The Impact of the Trylon and Perisphere
on the Modern American Dream
Soon we will plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our too-short summers!
— Charles Baudelaire, Chant d’Automne, 1861
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rapid spread of industrialization throughout the United States instilled a forward-looking mindset in its population — one looking towards a better tomorrow.¹ Although life on the assembly line remained harsh, technology eventually afforded abundance, mobility and hope.² This optimism — which hindsight would quickly label naïve — would not easily be squelched. The brutality of the Great War certainly caused the lights to dim on America’s new day dawning, but it could not prevent a fascination with the future from reclaiming a starring role in the theatre of modern life.³
An iconic symbol of this cultural buoyancy stood at the heart of the 1939 – 40 New York World’s Fair — the Trylon and Perisphere. These two distinctly modern structures formed a commanding focal point for all who visited the fair. Rising to a height of seven hundred feet, the Trylon ( short for “triangular pylon”) stood poised beside the Perisphere globe, which had a diameter of two hundred feet.⁴ The white gypsum-clad structures were designed by Wallace Anderson and J. Andre Fouilhoux, and evoked a new sense of what the modern “World of Tomorrow” could be.⁵ Images of the Trylon and Perisphere were reproduced on every type of product — from lunch boxes to postage stamps⁶— and the buildings became a symbol of the modernist dream that far outlasted the World’s Fair, even though they were dismantled in 1940.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair was the first international exhibition to focus explicitly on the future. With exhibits named “Futurama,” “The Road of Tomorrow,” and “Democracity,” it was not difficult for fairgoers to read between the lines : “Forget where we’ve been — look where we’re going!” A patron interviewed for a documentary about the fair summed it up this way : “There are moments where you can see the world turning from what it is into what it will be. For me, [ this ] fair is such a moment. It is a compass-rose pointing in all directions”.⁷ Yet, history shows us the short half -life of the fair’s dream-state. Rising tensions in Europe and the absence of Germany from the exposition signaled to everyone that another world conflict was on its way.⁸ The visionary dreams of this World’s Fair may have met interruption, but contextually, set as they were in the midst of modernism’s heavy influence, the Trylon and Perisphere stood as paragons of hopeful innovation. One of the primary means used to achieve this status was their visual appearance.
The Trylon and Perisphere’s simple geometric forms and gleaming white appearance drew in fairgoers like moths to a flame. Simply put : nothing else at the fair looked like these structures. Organizers mandated that no other building could be as tall, nor were any of the other structures colored pure white.⁹ The Perisphere appeared to float in mid-air — thanks to strategically placed fountains — and both it and the Trylon lacked any outside markings. With these techniques, Anderson and Fouilhoux managed to reference both the Miesian concept of “less is more,” and Le Corbusier’s floating boxes.¹⁰ Their clean abstraction of form turned amazed attendees into blank canvases onto which the fair’s exhibitors could apply their own agendas.¹¹
The Perisphere contained one such exhibit —“Democracity”—designed by Henry Dreyfuss. Once inside, visitors could view from a circular walkway a miniature “world of mega-cities connected by advanced transportation networks”.¹² Quixotic films depicting the “brotherhood of man” were projected onto the interior walls of the domed building.¹³ There was no mention of another world war to be found, only idyllic vision-casting for an improved quality of life.
This worldview, however positive, contained a subversive thread that became plain when compared alongside other World’s Fair marketing materials. The modern fairgoer was being conditioned to buy certain goods and to expect certain things from their life. Norman Bel Geddes’ “Futurama” exhibit and the Westinghouse promotional films depicting the Middletons — an “average” American family — were two examples of this subtle brainwashing.¹⁴ Critics of the fair described its visitors as “students who were to imbibe the corporate doctrine and carry it out with their dollars”.¹⁵ Conscious of it or not, visitors left the World’s Fair with the notion that being a modern person meant owning modern things.
Still, for all of its shortcomings, the modernized dream set forth by the 1939 – 40 New York World’s Fair maintained its stronghold in the people’s minds, hibernating, as it were, through the tumult of World War II, and springing forth once again in the mid-century realization of Bel Geddes’ and Dreyfuss’ suburban forecasts. The fair’s iconography has embedded itself into pop culture, seen everywhere from television shows like The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, to Hollywood films such as the Iron Man series. The symbols of the fair — the Trylon and Perisphere — were dismantled in late 1940 to be used for war-effort scrap metal, and yet they continue to resonate in the collective consciousness as symbols of what American ingenuity can and will continue to achieve.
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14. Innes, Christopher. 122.
15. Barans, John C.
About the Author
Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.