World's Fairs

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World’s Fairs


international exhibitions, organized to display the varied activities of nations in economics, science, technology, culture, and art.

World’s fairs are divided into universal (a demonstration of achievements in the various branches of human activity) and specialized (demonstrating achievements in a specific sphere of activity). The first world’s fair was the international industrial exhibition held in London in 1851. There was no strictly determined time period for the occurrence of world fairs, and they were organized over intervals ranging from two to seven years. At the first few world’s fairs the principal demonstrations were concerned with the achievements of industry, but subsequently their subject matter expanded. With the growth in popularity of world’s fairs there was a gradual increase in the number of participating countries and in the amount and assortment of exhibits (including large machines and means of transportation); while the first few world’s fairs concentrated all the exhibits in one large building (for example, the Crystal Palace in London), separate pavilions began to be built beginning in 1878 (at the world’s fair in Paris). From 1851 through 1970 a total of 39 universal world’s fairs were organized: in New York (1853, 1939), Paris (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1890, 1900, 1937), London (1862, 1886, 1908), Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876, 1926), Sydney (1879), Melbourne (1880), Chicago (1893, 1933, 1934), Brussels (1897, 1910, 1935, 1958), Buffalo (1901), Glasgow (1901), St. Louis (1904), Liege (1909), Ghent (1913), San Francisco (1915), Goteborg (1923), Wembley (1924-25), Barcelona (1926), Antwerp (1930), Port-au-Prince (1948), Seattle (1962), Montreal (1967), and Osaka (1970). World’s fairs usually have a specific motto, which defines the basic theme of the exhibition. For example, the first world’s fair in London had the theme “Let All Nations Work Together for the Great Cause of Perfecting Mankind”; in New York (1939), “The World of Tomorrow”; in Brussels (1958), “Man and Progress”; in Montreal (1967), “Man and His World”; in Osaka (1970), “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” Through its exhibits every participating country expresses and reveals the world’s fair theme in accordance with its own social structure and economic potential.

The first attempt to regulate the organization of world’s fairs was implemented in 1912 in Berlin, when delegates from 14 countries signed an agreement concerning the rules of organization and the system of awards at the world’s fairs. World War I (1914-18), however, hindered the ratification of this agreement. In 1928 the Convention Regarding International Exhibitions, signed in Paris by the representatives of 35 states (including the USSR), regulated the system of organizing world’s fairs. In accordance with the convention, a permanent organ was formed—the International Bureau of Exhibitions. The highest organ of the bureau is the Administrative Council, which has four commissions—classification, regulation, administrative-budget, and the commission for publishing bulletins and advertisements. The bureau holds its meetings in Paris. In 1970 the participants in the convention were the following 34 countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, Finland, France, Great Britain, Greece, Haiti, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Rumania, Switzerland, Sweden, Tanzania, Tunisia, the Ukrainian SSR, the USSR, and the USA.

From 1851, Russia participated in several world’s fairs including those in London (1851, 1862) and in Paris (1867, 1890). Since its formation, the Soviet state has taken part in five world’s fairs: in Paris (1937), New York (1939), Brussels (1958), Montreal (1967), and Osaka (1970). At the Paris exposition, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Soviet regime, the tremendous scope of socialist construction in the USSR was demonstrated. At the New York fair the Soviet exhibition was operated on the theme “The Future Belongs to Socialism.” The Soviet pavilion made an extensive show of the achievements of the peoples of the USSR and the accomplishments of the five-year plans. At the Brussels fair visitors were given an idea of the achievements of the USSR in economics, science, and culture, as well as in the increasing well-being of the Soviet people. The USSR pavilion was recognized as one of the best and received the Gold Star, the exposition’s highest award. The Montreal fair coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Soviet state. The main purpose of the Soviet exposition was to show the advantages of the socialist system. The first world’s fair organized in Asia (Osaka) coincided with the 100th anniversary celebration of V. I. Lenin’s birth. The principal themes of the Soviet pavilion were “Lenin—the Creator of the Socialist State,” “The Development of Lenin’s Ideas in Our Times,” and “The Harmonious Development of the Personality in a Socialist State.”


Exhibition architecture. The pavilions and structures of world’s fairs have themselves become exhibits, demonstrating the achievements of architecture and construction techniques, as well as the art of display and mounting, and they often set the basic trends of developments in these fields for many years. The enormous number of exhibits (for the distribution and convenient viewing of which extensive and well-lit interior space is required), the large stream of visitors, and the need for rapid construction and disassembly of the pavilions have led to new architectural forms and technical devices. The huge (503 m long) pavilion at the first world’s fair in London in 1851 (the so-called Crystal Palace; engineer, J. Paxton) was erected completely within six months thanks to the use of a prefabricated framework made of standardized metal parts (primarily cast iron) and wall frames that were filled in with glass. In its appearance it differed sharply from the architecture of the traditional classical orders. Gradually the organizational principles of displaying exhibits took shape: for example, at the Chicago world’s fair in 1893, along with the main pavilion where all the participants were represented, theme pavilions (according to branches of industry) and national pavilions were also built; grouped together in one place were the host country’s pavilions (the separate states of the USA).

