They reached a startling climax in a collaborative diorama — Capturing the Rainbow — at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, whose foreground showed an entire people casting aside the tools of farm and factory to gaze upon the gleaming towers of a future city — post industrial, post agricultural, and brought to life without toil by two celestial spirits dropping stardust to the ground.
From Solomon’s Temple and the Tower of Babel to the legends of Atlantis, Oz and Eldorado, we have tended to imagine our futures, our lost histories and our half-known pasts as great architectural constructions and cityscapes. And because they are based in and out of time, like Babel and Atlantis and the Temple, every such reverie of construction seems to carry with it (and with almost as much delight) the image of its own destruction.
One wonders if the reason for dreaming our past and futures in terms of architecture lies in part because real, living cities are from a distance never entirely palpable. They hide the habited mundane behind the fancied spectacle of nothing but those “towers, domes, theatres and temples” that clouded Wordsworth’s eye one dawn upon Waterloo Bridge; beneath the chimerical light surfaces of Monet’s Thames Embankment; or in the dazzling “brightness and glory” that — so said the Wizard of Oz — compelled visitors to wear coloured glasses to survive entry to the Emerald City.
Hence it is always the architecture of the city in which our dreams of lost and future worlds are dressed, because the space remains narrow between a deep Atlantis and Constable’s London seen from Hampstead Heath or between Paul Strand’s 1921 film Manhatta viewed from New York Harbour and a vision of Eldorado. Once a city is in mind the eye does not have to work too hard to foresee the unseen or recollect the forgotten.