Published: January 11, 2011
Starting with the Crystal Palace Exposition in London in 1851, World Expositions or World’s Fairs have offered global platforms for nations to showcase their achievements. Housing displays from 32 countries among 100,000 exhibits in one enormous iron and glass structure, the expo attracted more than six million visitors and set the tone for future World’s Fairs by associating progress with innovative architecture, design and engineering.
Significant fairs followed abroad and in the United States, including the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
World’s Fairs “are punctuation points in history,” says World’s Fair planner Leonard Levitan, “that bring people from all over the earth to one place to share for the common benefit of mankind and point the way to a more hopeful tomorrow. They are carefully recorded events that allow us to look back and measure the progress of the world.”
In the 1930s, amid the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, millions flocked to World’s Fairs in Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco and New York City, some of which ran for two seasons. Visitors encountered American optimism and progress in many forms, offering visions of a modern, technological tomorrow unlike anything seen before. The fairs popularized modern design and promoted the concept of science and consumerism as salvations from the nation’s economic woes. They “outfitted the United States with a lifebuoy that prevented the American political economy from sinking,” says World’s Fairs historian Robert W. Rydell.
Pavilions hosted innovative, dynamic exhibitions displaying new approaches to factory production, technology and speed. Shows suggested the look of cities and houses of tomorrow, offering views of modern furnishings, all-electric kitchens, television, sleek automobiles, streamlined trains and even talking robots.
The National Building Museum’s exhibition, “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s,” on view through July 10, is the first show to consider the impact of all six fairs on the popularization of modern design and the creation of a modern consumer culture.
Curator Laura Burd Schiavo, a George Washington University professor, assisted by Deborah Sorensen, a National Building Museum curator, have assembled some 200 objects. They include architectural plans, building models, paintings, prints, drawings, furniture and period film footage. The exhibition further examines how the 1930s fairs were used by major corporations and the federal government as laboratories for experimenting with innovative display and public relations techniques, and as platforms for introducing new products to the public. The fairs, as Rydell puts it, “were at once carefully planned responses to the Great Depression and blueprints for building a better future that never lost sight of the past.” A companion book of the same title is comprehensive and informative.
The Chicago fair almost never got off the ground because in boom times it seemed that such expositions had outlived their usefulness; several had recently failed.
Nevertheless, in the late 1920s, Windy City leaders lobbied for a fair, believing that a new kind of undertaking about contemporary and tomorrow’s life would succeed. They envisioned an extravaganza featuring modern architecture and design, with corporations assuming roles as public saviors and visitors treated as eager consumers.
The vital part corporations played distinguished the 1930s US World’s Fairs. Companies sponsored pavilions and exhibits not only to sell goods, but to convince the American public that new, better-designed products would lead to healthier, happier lives †and that private enterprise could lead the United States out of the Depression.
President and Mrs Franklin Delano Roosevelt, enthusiastic champions of the fairs, believed they offered a “golden opportunity to restore popular confidence in the government’s ability to meet the crisis of the Depression and to show American citizens that the government had their best interests at heart in planning for the future,” says Rydell. Congressional appropriations paid for the construction of federal buildings and exhibits that sought to demonstrate the government’s modernity and stability in hard times.
By the time Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition opened in 1933, more than one quarter of America’s labor force was jobless, average family income had fallen precipitously, and bread lines serving the hungry were commonplace. The expo served as a clarion call that better days lay ahead.
Dominating the view in Chicago were colorful, modern skyscrapers and futuristic model homes (notably the “House of Tomorrow”) with lots of exterior glass and comfortable, minimally furnished, avant-garde living rooms and kitchens featuring General Electric’s most modern appliances. The interior designers “wanted the public to reevaluate its penchant for accumulation and to sacrifice the practice of conspicuous display for a greater sense of openness and the ease that comes with having fewer pieces to navigate †and clean †in a given room,” notes Clark University art historian Kristina Wilson. Architect Alfred Kahn designed the General Motors Building, a large, open exhibition hall whose working automobile assembly line could be viewed from an observation deck.
Masterworks of Old Masters †El Greco, Rembrandt, Titian, considered exemplars of the traditions upon which Modern art was built †drew large crowds. “The [art] show’s triumph,” observes cultural historian Neil Harris, “emerged as perhaps the fair’s most fondly recalled feature.” This unexpected success, amid so much Modernism, encouraged organizers of the San Francisco and New York fairs to follow suit; “They stole the show,” says Harris.
Seeking to rebuild confidence in science and technology, undercut by the devastation of World War I, the Chicago planners made the fair’s theme center the Temple (later Hall) of Science, highlighted by John Storrs’s avant-garde sculpture “Knowledge Combating Ignorance.” It was complemented by numerous modern, streamlined buildings sponsored by the likes of General Electric, American Can, Time and Fortune, Ford and General Motors.
The Chicago exposition was illuminated at night by some 3,000 multicolored floodlights focused on already colorful towers, pavilions, fountains and sculpture. The Chicago extravaganza set the tone and established standards followed by the other 1930s expos.
Inspired by the romance of Southern California’s past, the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition in San Diego, staged in Balboa Park, sought to hype the city’s cultural qualities and lift the region’s hopes for the future. It was the first public venue where the new Federal Housing Administration touted programs for the private sector to build modern housing. San Diego’s Palace of Better Housing, Modeltown and Modernization Magic helped educate three million-plus visitors about FHA loan programs, cultural aspects of modern housing, rehabilitation possibilities and the potential of mass production to relieve America’s chronic housing shortages.
The FHA premise that the housing industry was a key to economic prosperity became a recurrent theme at subsequent Depression-era World’s Fairs, linking “faith in growth and home building with a belief in a brighter national future,” as cultural historian Matthew Bokovoy puts it.
