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June 06, 2006

Fave Fairs

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What ever happened to world's fairs?

Well, they're still happening.

I didn't realize that. Once upon a time, I thought world's fairs were a Big Deal. But I haven't paid much attention to them in many years and assumed most other folks didn't either. Nevertheless, enough people care about them that more are in the works: a big one is coming up in Shanghai in 2010, for example.

Here is a web site with fair info, including dates and location of fairs going back to the 1851 London fair in Hyde Park that gave the world the Crystal Palace iron-and-glass structure that became a design cliche for several 19th century fairs.

Without going into details, there are flavors of world's fairs: big and small basically, the smaller ones often having a regional or thematic focus. The big ones come along every decade or so and are the ones you're likely to hear about in the national news media. Large fairs are sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions (the major exception being the 1964-65 New York World's Fair). If you want more details, click here.

I have visited four fairs: Seattle, 1962; New York (in 1965); Spokane, 1974; and Vancouver, 1986.

It was the Vancouver fair that finally got me turned off on world's fairs. Plenty of exhibits -- but not all -- were the multi-media kind where viewers became packaged meat on moving walkways. Once en route one is trapped, having to look at whatever the exhibit designer wants one to see in the designated sequence with music and a carefully-scripted voice-over blaring in one's ears. I found I could take one or two of these exhibits, but after that I felt I was being driven crazy.

Upon reflection, I think all the fairs I saw lacked the excitement of some previous fairs that I never had the opportunity to see. In my book, the "golden age" of world's fairs ended in 1939.

Why haven't post-World War 2 fairs measured up? In part because architectural themes seem to be lacking; the buildings tend to be a hodge-podge of "Look at me!!" structures that cancel each other's impact. Another likely fair-killer is the demolition of distance caused by air travel and satellite-based communications. Much of the stuff displayed in fairs is already known to us via television, the Internet or personal travel, thus reducing its impact. Or so I think.

I hope to blog about individual fairs, so for now I'll simply list the ones I wish I could have seen and suggest why.

  • 1893 Chicago, for its architectural impact. I'd love to be able to personally assess the notion that it set back Modernism -- as historians have claimed.

  • 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This was not a sanctioned world's fair, but I think it was hugely important for the fields of Architecture and Industrial Design.

  • 1933 Chicago. Another design-theme exposition of interest (like the 1893 fair and 1925 Paris) but this time because it was where Moderne and Industrial Design entered the scene.

  • 1937 Paris. Just because.

  • 1939 New York. This one for the various city-of-tomorrow displays.

  • 1939 San Francisco. Another non-sanctioned fair, but notable for its Mayan/Deco architectural theme.

So what do you think? What fairs did you like or dislike? Which do you wish you could have seen?



posted by Donald at June 6, 2006


No question what I would choose to visit in my time machine: The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

To see what we missed, go here...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 6, 2006 8:45 PM

My mother and grandmother took me to the 1964-65 World's Fair, but I was too young to remember much of anything. In fact, the only thing I can remember were these coin-operated foot massagers, which of course fascinated me no end.
As for the go-back-in-time issue, I'd probably vote for St. Louis 1904 and New York 1939.

Posted by: Peter on June 6, 2006 9:20 PM

I attended Vancouver's Expo 86 with a buddy - we'd both just turned 21. We spent a total of one day on that project, and quickly decided it was smarter to fire up the motorcycles and head south toward Disneyland and environs. We didn't visit too many pavillions, but got the biggest kick out of the USSR's, particularly the ENORMOUS bust of Lenin, whose chin we tickled or vamped beneath while taking snapshots with our little cameras. Simple pleasures, I suppose.

Wouldn't you think the 1939 fair is chiefly responsible for this "move the meat along" approach? Disney had a hand in that, if I'm not mistaken.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on June 7, 2006 6:07 AM
(Especially the Palaces of Machinery and Mines and Metallurgy)

"The new American, like the new European, was the servant of the powerhouse, as the European of the twelfth century was the servant of the Church, and the features would follow the parentage. The St. Louis Exposition was its first creation in the twentieth century..."
-Henry Adams, the Education, ch. XXXII

Odd that this early twentieth century 'powerhouse-worship' should produce buildings so fanciful. Doesn't the high modernist style result from the same techno-gaga impulse?

Could anyone possibly feel this way about a World's Fair today?:
"The world had never witnessed so marvellous a phantasm; by night Arabia's crimson sands had never returned a glow half so astonishing, as one wandered among long lines of white palaces, exquisitely lighted by thousands on thousands of electric candles, soft, rich, shadowy, palpable in their sensuous depths; all in deep silence, profound solitude, listening for a voice or a foot-falll or the plash of an oar, as though the Emir Mirza were displaying the beauties of this City of Brass, which could show nothing half so beautiful as this illumination, with its vast, white, monumental solitude, bathed in the pure light of setting suns." -Henry Adams, ch. XXXII

Posted by: ckc on June 7, 2006 11:04 AM

I've never been to a worlds fair but this book has made me quite curious about the 1893 Chicago fair.

Posted by: AL on June 7, 2006 11:45 AM

How I would have liked to wander the "White City" in Chicago in 1893 -- not so much for the architecture as for the sculpture. Since reading Laredo Taft's book, "The History of American Sculpture" (by which he means realistic National Sculpture Society type pieces, mostly monumental) I've been very much aware that this is a marker event -- a time when everything came together into a new category.

Probably it is not an accident that this is also the World's Fair where attention was paid to the world's religions, and Native American religion was included. And the buildings left over, both grand and trashy, have influenced much that has happened since around the University of Chicago.

Also, I'd like to know quite a bit more about the Lewis & Clark commemorative exposition in Portland which left behind the World's Biggest Log Cabin, which I dearly loved in childhood and mourned when it burned. (Though secretly I wished I'd been there to see the mammoth conflagration.)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 7, 2006 11:51 AM

Whisky -- I don't think Disney was in the exhibition business until the 1964-65 New York fair (after the company cits its teeth on Disneyland). The NY fair contribution included a robotic Abraham Lincoln (and others) that gestured and mouthed words to recorded speech.

The meat-in-a-can thing in the 1939 fair that stands out in my mind is Norman Bel Geddes' city of the future exhibit for General Motors. Here viewers sat in comfortable-looking chairs that moved along tracks. Sound was fed to each chair by speakers mounted on ear-level wings (I'm recounting this from memory of descriptions I've read). Nevertheless, this is the absolute must-see for me if I had that time machine and was visiting the fair.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 7, 2006 3:01 PM

I knew nothing about the St. Louis World's Fair until I moved here---it was a Really Big Shoe! Millions and millions of people came through here in 1904---amazing. They built all kinds of temporary buildings with fake facades made of stiff paint---like frosting. But there remains a big ferris wheel in Forest Park from the Fair, and the St. Louis Art Museum was the one permanent structure. Hotdogs, ice cream cones, and iced tea are rumored to be inventions generated by the Fair.

The only one I ever attended was the New York World's Fair. I was 4, the only exhibit I remember is "It's A Small World After All"---which I found enchanting at that age, and the fright caused by all when one of my brothers---only 10--got separated from us and my mom almost had a heart attack when she realized she was down one kid with bazillions of people milling around. I always felt important by association, as we all found each other by arriving at my stroller, which had been parked outside an exhibit. For 10, he was a pretty smart kid.

Posted by: annette on June 7, 2006 4:43 PM

Right you are (according to Wikipedia).

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on June 7, 2006 7:54 PM

As a nine-year-old at Expo 67 in Montreal, I felt like I was visiting Mt. Olympus at the personal invitation of the gods.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on June 8, 2006 6:18 PM

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