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The Ultimate in Recycling: Recycling World’s Fair Pavilions

The world has become so environmentally conscious that God forbid

you accidentally throw out a plastic soda bottle — your face will turn red if you forget to go green and recycle!  Then imagine the destruction of buildings thousands of times the size of a soda bottle — totally destroyed – within an entire village totally destroyed – deliberately demolished.  


Since the mid-19th-century buildings in many small villages were created to be used for a few months and then disappeared from the face of the earth!  That universal environmental disaster is called a “Universal Exposition” – aka “World’s Fair.” 


And when a world’s fair ends, unfortunately preservation goes out the window — along with thousands of windows — followed by walls, floors, and roofs!   While we can’t make past world’s fairs fair to the environment, we can encourage tourism to great world’s fair pavilions that were saved, restored, and can be visited today — many of which are now fascinating in their own right.  


The most famous architectural remnants of world’s fairs are structures that served merely as symbols of world’s fairs.  While all the pavilions of Paris’ 1889 World’s Fair (celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution) have disappeared, Paris will always have the world’s most famous world’s fair symbol – the Eiffel Tower.  One country over, in Belgium, there’s another famous world’s fair symbol, the Atomium – a gigantic model of an atom – symbol of Brussels 1958 World’s Fair.  (Coincidentally, the Eiffel Tower and Atomium both have great first-class restaurants.)  And the two most famous symbols of United States world’s fairs are on opposite coasts of the country — Seattle’s Space Needle from the 1962 World’s Fair and New York’s Unisphere – a 12-story steel globe from the 1964 World’s Fair. 


Up North in Canada, Montreal’s “Expo 67” has not one, but two surviving iconic pavilions that have become symbols, Habitat 67, prefab housing designed by Moshe Safdie, and Buckminster Fuller’s former American Pavilion – a humongous Geodesic Dome.  Habitat 67 is composed of concrete boxes piggybacking on each other like Taos’ Pueblo, the Native American adobe housing complex dating between 1000 and 1450.  And Expo 67’s former American Pavilion was way ahead of its time – with a totally sustainable Geodesic Dome — large enough to contain a small village.  That overpowering and dazzling pavilion is today’s Montreal Biosphere.  What a contrast! The Geodesic Dome is transparent and airy even more so compared with the bulky concrete Habitat boxes, which are in a style known as “Brutalist” — to which I say, “Et tu Brutalist?”     


While most World’s Fair buildings were demolished after the fair closed – a few were recycled at later dates.  In fact, the most common form of recycling is turning former fair pavilions into museums, which seems close to the pavilions original function of housing exhibits – merely changing the type of exhibitions from national or industrial for World’s Fairs, to art or science as museums.


One of the first examples of adapting a world’s fair “Fine Arts Pavilion” into a museum is Philadelphia’s 1876 “Centennial Exposition” celebrating the centennial of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence.   The Centennial Exposition’s “Art Gallery” (the pavilion’s actual name) is that fair’s only surviving pavilion, which was very easily and quickly turned into a museum making an easy and quick transition from “Art to Art” — “The Pennsylvania Museum of Art” the year after the fair closed — 1877.  That pavilion still exists today as a museum but with a different focus.  It’s known as “The Please Touch Children’s Museum.”  (The only time you should ever use “Please Touch” with the word “Children.”)  


Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s pace setting of immediate conversion of a world’s fair pavilion into a museum (and a museum serving the same function) didn’t set the pace.  Another example of adapting an American World’s Fair building into a museum is “Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition” in 1893 –celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.  As with Philadelphia, it was the Chicago world’s fair’s only extant building — the Beaux Arts “Palace of Fine Arts” — that was transformed into a museum.  And unlike Philadelphia’s, it did not become an art museum.  Instead, it’s today’s “Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.”  Instead of taking a year for the transition from pavilion to museum, it took forty years, from 1893 to 1933 – just in time to be part of Chicago’s second world’s fair, 1933’s “Century of Progress.”  That Great Depression’s great world’s fair debuted a planetarium – the Adler Planetarium – which still exists as a planetarium.  That was “Progress” — ecological progress — a pavilion intentionally designed to last serving the same purpose.