Hosting the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, Dallas used the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Texas as a time to measure progress toward the future. It depicted the resources, history and cultural attributes of the Southwest in simplified, modern buildings and decorative motifs expressive of the region. Many of the expo’s buildings still stand in Dallas’s Fair Park, rare examples of extant World’s Fairs structures, and, says Schiavo, “one of the best examples of a suite of modern architecture of the period.”
Under pressure from the federal government, Dallas organizers reluctantly built a Hall of Negro Life. It featured magnificent Modernist murals by Aaron Douglas (see Antiques And The Arts Weekly , May 23, 2008) celebrating the role of African Americans in America’s progress. “Douglas,” says Rydell, “articulated a counterracist Modernist narrative that detailed African American demands for equality and for inclusion in American dreams for the future.” Discrimination and racial injustices plagued other 1930s fairs.
Cleveland linked its 1936 Great Lakes Exposition to the centennial of the city’s incorporation. Like other 1930s expos, its architecture, exhibits and lighting stressed modernity, abetted by scientific findings and design innovation, as keys to a utopian society. Companies that had prospered in Chicago constructed pavilions, sponsored exhibits and employed increasingly sophisticated marketing practices.
The Golden Gate Exposition of 1940, sited on manmade Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, examined California’s deep past, evoked historical and romanticized visions of “primitive” cultures that preceded it, and suggested American modernization could encourage progress not only around the Pacific, but around the world. This fair, observes Rydell, “melded Cambodian, Mayan and Polynesian monumental influences into a fantasyland of harmonious cultural and economic interchanges under the benevolent tutelage of the United States.”
Designers, attuned to the growing popularity of air travel, planned grounds that would look good from above and devised innovative color schemes to coordinate buildings and flora to help orient visitors on foot. Constructed of pioneering building materials, the fair’s structures, both corporate and governmental, ranged from classical to Modernist in style. Among the standouts: massive portals to the fair reminiscent of Far Eastern pyramids; National Cash Register’s sleek structure shaped like its sponsor’s product, atop which daily attendance was displayed; an enormous shell-shaped structure for Shell Oil Company exhibits; a modern glass Federal Building; and the imposing Towers of the East with inner courts alluding to Cambodia’s Angkor Wot. The almost 400-foot-tall centerpiece of the fair, the dramatically lit and colorful Tower of the Sun, resembled a traditional medieval tower replete with large arcades with allegorical figures, carillon bells and a spire topped by an iron phoenix.
Ultraviolet light sources were used for the first time in a major outdoor installation, and new low-intensity, often hidden, fluorescent lights made it appear that buildings glowed from within. Color was everywhere.
Inspired by the success of Chicago’s art exhibition, organizers erected a Masterpieces of Art Building with murals by Lyonel Feininger and 400 paintings spanning 1300‱800 that were a considerable success. Particularly impressive were loans from Fascist Italy; Benito Mussolini’s government, anxious to promote its grandiose visions, provided important pictures, including Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” Raphael’s “Madonna of the Chair” and Titian’s “Portrait of Pope Paul 111.” (A subsequent tour of the Italian trove to Chicago and New York drew large crowds.) Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, Mexico’s Diego Rivera painted a mural, “Pan-American Unity,” that suggested a melding of Latin American artistic expression with American technology to build a better tomorrow.
The best known of the decade’s expos, the New York World’s Fair of 1939‴0, is remembered for its influential theme, “the World of Tomorrow.” Inside General Motors’ Futurama, visitors could ride over a miniaturized landscape of the United States in 1960, replete with skyscraper cities linked by a highway system. The largest and most popular exhibit at the fair, visited by 28,000 travelers per day, the Futurama offered a utopian vision of a future linked to the automobile. In Ford’s Road of Tomorrow, visitors could test-drive cars on a spectacular course lined with murals depicting modern highway construction.
Other glimpses into the future: the FM radio, full-size suburban homes filled with the latest technological innovations, Westinghouse’s robot and the hangar-shaped Aviation building that touted future air travel. The spherical Perisphere and triangular Trylon tower, steel-framed, geometric structures in gleaming white, reflected the fair’s faith in technological progress and predilection for streamlined, modern designs. They became symbols of the fair.
Little noticed among all these highlights, David Sarnoff, founder of the RCA Corporation, conducted the first television broadcast. He said he was humbled to introduce “a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society&It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind.”
Also often overlooked is the grand opportunity the New York expo afforded the fine arts. Many of the simple temporary structures of the fair were embellished with murals and sculptures by leading artists of the day: Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Stirling Calder, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Feininger, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock and William Zorach. They encouraged observers to think about the course of Modern art.
The far-reaching impact of the New York extravaganza was deftly summarized by professor Robert Bennett of Montana State University: “Stripped of its most extreme gadgetry †such as rocket transportation and radio-controlled cars †the fair’s vision both anticipated and helped produce the essential paradigm of post-World War II American urbanism&The world of tomorrow envisioned by the fair’s designers eventually became the cities of today.”
With its audacious goal of designing a new “World of Tomorrow,” the New York World’s Fair culminated the avant-garde thrust of the 1930s expos. The 100 million visitors who flocked to the nation’s 1930s World’s Fairs saw glimpses of a world we now take for granted.
Interrupted in 1940 because of the war, World’s Fairs resumed with the 1958 Brussels World Expo, the new name for these events. Today, expos tend to be more about regional development and recognition of nations, states or cities coming of age. Sophisticated global communications mean expos do not have the impact they once had, but they continue to be influential.
The National Building Museum is at 401 F Street NW. For information, 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org .
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