saint of Retrofuture. Although very few of his inventions were practical to manufacture in his time, Da Vinci was never deterred. He was an artist and a engineer.

In the far off future from Da Vinci,  artist and engineers came together with greater frequency, often supported by corporations looking to exploit the concept of a limitless future to sell a few more of their products. Walt Disney had an elite group he called his “imagineers.” He deployed them on his far-reaching Project X, a revolutionary concept in urban planning which, sadly, after Disney’s death, was watered down into EPCOT.

Many of the films and images on this blog were created to promote a corporate vision whose bottom line had everything to do with profits, not prophets.

Art and science, profit or loss, utopia and dystopia. This is the great divide we’re looking at. Something from the past about our future, something that hasn’t happened which is ever-elusive.

Sometimes never happening is for the better. Nicolai Tesla, the father of electricity who conceived of a wireless world of communications almost a century before it became a reality, also dreamed up a death ray.

Tesla caught the entrepreneur’s bug. First you had to conceive the dream and then you had to fund it. Many of the great stars of the Retrofuture universe, like Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome, were constantly underfunded. Fuller was not only unschooled in a formal sense but for a good deal of his life, misunderstood, even ridiculed, called a crackpot. Fortunately that’s changed.

Fuller’s central concept was doing more with less. His geodesic dome at the 1972 Expo in Montreal is a classic Retrofuture image. But many, if not most, of Fuller’s ideas were rejected–his three wheeled car, his Dymaxion house.

And that’s what forms the basis of much of what we’re going to look at. Successful failure. Some, maybe even most, of these plans, ideas, artistic renderings were doomed to be left on the launching pad.

And yet they’re all a progression—and a consensus—that the future was coming fast so we better think big about where we want to go and what we want to do.

It’s a living room with waterproof furniture that can be cleaned with a hose, an auto food dispenser in the kitchen, a robot named Jeeves and so much leisure time we would need “leisure counselors.”

Where does this vision begin? The definitive starting point is October 4, 1957, the day Russia launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik, kicking off the space race between the USSR and the USA.

The battlefield was space. Two ideological systems competing for hearts and minds with extra-terrestrial exploits that  set people’s imaginations soaring into the cosmos. That’s what drove the space age. Listen to a chart-topping hit “Telstar” by the Tornadoes produced by visionary music producer Joe Meek. The worldwide #1 smash was inspired by the launching of the first telecommunications satellite.

Architecture, art, design, literature, films, furniture, transportation, food stuffs—each were transformed by the concept of a brave new world to come. And then, of course, gadgets. They have always been a driving force of Retrofuture. Anything that promises convenience but can’t quite deliver on its promise. Those gotta-have-it items that appeal to our techno-lust like Dick Tracy’s 2-Way Wrist Radio.

That’s the Retrofuture. It’s in the present. It’s in the past. It’s still in the future. It’s the year 2000. It’s the 21st century. It’s yesterday and it’s tomorrow.

The future that never was filled with fantastic trips to the moon. Dream cars. Jet packs. Inflatable furniture. Flying cars. Mile-high skyscrapers. Underwater cities. Personal rapid transit. Supersonic travel. The cure for the common cold. The promise of immortality.

In the new millennium the Retrofuture lives on and it’s still being created. The Retrofuture today is the plan on the drawing board: virtual reality, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, stem cell research and things we can’t imagine or fathom.

Copyright 2009 Eric Lefcowitz

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