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Impossible Heights

Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder

2014
Author:

Adnan Morshed

Impossible Heights

A rich exploration of the influence of skyscrapers, airplanes, and aerial vision on interwar American visual culture

Demonstrating how aerial movement and height intersect with popular “superman” discourses of the time, Adnan Morshed reveals the relationship between architecture, art, science, and interwar pop culture. Featuring a marvelous array of never before published illustrations, this richly textured study of utopian imaginings illustrates America’s propulsion into a new cultural consciousness.

Impossible Heights is an original account of the American fascination with the skyscraper and the airplane and the enthusiasm for the new perspective on high from which people surveyed the city and landscape. Adnan Morshed examines the intersections between intellectual biography, visuality, and cultural history and brings together the ‘art of architecture’ with mass culture and spectatorship. In doing so, he illuminates ‘the aesthetics of ascension’ as a widely shared cultural phenomenon that characterized the interwar period.

Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

The advent of the airplane and skyscraper in 1920s and ‘30s America offered the population an entirely new way to look at the world: from above. The captivating image of an airplane flying over the rising metropolis led many Americans to believe a new civilization had dawned. In Impossible Heights, Adnan Morshed examines the aesthetics that emerged from this valorization of heights and their impact on the built environment.

The lofty vantage point from the sky ushered in a modernist impulse to cleanse crowded twentieth-century cities in anticipation of an ideal world of tomorrow. Inspired by great new heights, American architects became central to this endeavor and were regarded as heroic aviators. Combining close readings of a broad range of archival sources, Morshed offers new interpretations of works such as Hugh Ferriss’s Metropolis drawings, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion houses, and Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Transformed by the populist imagination into “master builders,” these designers helped produce a new form of visuality: the aesthetics of ascension.

By demonstrating how aerial movement and height intersect with popular “superman” discourses of the time, Morshed reveals the relationship between architecture, art, science, and interwar pop culture. Featuring a marvelous array of never before published illustrations, this richly textured study of utopian imaginings illustrates America’s propulsion into a new cultural consciousness.

Impossible Heights

Adnan Morshed is associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America.

Impossible Heights

Impossible Heights is an original account of the American fascination with the skyscraper and the airplane and the enthusiasm for the new perspective on high from which people surveyed the city and landscape. Adnan Morshed examines the intersections between intellectual biography, visuality, and cultural history and brings together the ‘art of architecture’ with mass culture and spectatorship. In doing so, he illuminates ‘the aesthetics of ascension’ as a widely shared cultural phenomenon that characterized the interwar period.

Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

A valuable contribution to the tradition of scholarship on aerial perspective and the history of visuality by focusing upon the interwar period and the American fascination with aviation and skyscrapers.

CHOICE

Impossible Heights. . . offers a site of rich cultural exploration regarding the architectural history of flight.

Science Fiction Studies

Impossible Heights

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Aesthetics of Ascension

1. Hugh Ferriss and the “Harmonious Development of Man”
2. Ascension as Autobiography: Buckminster Fuller and His “Land to Sky, Outward Progression”
3. The Master Builder as Superman: Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama

Epilogue: The God’s-Eye Vision

Notes
Index

Impossible Heights

UMP blog: How early aviation inspired American utopianism

A hundred years have passed since the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service. In Florida, on January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV airboat flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa with one paid passenger. The distance was a mere 23 miles across the bay, but it was an epoch-making event, ushering in the age of commercial flight.