Alex Slade — Advertisements for a Future Past
As I write this, it is almost 26 years to the day since Architectural Forum ceased publication. The magazine, started in 1892 as The Brickbuilder,1 was unlike any of the contemporaneous architectural magazines in its curious mix of theory, consumer architecture and design, industrial architecture, and building industry news. In my mind, the golden years of Architectural Forum were the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. After its sale in 1964 to the nonprofit Urban America,2 it became noticeably less interesting. Perhaps part of this is nostalgia on my part, since the design aesthetic shifted to something reminiscent of Time Magazine; in other words, it was familiar in its similarity to other publications of my youth.
Over the last two years, I’ve been exploring archival collections of Architectural Forum. Initially, I was looking for articles on Victor Gruen, one of the early designers of shopping malls. Gruen was a major figure in the pages of Architectural Forum as a theorist of urban planning. His built works, which ranged from office buildings to large tracts of suburban development, were frequently reproduced in the magazine. I first encountered his work while researching a project on a shopping mall in San Bernardino. The mall was part of a complex of redevelopment in the city after construction of the 215-freeway split the old downtown commercial district. After doing some research, I discovered that many of the buildings in Los Angeles that had long intrigued me were also Gruen’s creations. These were typical but unremarkable examples of post-war American architecture, similar to buildings I remembered from my childhood in suburban Chicago.
As I looked through old issues of Architectural Forum, I found the designs for the America I grew up in. I found sketches for shopping malls that I remember as centerpieces of the suburban landscape. I found examples of new elementary schools that looked just like the one I went to, churches like the one across the street from that school, and plans for freeways like the one that connected our suburb to the city of Chicago. Peppered among the proposals for new housing developments and articles about the exploits of various avant-garde architects were an unusual mix of advertisements. As well as the predictable ads for Herman Miller furniture and Dutch Boy paint, there were unexpected items, too: bathroom stalls, industrial furnaces, earth-moving machines, elevator systems, venting systems, moveable walls, asphalt roofing, and aluminum building facades.
Much of the future envisioned in architectural magazines of the post-war period is now in ruins. The first-ring suburbs of the forties are often the worst parts of contemporary cities. The housing projects that were supposed to replace the slums of early industrialism and offer a clean, orderly place where the poor could build new lives are being torn down as blights on the urban environment and breeding grounds for gang and drug violence. Similarly, the advertisements for the future in which architecture solved all problems seem anachronistic. Racism, sexism, class divisions, and the violence of power and capital are all glossed over as if they wouldn’t eventually lead to the undoing of all the hopeful plans of architects and urban planners. Following is a selection of these ads undone, in a way, to expose some of the conceits of that period.