Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We Want Our Future Back

Dude, where's my jetpack?

Father Anonymous is among the many Americans of his generation to express frequent consternation that the 21st century is underway, and yet the promises made in the 20th remain unfulfilled. And no, this has nothing to do with peace, equality or the four-day workweek. We're talking technology here: the silver jumpsuits, the tourist jaunts to Moonbase Alpha, the damn flying car.

The disappointments of yesterday's futurism have spawned a number of books, websites and museum shows. But the truth is that most of them focus on a single roughly coherent vision, one circumscribed chronologically by Hugo Gernsback's pulp magazine at one end, and 2001: A Space Odyssey at the other, with ten thousand issues of Popular Mechanics in between. (To be fair, a rival vision, called steampunk, has gained much traction recently. For the uninitiated, steampunk envisions a present designed by Jules Verne -- brass and velvet iPhones, and everybody wearing goggles).

But what about our medieval future, huh? What about that?

In separate and outstanding blog pieces, Hugh of Cluny and Matthew Alderman describe Ralph Adams Cram, the architect of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue -- two of the finest church buildings in New York City -- as a social visionary, whose enthusiasm for the Middle Ages led him to imagine a 21st century filled with Gothic buildings, graduate schools organized like monasteries, and so forth. Such were Cram's mainstream credentials (and such was the prewar culture) that this actually seemed like a feasible alternative not just to Gernsbackian pulp but even Bauhausian Modernism.

As Alderman says,
While [Cram] was defiantly counter-cultural, the fact the culture at large was willing to give him a listen, suggests that the cultural dominance of modernistic thought, art and architecture, was hardly as assured or as easy a progress as we have been led to believe. We often read in books of the Liturgical Movement era of the coming golden age of Gregorian chant and popular participation, with the same inevitable assurance one heard in subsequent decades of Jetsons-style flying cars, neither one of which has come to pass.
But what an age it would have been.

No comments: