Gabrielle Esperdy: Autopia 2.0?

A cautionary tale from the United States of the Automobile.

December 18, 2018

Recorded on November 3, 2018.

Climate change and economic inequality pose immense and inextricable challenges to the United States: How to reimagine the American way of life to address the impacts of global warming, and how to build a new and robust economic structure that offers viable and sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles across the income spectrum for all Americans.

The Five Thousand Pound Life—an Architectural League initiative of public events, digital publications, and a planned design study—is a contribution to what must be a collective effort spanning geographies, generations, occupations, disciplines, and ideologies to address these challenges.

In the 21st century, urbanists are rightly studying the ways that electric and autonomous vehicles might transform our cities, but seemingly every technological advance also prompts waves of overblown rhetoric about the brave new urban world that will soon be upon us thanks to extended battery range and self-driving software. Such techno-futurist euphoria about an impending automobile utopia has a decidedly familiar ring, and these uncanny echos of earlier debates suggest that now might be a good time for some historical perspective. For her contribution to the The Five Thousand Pound Life, historian Gabrielle Esperdy takes a long look in the rear view mirror to scrutinize the way the automobile influenced urban form and urban thought in the middle of the 20th century. She focuses on how architects and planners conceptualized the impact of the automobile and theorized the transformative power of mobility.

This video was recorded at the 2018 Ground Transportation and Climate Change conference.


Gabrielle Esperdy is an architectural and urban historian who studies the intersection of architecture, consumerism and modernism in the metropolitan landscape. Her new book, American Autopia (forthcoming 2019), examines how the automobile shaped midcentury architectural and urban discourse in the United States. Her first book was Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal. Esperdy is associate professor of architecture at the NJIT and is editor of the Society of Architectural Historians Archipedia, an online resource on the history of the built environment; a columnist for the online journal Places; and a board member of and contributor to DesignInquiry.