If you’re planning to visit Paris this year you will no doubt discover that the Eiffel Tower is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Many know that this icon was built for an international exposition, but what is probably less known is that it is just one – albeit the most famous – example of the impressive architectural legacy of world fairs.
The history of
these universal expos
is fascinating, and their evolution has become somewhat complex with various
levels and types of world fairs. A common misconception is that these expos
died sometime in the 1960s but in fact continue today – the next one will be
held in Milan in 2015.
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
'first World Expo' was held in The Crystal Palace
in Hyde Park, 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
expositions were huge affairs, showcasing a dizzying array of man-made and
natural things, including the day’s latest technology, art, culture,
architecture, furniture, fabric, animals, even – creepily – people on
The Eiffel Tower
was built for the 1889 exposition,
and it embraced new technologies of the time. Subsequent world fairs would
continue to showcase new building materials and construction methods as well as
architectural gem that emerged from these fairs is the Grand Palais, constructed
in preparation for the Universal
Expo of 1900 in Paris. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, the grand structure
reflects the movement's taste for ornate decoration through its stone facades
and the formality of its floor planning. But it also showcased the use of
techniques that were innovative at the time, such as its glass vault, its
structure made of iron and light steel framing, and its use of reinforced
Columbian Exposition in 1893 (marking the 400th anniversary of
Columbus’ discovery of the Americas) in Chicago also left an important imprint
on architecture and the living environment. Highlighting the coming of age of
arts and architecture of the American Renaissance – with its emphasis on
Beaux-Arts and pumped-up Neoclassicism – the expo reflected the idea of “The
City Beautiful,” with its emphasis on parks, planned communities and more. (Frank
Lloyd Wright’s Arts and Crafts designs were in part a rebellion
against the Beaux Arts style, what he called “Frenchite pastry” and what he
said was not at all what American architecture should be about.)
1925 Arts and Industry Expo in Paris gave the emerging Art Deco style a
hard push. Art Deco was a streamlined and simplified style that often drew
inspiration from forms of transportation. It is no coincidence that the 1925
expo was so much about what machines could do.
The 1964 World
Fair in New York had a definite futuristic look and feel, coming as it did
with the dawn of the Space Age. Dominated by a 12-story high stainless-steel
model of the earth called the Unisphere, the fair was a showcase of mid-century
American culture and technology.
many of the 1964 pavilions were built in a Mid-Century modern
style that was heavily influenced by "Googie architecture".
And the pavilion architectures often expressed a newfound freedom of form
enabled by modern building materials, such as reinforced concrete, fiberglass, plastic,
tempered glass, and stainless steel.
These are just
some of the examples of the architectural legacy of world fairs. It will be
interesting to see what emerges at the World Fair in Milan next year.
Eleanor Schrader is an award-winning architectural
and interior design historian, professor and consultant who lectures worldwide
on the history of architecture, interiors, furniture, and decorative arts.
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