Eiffel Tower & Beyond: Architectural Legacy of World Fairs

The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Universal Exposition.
The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Universal Exposition.

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.

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 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 products.

These 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 pedestals. 

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 styles.

Another 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 concrete.

The World’s 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.)

The 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.

Architecturally, 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. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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