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Some Lesser Known World's Fair Architectural Achievements

When you see articles about world’s fair history, it’s not surprising that you see lots of references to the architectural landmarks they’ve produced in 160 years. From the Crystal Palace at the first world’s fair in London in 1851 to Expo 2010’s China Pavilion in Shanghai, there are many well-known architectural landmarks that have resulted from expos. The Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889), the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (1915), the Atomium in Brussels (1958), the Space Needle in Seattle (1962) are all well known.

There are some historic expo structures, however, that the general public might not be aware of that are also architecturally important. Some are landmarks themselves, some are experiments that helped the field of architecture explore new ideas, some went on to become city symbols, and some are, quite frankly, experiments that didn’t quite pan out in the long run.

In this list are some buildings that are in almost every architecture history textbook, but the general public might not know as much about them. Some are lesser known, but still considered important. And some are ones that I’ve really appreciated that I felt needs more attention by both historians and the general public.

1893 Chicago: Transportation Building

Transportation Building, Expo 1893 Chicago
Transportation Building, Expo 1893 Chicago

Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition is best known for its White City, a collection of white monumental buildings in the traditional Beaux-Arts tradition as laid out by Daniel Burnham (made even more famous in recent years by the book Devil in the White City) and his architectural partner John Root.

Louis Sullivan was tapped to design the Transportation Building and created a building very different from the others and introduced a new kind of ornamentation and color scheme. At the time, it was criticized for being the only multicolored façade, but it won international awards at the time and would go on to be a very influential design. Louis Sullivan’s draftsman at the time was an unknown Frank Lloyd Wright, who would go on to further develop his own uniquely American organic architectural style.

1929 Barcelona: Germany Pavilion

Germany Pavilion, Expo 1929 Barcelona
Germany Pavilion, Expo 1929 Barcelona

This building is definitely well known by architects, but perhaps less known by the general public. Known now simply as the “Barcelona Pavilion,” it was originally the Germany Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the building was demolished just a few years later, but rebuilt in the 1980’s.

Visiting the pavilion now, many visitors have a hard time seeing what the fuss was all about. That’s testament to just how influential this building would be to modern architecture in the decades to follow. The concepts explored in the building (such as the open “free plan”) are so much a part of modern architectural vocabulary now, that it’s easy not to see what was so groundbreaking in 1929.

1967 Montreal: Habitat ’67

Habitat'67, Expo 1967 Montreal
Habitat'67, Expo 1967 Montreal

Another building most architecture students could identify, Habitat ’67, was Expo ’67’s model community, but it’s lesser known by the general public outside of Canada. Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie created it as part of his masters thesis.

Helping emphasize the world’s fair’s theme of “Man and his World,” the building consists of 354 identical, prefabricated units stacked together to create 158 apartments of different sizes. Each one, however, has its own private terrace. It was a way of bringing the benefits of suburbia to a downtown area.

1970 Osaka: Metabolism Movement

Expo site, Expo 1970 Osaka
Expo site, Expo 1970 Osaka

Osaka’s Expo ’70 has so many buildings that look so crazy and wacky, even to contemporary eyes, it’s no surprise that it’s the ultimate expression of a wild and wonderful architectural movement called Metabolism.

The buildings were often large, often very technological, some moved, and even some expanded like balloons. Some of them featured “plug-in” parts that can be said to reflect the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and change. It was all part of an experimental movement by Japanese architects responding to the demands of a heavily urban society.

Sometimes you learn best from experiments that don’t quite take you where you thought they would. Later, you move on to other ideas. However, it’s always great to look back at these fantastic designs and see the value of experimentation: one of the most important byproducts of creating a world’s fair in the first place.

1982 Knoxville: The Sunsphere

Sunsphere, Expo 1982 Knoxville
Sunsphere, Expo 1982 Knoxville

Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair was my first world’s fair when I was 15, so I have a special place in my heart for the Sunsphere, the symbol structure created to emphasize the exposition’s energy theme.

Perhaps known more now for its appearance in a Simpson’s episode, the tower created an iconic symbol for the city of Knoxville, which previously suffered from a lack of a recognizable identity outside the region.

1984 New Orleans: The Wonder Wall

Wonder Wall, Expo 1984 New Orleans. Image copyright Bill Cotter, Used with permission.
Wonder Wall, Expo 1984 New Orleans. Image copyright Bill Cotter, Used with permission.

The 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans was an exposition styled like no other. It relied a great deal on local architectural tradition, but also on the budding Postmodernist style. A subset of that style that features stylized architectural clichés (often from many different eras) can clearly be seen in Charles Moore’s Wonderwall. A fantastical structure that was created to provide shopping, entertainment and food along the expo’s main thoroughfare, it also hoped to distract people from seeing the pre-existing power lines.

It was only a temporary structure, but residents of New Orleans remember it well. It’s a perfect example of a structure that celebrates a specific time and place. It was definitely the ’80’s!

2000 Hanover: Netherlands Pavilion

Netherlands Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover
Netherlands Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover

The Netherlands Pavilion at Hanover’s Expo 2000 was designed by the firm HVRDV and featured six stacked “landscapes” on a building footprint 1/6th the size of its lot. Meant to illustrate the pavilion’s theme “Holland Makes Room,” it demonstrated themes of sustainability in an urban environment – highlighting the Dutch concept of making the best of a small area.

I remember in the late 1990’s, when I saw computer-generated illustrations of this building, I couldn’t imagine how it could actually be built. Standing in front of the building in 2000, I wondered the same thing.

2000 Hanover: Hungary Pavilion

Hungary Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover
Hungary Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover

In 2000, Hungary was recreating itself as a new country. Having just emerged in recent years from its Communist past, the newly reminted nation’s pavilion was designed by György Vadász. I felt that the building, shown in the background in this photo, represented both the country’s new optimism while still embracing its traditions.

Two wooden arcs (with exhibits inside) enclosed a courtyard space covered by a tent-like tension structure. This space featured huge monitors that popped out of the wooden walls so casual visitors to the pavilion could capture a glimpse of the pavilion’s themes before going inside.

It so inspired me that I visited Hungary in 2001 to experience that optimism in person.

2008 Zaragoza: Bridge Pavilion

Bridge Pavilion, Expo 2008 Zaragoza
Bridge Pavilion, Expo 2008 Zaragoza

Just a few years ago, Zaragoza, Spain hosted Expo 2008, a smaller scale world’s fair on par with Yeosu’s Expo 2012. Zaha Hadid’s Bridge Pavilion not only crossed the river and provided a portal to the site, but also housed exhibits related to the theme of water sustainability and created an iconic, flowing building that mimics the water it crosses.

2012 Yeosu

How will the architecture at Yeosu’s Expo 2012 be remembered? Will the structures go on to become symbols of Yeosu and Korea? Will they influence architects to come? Will they be seen as odd products of our own particular era: a visual time capsule to future generations that helps illustrate what we thought was important or, at least, visual pleasing in 2012?

It’s too early to say, but you’ll have a chance to guess for yourself between May 12th and August 12th.

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