Whatever Happened to World Fairs?

Whatever Happened to World Fairs?
Half-way between sculpture and architecture, a relic of the past with a determinedly futuristic look.
-Brochure at the Atomium, February 2017


Heyzel exposition center from the 1935 world fair

Heyzel exposition center from the 1935 world fair

(This may be a bit of a meandering post, because my post-Atomium curiosity led me down a Google rabbit hole of interesting tangents.) 

Brussels is a fascinating city on so many levels.  I've covered its peeing statues, Art Nouveau fetish and fine chocolates, and now I'd like to dive into the city's role as a champion world fair host.  (World fairs, remember those?  More on that in a bit.)  Brussels opened its doors to the world on the occasion five separate times: 1888, 1897, 1910, 1935, and 1958.  The Atomium is the only intact building to survive Brussels' last world fair, and the nearby Art Deco Heyzel international exposition center is from the 1935 event (according to Wikipedia, many of the buildings were re-used from the Brussels International Exposition of 1935, which had been held on the same site).

map of the 1958 fair in Brussels (photo credit: Pinterest)

map of the 1958 fair in Brussels (photo credit: Pinterest)

If you've ever read The Devil in the White City, you can imagine my fascination with the international wonder and excitement that comes with the two words 'world fair.'  The first world fair took place in Prague in 1791, followed by events in New York and Paris.  There was no designated frequency for the event, and there wasn't much diversity in hosts, either.  For the first hundred or so years, world fair themes centered on industrialization and most exhibitions related to trade and innovations.  Architects and planners brought to life compact, temporary communities with stunning buildings (Eiffel Tower, for one)  and elaborate landscaping to impress millions of international visitors.  Things changed in 1939 when world fairs evolved to promote cultural exchanges and the future, so recreated rural villages and anything space-related were popular topics during this period (think Seattle Space Needle).  Since the 1980s, world fairs again changed their theme to focus on the environment and natural resources. 

According to a circa-2007 article in the Chicago Tribune,  world fairs (internationally referred to as 'expositions') still take place and they're the third-largest international event after the Olympics and the World Cup.  I don't know if that's still true today, but a look at the world's fair Wikipedia page lists recent and upcoming events, suggesting that the event is alive and well.  The last world fair in the US took place in 1984 in New Orleans, Louisiana, 'an event noted for going bankrupt during its run.'  That little detail may have played a role in 1999 when Congress banned federal funding for world fairs, and Chicago losing the 1992 hosting bid to Spain didn't help.  The US still does participate in world fairs, albeit funded privately, and many US cities are vying to bring the world fair back to the US in the 2020s.  Perhaps hosting the fair in North America again will bring awareness and excitement to back the US population; I for one am putting 'world fair' on my travel bucket list right this very minute.

Urban planning/world fair fun fact: Planning-for-the-people Jane Jacob's nemesis Robert Moses of NYC refused to play by official BIE rules and kept New York's 1964-1965 exposition open for two years instead of the allowed six months.  So, NYC's most corrupt politician was responsible for the event losing BIE approval, and it thus has the distinction of being the only registered universal exposition held without BIE's blessing.


Brussels 1958 World's Fair Interesting Notes

  • Disney's 360-degree 'America the Beautiful' debuted at the USA pavilion in 1958, the first Disney attraction to open outside of a Disney theme park
  • The USSR pavilion was 'folded up' and taken back to Russia at the end of the expo; the Sputnik replica they brought to the fair disappeared under mysterious circumstances and the USA was blamed for the theft (Wikipedia)
  • Eight babies were born on-site during the event, and five people died (skynet.be)
  • The Belgian pavilion's Congolese village featured a 'human zoo' that caused quite the controversy, and for good reason
  • There are a ton of Pinterest pages dedicated to this event out there with some fabulous images and souvenirs
  • At the time of its erection, the Atomium's elevator was the fastest in the world, rising at five meters per second (intohistory.com)
  • More than 42 million people visited the expo, including the two thousand children that got lost... and many more fun facts at skynet.be




The USA pavilion

Apart from the Atomium, this is the only remaining evidence of Brussels' 1958 world fair.  Unfortunately, only the socle (block foundation) remains from the elegant building that once graced the site which now serves as a sports club and theater.  Architect Edward Durell Stone designed the building, described by some as a 'gilded candybox.'

Stone designed a pavilion composed of four separate buildings, three drum-like volumes and one consisting of joint railroad boxes on stilts, containing the contested exhibit “Unfinished Work” on America’s social and racial problems. The smallest drum volume held the Circarama Theatre, a circular cinema that put the viewer in the middle of the colourful scenes of a motion picture tour of the United States, composed by Walt Disney. Connected to the main pavilion, the American Theatre housed a 1150-seat auditorium. The façades of the theatres had a metal or white ceramic grille, a kind of screening then typical of Stone’s work.  (Source)

And if you immediately thought 'Kennedy Center' when you saw the USA pavilion, you are correct: Following his work in Brussels, Stone went on to design the notable Washington, DC, landmark that opened in 1971.  And interestingly enough, Stone designed the incredible North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh, one of my favorite buildings in the state and my most recent stateside location.

After the 1958 world fair, the USA pavilion was donated to the Belgium government.


A visit to the Atomium

The Atomium is part museum, part exhibit space, and part restaurant with a smattering of architecture porn thrown in.  Upon entrance, you take an elevator directly to the uppermost sphere where you are greeted with a fabulous 360-degree view of Brussels. (The air was thick with fog when I visited, so my view wasn’t so hot.) There is a quirky space-age bar and restaurant in this sphere which is worth a quick look or bite.  Visitors then take escalators in the tubes to exhibits in the lower spheres.  The Atomium has a total height of 102 meters and each of the eight spheres has a diameter of 18 meters.


Visit to the ADAM

I purchased the combo Atomium/ADAM ticket (about $18), so I headed to the Art & Design Atomium Museum after the Atomium.  With the words 'Atomium' and 'design' in the museum title, I was expecting to be wowed by a real-life kitchen from the Jetsons and other Space Age-inspired things.  Unfortunately, the only open exhibit featured a huge collection of plastic goods that felt more like a 1970s yard sale than something I paid to see, so it's safe to say that I was disappointed in the museum's limited offerings.  (Its funny how museums charge a 'supplemental' fee to see a special exhibit but never reduce the ticket price when galleries are closed.  Hmm.)  I view plastic furniture to be similar to that of modernist architecture: Great eye candy but not comfortable, practical, or durable.  


2 quick urban planning notes on Brussels

this is how Brussels rolls

this is how Brussels rolls

Number 1 - The city buses were super nice and spacious; some seemed new and had faux-wood floors.  Yes, please.

Number 2 - I visited the newly-pedestrianized Le piétonnier de Bruxelles.  In 2015, the city closed off this busy section of downtown and now tourists, cyclists, and pedestrians rule the road.  For now, there is no landscaping and it looks more like a roped-off section of a street festival, but I expect the city will change this soon.  This project may be a local controversy, but I enjoyed not having to elbow my way through a busy sidewalk as I toured downtown Brussels.