Hollywood brought fame to Judy Garland and Judy Garland brought fame to the 1904 “St. Louis World’s Fair” in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” singing the movie’s title song celebrating the world’s fair, which in turn celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase – and is officially known as “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition.”   The St. Louis World’s Fair’s “Palace of Fine Arts,” like its Philadelphia counterpart the previous century, was also turned into a museum – another direct transformation of a “Palace of the Fine Arts” into a Museum of Fine Arts – today’s “St. Louis Art Museum” serving the same function – exhibiting great art.  


While we’re still in the United States, too many visitors to Seattle visit the famous 1962 World’s Fair symbol – its Space Needle — often bypassing a large permanently planned museum, the Seattle Pacific Science Center with a graceful façade that recalls the arches of Venice’s Doge’s Palace.  


Besides having the #1 World’s Fair symbol – the Eiffel Tower – Paris also has the greatest number of former world’s fair pavilions turned into museums (which can all be seen from the Eiffel Tower).  Paris’ “1900 Exposition Universal” (1900 Exposition Universelle) has two remaining great structures in the Beaux Arts style, with a little organic-style decoration – Art Nouveau – thrown in.  They’re the Grand Palais still used today for prestigious exhibitions with its less well-known science museum – “Discovery Palace” (Palais de la Decouverte) occupying its West Wing. 


And facing the Grand Palais, directly across the street, is its slightly smaller twin, the Petit Palais, which houses the “City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts” (Musee des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris) — the city equivalent of France’s “National Museum of Fine Arts” – the Musee d’Orsay.  


The style setting city of the world, Paris, did it again in 1925 introducing a new style at its world’s fair that year, which spread throughout the world — dominating world’s fair pavilions in the 1930s from Brussels (1931) to New York City (1939).   Let’s travel back in time to Paris and its world’s fair of 1925 – “The Decorative Arts Exposition” (Exposition des Arts Decoratifs), which unfortunately didn’t leave any of its illustrious style-setting pavilions behind.  However, it did leave its name, “Arts Decoratifs” to the simple, refined, and elegant French Art Deco style, which soon became the style of choice within world’s fair architecture in the 1930s. 


Art Deco world’s fair architecture began the decade in 1931 with “Brussels’ Centenary Exposition” (celebrating the 100th anniversary of Belgium independence).  Its magnificent Centenary Exposition Hall, which still holds exhibitions, is seldom visited as a tourist site – overshadowed on the same fairground by Brussels’ 1958 fair’s symbol — the “Atomium.”  The last major Art Deco world’s fair of the 1930s was New York’s 1939 World’s Fair.  Of all its magnificent pavilions, only the “New York City Pavilion” survived, becoming today’s “Queens Museum.”  However, the history of the New York City Pavilion became the world’s history – being the temporary home of the United Nations post WWII until 1951, when its Manhattan headquarters was finished.


By now you probably guessed it, the greatest number of remaining 1930s pavilions is, of course, in Paris.  Paris’ 1900 Universal Exposition left behind two major gigantic examples of the Beaux Arts style, which evolved into two museums and a grand exhibition venue – the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais.  Paris’ Art Deco “1937 Universal Exposition” left behind a classic Art Deco building, the 1937 “Palace of the Arts” pavilion, which became yet another “Paris City Museum” – the “City of Paris Museum of Modern Art” (Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) – the city equivalent to France’s “National Museum of Modern Art” – the world-famous Pompidou Center.   The “City of Paris Modern Art Museum” is actually composed of two museums – one wing is the “City Museum of Modern Art,” while the other wing is the “Musee Palais de Tokyo” (“Tokyo” was original name of its street) with the largest venue in Europe for changing contemporary art exhibits.  Both buildings’ joint façade is united with grand Art Deco sculptures and Art Deco bas-relief. 


