194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front
University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 254 pp., $24.95 paperback
In the eyes of many Americans in the 1940s, World War II was won by the U.S.’s superiority in planning — planning as in the coordination of the manufacture of ammunition and material, the transport of troops, and the logistics of supplying troops with the goods and shelter they needed. This successful example of centralized government planning made the concept of planning in all its forms very attractive to a nation still in recovery from the Great Depression and experiencing the home front shortages brought on by the war.
During the war, the term “194X” was invented by the magazine Architectural Forum to indicate how we would live in post-war America. Planning for 194X captured the imagination of architects and planners as well as government and business interests. In 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front, Andrew M. Shanken has spotlighted this brief period in which planning of all types was viewed as a winning approach that would help the U.S. solve its economic and social problems.
During the war years, there was great anticipation that architecture and planning, as well as society as a whole, would undergo a large shift after the war. To many thinkers, the Depression had been caused by the failure of the country to recognize the end of the frontier phase of the country’s development, for which laisez-faire approaches were appropriate, and the transition to a mature phase in which new economic and development policies were needed. Planning was seen as a necessity. The currency of planning reached a high point during this time, with industrialists and consumer products companies latching onto the word “planning.” A particularly engaging feature of the book is the many advertisements from the era that used the term planning to sell everything from plumbing fixtures to cake flour.
In the specific area of urban planning and development, the country was looking for answers to housing shortages and the decline of the older central cities. Architects were hungry for work and were encouraging the public to plan for the future development of their communities as well as for their dream homes. There was a concerted effort by architects to make planning safe for Americans. (An ad in Architectural Forum included the reassuring statement, “Planners are not crackpots.”) Modernist designs from architects appeared in articles and ads from businesses that would benefit from new construction. Some of these sketches were a bit fanciful -- an airplane in every driveway! — but they did present to the public a glimpse of what the future held — urban renewal, decentralization, suburban shopping centers, and larger homes.
Planning begins to tarnish
It did not take long for the anti-planning backlash to begin. Beginning in 1943, Congress started dismantling the New Deal, with one of the first victims being the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB), a central planning agency that had expanded its focus from natural resources and public works to broader social and economic planning. Time magazine ran its own ad campaign ridiculing futurist building designs and stressing the need to focus on what could be built right away to get business booming again. (The similarity to 2009’s “shovel-ready” economic stimulus approach is striking.) Magazines and ad campaigns that had shown visionary images of a modernist future shifted to a more moderate approach. And while some of the modernist new visions for the future did occur, the culture of planning had dissipated.
Shanken has written a well-researched and engaging book about this short period in which planning was in vogue and new approaches to urban development were welcomed by industry and government. The numerous items of artwork from magazines and pamphlets provide strong support for Shanken’s thesis and show in a very entertaining way how planning briefly infiltrated popular culture.
This book can be read as a cautionary tale of the fragile hold that planning has in the US, and a reminder of Americans’ resistance to collective action. It also suggests that the recent focus on energy use and greenhouse gases as the rationale for new urban development forms will face a challenge observed by Shanken: “Planning has often argued from the position, or assumption, of scarcity, and so is tinged with pessimism, which historically plays poorly among Americans.”
Many urbanists are now suggesting that as our economy recovers, development will shift significantly toward urbanism to address a changed economic, social, and political environment. As far as these are permanent changes in conditions, shifts in development patterns are likely to occur slowly over the long run. But those expecting a swift shift in the development paradigm due to the political winds of the moment or current market problems — such as a glut of homes in distant suburbs or difficulty in obtaining credit for large subdivisions — are likely to be disappointed. As Shanken’s book warns, a return to business as usual can occur very quickly once a crisis has passed.
Joseph Molinaro, AICP, is Managing Director of Community Affairs for the National Association of Realtors in Washington, DC.