VISIONARY ARCHITECTURE AND THE WORLD’S FAIRS OF THE SECOND HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY: A WOLFSONIAN PERSPECTIVE
The Wolfsonian library is (justifiably) renowned for its excellent holdings of World’s Fair materials, beginning with the first international exposition held in Hyde Park, London, England in 1851. Officially called the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nation, it was nicknamed the “Crystal Palace” Exhibition owing to the gigantic greenhouse-like structure of glass planes and cast-iron beams designed by Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) that housed the exhibits. The structure provided 990,000 square feet of exhibition space and was designed so that it could be disassembled and reassembled.
After the fair, the edifice was, in fact, put back together in a modified form on Penge Common, nearby the affluent South London suburb of Sydenham Hill in 1854 until destroyed by fire in 1936. In the course of conducting research on balloon and bird’s eye views, a recent Wolfsonian fellow came across the following image of the original Crystal Palace, (or possibly its resurrected structure at Sydenham), which included two towers affording visitors a grand view of the grounds.
Other early fairs also included towering structures. La Tour Eiffel, for example, had been constructed to serve as the entrance arch for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris.
A few years later, the American engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859-1896) created a giant revolving observation wheel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Both were designed to provide world’s fair visitors and spectators with the equivalent of balloon or bird’s-eye view of the fairgrounds, and were also a form of nationalistic engineering and architectural one-upmanship. The tradition continued in the early twentieth century with midway attractions. One such example was the Sky Ride built for the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. The attraction included twin 628 foot towers complete with “lofty observation platforms, and observation cars traveling on an aerial cable suspended 210 feet above the lagoon between the towers.
GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA
Another was the 250 foot steel structure erected to operate the “Parachute Jump” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair held in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens.
As The Wolfsonian will soon be opening an exhibition on Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), it is probably worth mentioning that he designed that immensely popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibition for the same fair. This exhibit employed more than five hundred seats attached to a moving conveyor belt which carried them over a bird’s eye view diorama simulating a “futuristic” 1960s cityscape.
The Trylon and Perisphere that became the iconic brand of the 1939 New York World’s Fair also afforded spectators entering the spherical edifice to look down from elevated balconies into the future—(or rather onto a model “Democracity”—a “perfectly integrated garden city” from the year 2039)—as it would have appeared from an airship hovering seven thousand feet above.
Having recently returned from a trip to San Antonio, Texas—(which had hosted a world’s fair in 1968)—I began to give some thought to other visionary international exhibition architecture in our collection from some of the post-World War II fairs less well represented in (but not wholly absent from) our collection. The first of these was the Atomium, an atom inspired structure 335 feet tall built for the 1958 Brussels Expo (International Exhibitions Bureau) in Belgium.
GIFT OF MICHELE OKA DONOR
In the ultimate gesture of Cold War one-upmanship, the Soviets included an image of Sputnik on a brochure for the Soviet pavilion to remind the world that it was the Communist state that had won the first round of the race to space in launching their orbital satellite.
GIFT OF MICHELE OKA DONOR
The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair in Washington state looked to even the score with the Space Needle, a 605 foot high tower, with an observation deck, gift shop, and rotating restaurant in the shape of a flying saucer. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. The view from the top that afforded visitors not only a commanding view of downtown Seattle, but also allowed them to see the coast to the west and the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges to the east.
Ironically, while the Wolfsonian library possesses a Seattle 1962 keepsake envelope describing contents as an image of the Space Needle, the color illustration photo-etched on aluminum foil inside is actually of another structure from the fair—the Federal Science Pavilion, “a virtual cathedral of science.”
The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair also had its share of futuristic and visionary architecture given its “space age” theme.
MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. LONG-TERM LOAN
In fact, the “Unisphere” symbol of the fair and other spaceship-like structures of the exhibition became important sets in the 1997 Men in Black Science Fiction thriller!
Like the other expositions, the 1964-1965 NYWF also paid attention to the spectators’ interest in aerial views with 200 foot high observation towers, a monorail and cable car rides providing visitors with a bird’s eye view of the exposition. An official children’s pop-up book published for the fair includes images of these structures as a brother and sister stroll through the fairgrounds and take a ride in a cable car.
Another visionary architectural structure from the fair, the sparkling Tower of Light, is featured in the children’s book as well as souvenir postcards in the collection.
The impetus for writing about the fairs of the second half of the twentieth century came from my trip to San Antonio, Texas. Embarrassingly, before visiting that city, I had no idea that there had been a world’s fair there as well—HemisFair ’68. As I discovered, much of the architecture built for this international exposition has been well-preserved in HemisFair Park.
While taking a barge river tour through downtown San Antonio, I learned that the original river channel had been extended to the convention center building, allowing fair-goers the option of entering the park via boat.
From the vantage of these barges, Riverwalk tourists can still see the beautiful mosaic mural made for the fair, as well as one of the revolutionary new “modular” construction hotels originally built to accommodate the visitors.
GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA
The theme of HemisFair ’68 was a celebration of “The Confluence of Civilization” and the crowning structure was the Tower of the Americas. Vintage postcards produced for the fair boast that at a height of 622-foot, the concrete tower was the “tallest observation tower in the Western Hemisphere, affording views “as far as a hundred miles from the tower’s revolving restaurant.”
GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA
Tourists visiting San Antonio today can still ride the glass-window elevator to the tower’s observation deck (or eat in the restaurant), and can see photographs of the tower’s construction in the gift shop.
While cities around the globe continue to host international expositions—largely as a means of bolstering local economies and building infrastructure, world’s fairs seem to have lost much of their significance. Competition from theme parks like Disney’s Epcot Center, and the ease with which people can access information and entertainment via television, Hollywood films, and the internet have to a large extent overshadowed and marginalized the fairs.
GIFT OF JOHN COPPOLA