The tremendous size of the expositions led to the creation of places where people could rest (these first appeared at the Paris Exposition in 1878). In order to cover the huge expenditures necessary to organize these fairs and to derive income, spectacles and amusements were set up and admission prices were charged. The area of the exhibits themselves, the rest areas, the places of amusement, and the greenery, fountains, and pools formed a complex unit (this structure has been retained in its basic outlines by all world’s fairs); the overall design of the complex usually took on regular outlines. The construction at the Paris Exposition in 1889 of the Eiffel Tower (engineer, A. G. Eiffel), which was intended merely to demonstrate the achievements of French construction techniques and to create a high dominant point in the exhibition’s ensemble, founded the tradition of creating structures that would symbolize the theme of a world’s fair—for example, the so-called Atomium, in the form of an iron molecule magnified 165 billion times (architect, M. A. Waterkeyn) at the Brussels Universal Exhibition in 1958.

Characteristic of world’s fair pavilions during the second half of the 19th century was the sharp contrast between the innovative engineering of structures utilizing metal, glass, reinforced concrete, and improved metal frame structural components, thus allowing roof spans to be greatly increased (as much as 104 m in the Palais des Machines, architect, F. L. Dutert, at the Paris Exhibition of 1889), and the facades of the palatial type, executed in historical architectural styles and most frequently covered with a pompously eclectic decor. Right up to the beginning of the 20th century the arrangement of the exhibits in the pavilion lacked any compositional theme, and the exposition was broken up into a number of unconnected sections. The abundance of the decorative furnishings made it difficult to see the exhibits themselves, which were arranged like goods in a large store. In order to attract attention to an industrial product or a raw material, recourse was initially made to its opulent and ornate form, uniqueness, or oversized dimensions (for example, the enormous samovars at the Paris Exhibition in 1900) or to some unusual use of the product (for example, the fortress made out of sacks of flour in the Palace of Agriculture at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893). Later, models and then dioramas to demonstrate complex production processes and machinery began to appear; they used the latest achievements of optics, electrical engineering, and so on.

In the exhibition architecture and art of the fairs of the 1920’s and early 1930’s the determining role was played by the ideas of functionalism and constructivism. Almost all the exhibits of participating countries were arranged in the national pavilions, whose architecture became one of the means of revealing the basic theme of the national exposition. The participation of the USSR in world’s fairs facilitated the intensification of the ideological role of pavilion architecture. The magnificent, formally dynamic USSR pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exhibition (architect, B. M. lofan), crowned by the sculptural group Worker and Kolkhoz Girl (1935-37, stainless steel; sculptor, V. I. Mukhina), was a splendid example of the synthesis of architecture and sculpture. It became a symbol of the victories won by the Soviet people in building socialism, and its exposition set an example for the propagation of progressive social ideas.

The general trends in the development of exhibition architecture and exposition art during the period after World War II (1939-45) were revealed with special clarity at the 1970 world’s fair, Expo ’70, held in Osaka, Japan, where all the architectural media were subordinated to the task of elucidating as fully as possible the fair’s theme, “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” It was symbolically embodied (in accordance with the traditions of national Japanese culture) in a compact general plan, constructed according to a functional principle, in the form of a tree with branches (executed by a group of Japanese architects under the direction of K. Tange). The “trunk” of the tree was the center of the fair, the so-called Symbolic Zone (providing room for various international events and ceremonies, performances, meetings, and rest areas for visitors, as well as for the location and display of international thematic and artistic exhibits), the “branches” were the main passageways leading to the entrances, whereas the “leaves” and “fruits” were the pavilions grouped around eight plazas on the tree’s branches. Since one of Expo’s principal themes was scientific and technical progress, the architecture of many pavilions implemented experimental projects embodying new engineering ideas and applying new structural and spatial solutions based on the use of present-day building materials and architectonic principles (for example, the pavilion of the Fuji Group with its air-supported structures, architect Yutaka Murata). Upon this new technical basis the individual pavilions acquired a symbolic architectural appearance (for example, the USSR pavilion in the form of an unfurled red banner, symbolizing the triumph of the ideas of Leninism in the world, and the state pavilion of Japan, whose five cylindrical volumes formed the national Japanese symbol—a five-petal cherry blossom—on a level plane). The exposition techniques used were more complex, and scenarios were created based on theatrical methods of display (using light and sound effects, electronics, computers, motion pictures, filmstrips, and so on), often in a program shown in several sessions.


[Mel’nikov, N. P.] Chudesa vystavki v Chikago. Odessa, 1893. [Orlov, M. A.] Vsemirnaia parizhskaia vystavka 1900 v illiustratsiiakh i opisaniiakh. St. Petersburg, 1900.
Matveeva, N. la. “Arkhitektura vsemirnykh vystavok i mezhdunarodnykh vystavok i iarmarok.” In the collection Zhilishchnoe i grazhdanskoe stroitel’sto, part 5: Vystavki: Zhilye doma v zharkikh stranakh. Moscow, 1962. Pages 9-56.
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