World’s Fair

Century of Progress

Century 21 Exposition

A world’s fair (or world expo) is a large public exhibition. These exhibitions vary in character and are held in varying parts of the world. The main attractions at world’s fairs are the national pavilions, created by participating countries.

At ‘Expo 2000 Hanover,’ where countries created their own architecture, the average pavilion investment was about €13 million. Given these costs, governments are sometimes hesitant to participate, because benefits are often assumed not to outweigh the costs.

Tangible effects are difficult to measure, but an independent study for the Dutch pavilion at ‘Expo 2000’ estimated that the pavilion (which cost around €35 million) generated around €350 million of potential revenues for the Dutch economy. Since the entering into force of the 1928 Convention Relating to International Exhibitions, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE; English: International Exhibitions Bureau) has served as an international sanctioning body for world’s fairs. BIE-approved fairs are of three types: universal, international, and specialized. They usually last from three weeks to six months.

World’s fairs originated in the French tradition of national exhibitions, a tradition that culminated with the ‘French Industrial Exposition of 1844’ held in Paris. This fair was soon followed by other national exhibitions in continental Europe, and eventually the United Kingdom. The best-known ‘first World Expo’ was held in The Crystal Palace in London in 1851, under the title ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.’

The Great Exhibition, as it is often called, was an idea of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, and is usually considered as the first international exhibition of manufactured products. It influenced the development of several aspects of society, including art-and-design education, international trade and relations, and tourism. These events have resulted in a remarkable form of Prince Albert’s life history, one that continues to be reflected in London architecture in a number of ways, including in the Albert Memorial later erected to the Prince. This expo was the most obvious precedent for the many international exhibitions, later called world’s fairs, that have continued to be held to the present time.

Since their inception in 1851, the character of world expositions has evolved. Three eras can be distinguished: the era of industrialization, the era of cultural exchange, and the era of nation branding. The first, industrialization, covered, roughly, the period from 1800 to 1938. In these days, world expositions were especially focused on trade, and were famous for the display of technological inventions and advancements. World expositions were the platforms where the state-of-the-art in science and technology from around the world was brought together. The world expositions of 1853 New York, 1889 Paris, 1893 Chicago, and 1915 San Francisco were landmarks in this respect. Inventions such as the telephone were first presented during this era. An important part of the image of world’s fairs stems from this first era.

The international exhibition in New York City in 1939–1940 presented a departure from the original focus of the expositions. From then on, world’s fairs became more strongly based on a specific theme of cultural significance, and began to address issues of humankind. They became more future oriented and utopian in scope. Technology and inventions remained important, but no longer were the principal subjects of fairs. ‘Building The World of Tomorrow’ (New York, 1939–40), ‘Peace Through Understanding’ (New York, 1964–65), and ‘Man and His World’ (Montreal, 1967) are examples of these themes. Cross-cultural dialogue and the exchange of solutions became defining elements of the expos. The dominant fair of this era arguably is Montreal’s ‘Expo ’67.’ It was also during Expo ’67 that organizers started calling world’s fairs ‘expos.’ (Montreal’s Major League Baseball team, which played from 1969 until it moved to Washington, D.C. in 2004, was named the Expos, in honor of the 1967 fair).

From ‘Expo ’88’ in Brisbane onwards, countries started to use world expositions more widely and more strongly as a platform to improve their national images through their pavilions. Finland, Japan, Canada, France, and Spain are cases in point. In a world where a strong national image is a key asset, pavilions became advertising campaigns, and the Expo a vehicle for ‘nation branding.’ Apart from cultural and symbolic reasons, organizing countries (and the cities and regions hosting them) also utilize the world exposition to brand themselves. According to branding expert Wally Olins, Spain used ‘Expo ’92’ and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona in the same year to underline its new position as a modern and democratic country and present itself as a prominent member of the European Union and the global community.

Today’s world expositions embody elements of all three eras. They present new inventions, facilitate cultural exchange based on a theme, and are used for city, region and nation branding. Presently, there are two types of world expositions: registered and recognized (sometimes unofficially known as ‘major’ and ‘minor’ fairs, respectively). Registered exhibitions are the biggest category events. Previously, registered expositions were called ‘Universal Expositions.’ Even though this name lingers on in public memory, it is no longer in use as an official term. At registered exhibitions, participants generally build their own pavilions. They are therefore the most extravagant and most expensive expos. Their duration may be between six weeks and six months. Since 1995, the interval between two registered expositions has been at least five years.

Recognized expositions are smaller in scope and investments and generally shorter in duration; between three weeks and three months. Previously, these expositions were called ‘International or Specialized Expositions’ but these terms are no longer used officially. Their total surface area must not exceed 250,000 square meters and organizers must build pavilions for the participating states, free of rent, charges, taxes, and expenses. The largest country pavilions may not exceed 1,000 square meters. Only one recognized exhibition can be held between two registered exhibitions. There are also two types of auxiliary expositions: the horticultural exhibitions, which are joint BIE and AIPH (International Association of Horticultural Producers)-sanctioned ‘garden’ fair in which participants present gardens and garden pavilions; and the ‘Milan Triennial Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Architecture.’

Universal expositions encompass universal themes that affect the full gamut of human experience, and international and corporate participants are required to adhere to the theme in their representations. Universal expositions are usually held less frequently than specialized or international expositions because they are more expensive as they require total design of pavilion buildings from the ground up. As a result, nations compete for the most outstanding or memorable structure—recent examples include Japan, France, Morocco, and Spain at ‘Expo ’92’ in Seville. Recent Universal Expositions include Brussels ‘Expo ’58,’ Montreal ‘Expo 67,’ and Osaka ‘Expo ’70.’ Sometimes prefabricated structures are also used to minimize costs for developing countries or for countries from a geographical block to share space .

