"Living on the level": the significance of horizontality in shaping Cold-War America
Root, Colin Edward
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After 1945, a visual dichotomy emerged in the United States. Americans from the late 1940s into the 1950s gradually understood "living on the level"- or the nation's visual transformation toward the horizontal axis-to be progressive, a comfortable existence postponed by two decades of Depression and war. While the obsession with skyward progress (epitomized by technological achievements such as airplanes and skyscrapers) dominated the early decades of the twentieth century, postwar Americans turned away from life on the vertical axis and toward horizontality as the nation's dominant organizational scheme. In fact, postwar Americans experienced life almost exclusively horizontally in their day-to-day activities, and few anticipated the effects that such a dramatic spatial re-orientation would have on the landscape. Drawing on the methodological example of Michael Leja's book Looking Askance, this dissertation is an interdisciplinary project that re-imagines several crucial ways in which postwar Americans experienced their new horizontal environment (from cinema to interstate highways to commercial and domestic architecture) as a dramatic shift away from verticality and toward horizontality in a Cold War context. Chapter 1 discusses mainstream Hollywood's widescreen cinematic processes that emerged during the early 1950s. This chapter explores the ways that technological advances in cinematic exhibition incorporated horizontality and demonstrates the correlation between the widescreen frame and the western genre's popularity. Chapter 2 uses census data and government records to situate the construction of the Federal Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration. The resulting horizontal concept of sprawl re-visualized the American landscape; the interstates' creation echoed the construction of the transcontinental railroad a century earlier. Chapter 3 looks at nationwide construction pattern books and business postcards to examine the effect that horizontality had on commercial architecture-from Main Street to regional shopping centers and motels-and the resulting change in consumerism that fundamentally altered how daily business was transacted. Chapter 4 analyzes house plans and blueprints to examine domestic architecture's rejection of verticality and embrace ofhorizontality-the postwar ranch house-by situating its low-profile silhouette and horizontal orientation as shelter against the dangers of the atomic age.
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