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The Automobile of 1964 and the Time of Unlimited Optimism

The conclusion of this year’s US Open tennis tournament held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center has coincided with the publication in Canadian newspapers of the New York Times obituary for Irving Harper.  Mr. Harper died, aged 99, on August 4th at his home in Rye, New York.

The connection?  In 1963, Irving Harper was the director of design at George Nelson Associates, the firm hired to design the Chrysler Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York —the sight that today houses—amongst other facilities including Shea Stadium—Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

The Chrysler Pavilion, the smallest of the ‘Big Three’ car company pavilions at the 1964/65 fair has nevertheless managed to hold its own in the history books for its creative celebration of the automobile and its clever marketing and educational messaging.  Called ‘autofare’, the six-acre pavilion consisted of a 10,000 foot long, 300 foot wide oval-shaped water-filled lagoon containing five islands connected by bridges and causeways.

On Engineering Island visitors could walk through “the biggest engine in the world,” a giant “one-million horsepower” engine with a “writhing, twisting, squirming crankshaft dragon driving three eight-foot pistons.”  Giant hands operated the engine valves.  Imagination Island was dominated by “The world’s biggest automobile! Nearly 80 feet long and 50 feet wide!”  With huge wheels, nearly two stories high, the underside of this giant car sat eight feet off the ground allowing visitors to view from below “all the working elements of an actual car.”

On Production Island visitors were transported by car along a simulated automobile production line passing “an area of mechanical workmen and giant quality control gauges.”  Production Island also contained a “fantastic auto-animal zoo”: a 12-foot mantis, a 10-foot porcupine, a 7-foot frog and others guarded by a 22-foot zookeeper, all made entirely of car parts.

On Operations Island 10 ‘showmen’ statues in an enclosed, semi-circular stage each told a story about “a special facet of Chrysler activities—Space, Missiles, Defense, Amplex, Airtemp, Parts, Chemical, Marine, Industrial Products and International.”

The fifth island contained ‘Show-Go-Round’, four separate auditoriums blended into one huge structure, the white roof of which formed a huge ‘Pentastar’, “the symbol of Chrysler Corporation activities all over the world.”  Each of the four separate audiences could simultaneously watch a different part of the four-phased performance mounted on a 70-foot revolving stage concluding with the unveiling of a completely-assembled puppet-built “experimental car” designed by a young genius auto designer featured in the film portion of the performance.

Interviewed about the Chrysler Pavilion project in 2014, Mr. Harper recalled he considered taking up knitting or any activity that would “take his mind off the stress—something repetitive and soothing he could do at home in the evening.”  And thus were born Mr. Harper’s small ‘jaw-dropping’ sculptures made from common materials—paper, balsawood, toothpicks, etc. —works of art that decorated his home and are now on display in the book, Irving Harper: Works in Paper by Michael Maharam and Irving Harper, 2013: Skira, Rizzoli. 

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