The only universal exposition to be held without BIE approval was the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. The sanctioning organization at Paris denied them ‘official’ status because its president, Robert Moses, did not comply with BIE rules in place at the time, namely the one limiting the duration for universal expositions to six months only. Both World’s Fairs in New York (1939–40 and 1964–65) have the distinction of being the only two-year world expositions in history. The Fair proceeded without BIE approval and turned to tourism and trade organizations to host national pavilions in lieu of official government sponsorship. However, a large number of countries did participate in the world’s fair including several newly independent African and Asian states.

Frederick Pittera, a producer of international fairs and exhibitions and author of the history of world’s fairs in the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’), was commissioned by Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. of New York City in 1959 to prepare the first feasibility studies for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Pittera was joined in his study by Austrian architect Victor Gruen (Inventor of the ‘Shopping Mall’). The Eisenhower Commission ultimately awarded the world’s fair bid to New York City against several major U.S. cities.

Since the turn of the 21st century the BIE has moved to sanction expos only every five years; following the numerous expos of the 1980s and 1990s, some see this as a means to cut down potential expenditure by participating nations. The move was also seen by some as an attempt to avoid conflicting with the Summer Olympics. The rule may apply to all expos, or it may end up that universal expositions will be restricted to every five years or so, with international or specialized expositions in the in-between years for countries wishing to celebrate a special event. The most recent universal expo was Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

International expositions are usually united by a common theme—such as ‘Transportation’ (Vancouver ‘Expo 86’), or, ‘Leisure in the Age of Technology’ (Brisbane, ‘Expo ’88’). Such themes are narrower than the wider scope of universal expositions. The ‘International Exposition, Tsukuba, Japan,’ popularly known as ‘Expo ’85’ was held in the city of Tsukuba located near Tokyo. This Exposition is more formerly known as ‘The International Science Technology Exposition.’

Specialized and international expositions are usually smaller in scale and cheaper to run for the host committee and participants because the architectural fees are lower and they only have to rent the space from the host committee, usually with the prefabricated structure already completed. Countries then have the option of ‘adding’ their own colors, design etc. to the outside of the prefabricated structure and filling in the inside with their own content. One example of this is China, which has often chosen to add a Chinese archway in the front of its prefabricated pavilions to symbolize the nation (‘Expo ’88,’ ‘Expo ’92,’ ‘Expo ’93’).

The majority of the structures built for World’s Fairs are temporary, and are dismantled at the end of the expo. Towers from several of these fairs are notable exceptions. By far the most famous of these is the Eiffel Tower, built for the ‘Exposition Universelle’ (1889), which is now the most recognized symbol of its host city Paris. Some critics of the time wanted the tower dismantled after the fair’s conclusion. Other major structures that were held over from these fairs include the The Crystal Palace, from the first World’s Fair in London in 1851. It was chosen because it could be recycled to recoup losses, but was such a success that it was moved and intended to be permanent, only to be destroyed by a fire (of its contents) in 1936. In Brussels, the Atomium (a 102 meter tall model of an iron crystal) still stands at the site of the 1958 exposition. The Space Needle in Seattle was the symbol of the 1962 World’s Fair, and the US pavilion from that fair became the Pacific Science Center. The Seattle Center Monorail still operates daily.

Some World’s Fair sites became (or reverted to) parks incorporating some of the expo element. Some pavilions have been moved overseas intact. The Brussels ‘Expo ’58’ relocated many pavilions within Belgium: the pavilion of Jacques Chocolats moved to the town of Diest to house the new town swimming pool. Another pavilion was relocated to Willebroek and has been used as dance hall ever since. One smaller pavilion still stands on the impressive boulevard towards the Atomium: the restaurant Salon 58 in the pavilion of Comptoir Tuilier. Many exhibitions and rides created by Walt Disney and his WED Enterprises company for the 1964 New York World’s Fair (which was held over into 1965) were moved to Disneyland after the closing of the Fair. Many of the rides, including ‘it’s a small world,’ ‘Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,’ and ‘Carousel of Progress’ (since moved to the Walt Disney World Resort and updated), are still in operation.

Disney had contributed so many exhibits to the New York fair in part because the corporation had originally envisioned a ‘permanent World’s Fair’ at the Flushing site. That concept instead came to fruition with the Disney theme park Epcot, an extension of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Epcot has many of the characteristics of a typical universal exposition: national pavilions, as well as exhibits concerning technology and/or the future, along with more typical amusement park rides. Meanwhile, several of the 1964 attractions, relocated to Disneyland, have been duplicated at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Occasionally other bits and pieces of the Fairs remain. In the New York subway system, signs directing people to Flushing Meadows, Queens remain from the 1964–65 event. In the Montreal subway at least one tile artwork of its theme, ‘Man and His World,’ remains. Also, a seemingly endless supply of souvenir items from Fair visits can be found, and in the United States, at least, can often be bought at garage or estate sales. Many of these events also produced postage stamps and commemorative coins. The 1904 Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the III Olympiad, were held in conjunction with the 1904 St. Louis Fair, although no particular tie-in seems to have been made. (The 1900 Paris Exposition was also loosely tied to the Olympic Games.)

2017 or 2018 will see a recognized exposition. Several Canadian cities have been interested in 2017 as it is the year of Canada’s 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial. 2020 will see a registered exposition. Bidding may begin as early as 2013 for this larger sized exposition.

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