There’s an even more spectacular remaining 1937 Exposition Universal building that became a major recognizable universal Paris site – familiar around the world – the Palais Chaillot dominating Trocadero Hill.  Its ginormous two Art Deco pavilions, which frame the esplanade between them, is the perfect place to photograph the Eiffel Tower dominating the background.  Emanating from the Palace Chaillot are fountains spurting out massive jets of water into pools which almost vanish toward the horizon pointing the way to the Eiffel Tower – becoming even more spectacular floodlit at night. 


And within the magnificent Art Deco Palais Chaillot come a theater and three major museums that should be better known. (That’s why they’re in this column.)   The museum particularly beloved by this professor of architecture, Paris’ “City of Architecture and Heritage” (Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine) a great introduction to the great architecture of Paris and the rest of France.   The “Museum of Man” (Musee de l’Homme) is the museum of the evolution of humans – which opened in conjunction with the actual opening of the 1937 Exposition.  The third museum is the “Museum of French Naval History” (Musee National de la Marine), where Americans worship the warships the French sent to the American colonies to help us achieve our independence.r (Soon to reopen after a major renovation.)


Rome has a unique World’s Fair site in which every pavilion has been preserved in pristine condition – intact!   It’s the EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), built to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mussolini rule in 1942.  Of course, the reason it’s all still there and in perfect condition is that there was no World’s Fair that year – there was the Second World War instead.  EUR’s surreal Modernist building the Palazzo Civilta della Italiana looks as if someone took the arches of Rome’s Colosseum and deeply set them on a simple modern square white marble-clad building – earning its nickname, “Colosseo Quadrato” – “Square Colosseum.”   The contrast of deep-set arches, which look black against the white marble, looks like it stepped out of a de Chirico painting.


So far, you’ve traveled to reused and renovated World’s Fair buildings.   Now let’s look at World’s Fair Pavilions that actually traveled!  Two crowd-pleasing pavilions from the New York World’s Fair of 1964 have traveled to Florida — and not just for the winter – proving it’s a small world.  In fact, the 1964 Pepsi Pavilion gave the world the “It’s a Small World” ride along with its famous eponymous song.  It’s now in Disney World in Florida as is that New York fair’s former GE Pavilion – “The Century of Progress,” which in 1964 was looking back at a “Century of Progress” which should now be called “The Century and a Half of Progress.”   


Some traveling world’s fair pavilions can’t accumulate many frequent flier miles – traveling only a few miles — the “Hanavsky Pavilion” from Prague’s 1891 “National Jubilee Exposition.”  That fair’s Hanavsky Pavilion merely traveled from the fair’s exposition grounds to Prague’s nearby Letna Park and today is a wonderful restaurant as well as a textbook example of the extravagantly ornamental and florid Art Nouveau style.  A dining must-visit every time I’m in Prague – as is a visit to an Eiffel Tower, the Prague world’s fair’s copy – the Petrin Tower.


Since the topic is “World’s Fair,” let’s visit fairs in other parts of the world, for example Asia.  In 2010 I led a press trip for CNTO (China National Tourist Office) to the wonderful Shanghai Exposition.  That fair’s China Pavilion — a gigantic, inverted Pyramid — became the China Art Museum which in turn became the largest art museum in Asia.   Like many, I also thought it was a unique architectural triumph of balancing the building’s massive weight on the Pyramid’s most narrow point (see photo) until I remembered that Canada’s Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 67 was exactly the same shape (see photo for comparison) balanced on even thinner supports, which inspired me to write my upcoming architecture and humor book — “Buildings Separated at Birth!”


This year’s world’s fair once again took place outside of Europe and the US – in Dubai.   Sustainability in world’s fairs has become so important in the 21st century that one of the Dubai Expo’s most popular pavilions was its “Sustainability Pavilion” in the “Sustainability District.”  During the run of the expo the world discovered Dubai had a lot on the ball – except the wrecking ball – since the Dubai Expo is due to recycle 80% of its buildings. 

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