The development of exhibition buildings is inseparable from international world
expositions. Historian Nikolaus Pevsner demonstrated that the 20th-century exhibition
building has 19th-century origins, with stylistic and programmatic links to the
conservatory and market hall.
Expositions are brief events usually lasting only one season, although they may
consume up to ten years of planning effort. The buildings serve to display the innovative
technological, industrial, economic, scientific, and cultural ideas of the participating
nations. The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which administers these events,
selects a timely theme that serves as a catalyst for each event. Themes provide an
informational and organizing principle that guides much of what is designed and
constructed. Themes have been celebratory, such as “The Age of Discovery” for Expo
‘92 in Seville, marked by the 500-year anniversary of the sailing of Columbus to the New
World, or more frequently address a global concern, such as “Progress and Harmony for
Mankind” at Expo ’70 in Osaka. Although most buildings must be erected in a short
period of time and are subsequently destroyed, those that come to symbolize the event are
often saved and serve as powerful symbols for the city and issues they commemorate.
The great exposition of London in 1851 had the Crystal Palace by George Paxton and
that of Paris in 1889 the 300-meter-high Eiffel Tower by Gustave Eiffel, and in Chicago
in 1893 the collective works surrounding the grand canal came to be known as “The
White City.” These landmark exhibitions and their symbolic buildings remain
extraordinarily potent and have influenced most exposition efforts throughout the 20th
The first period of 20th-century exhibition buildings occurred through the late 1920s.
These buildings are generally characterized as being retrospective both stylistically and
historically, in correspondence with the imperialistic tendencies of the dominant Western
nations. Although innovative structural and material applications led to the increasing
scale of construction, these armatures were often surrounded in wooden lath and plaster
known as “staff,” molded into classical elements. The formal results were often awkward,
as the proportion of classical encasements conflicted with large-scale steel structures.
Despite some occasional structural inventions, most exhibition buildings served as
stylistic props, with much attention given to their exterior facades. Highly acclaimed for
resolving these formal problems, the Petite Palais by G.Girault and the Grand Palais by
H.Deglave appeared at the Paris Exposition of 1900, which initiated the theme “A
Century in Retrospect.” In 1914, when the Deutscher Werkbund’s exhibition was held in
Cologne, Walter Gropius’s model factory and Bruno Taut’s Glashaus became icons of
20th-century architecture and modernism. Another popular building in this era was the
Palace of Fine Arts by Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition
of 1915 in San Francisco. Sited on the bank of a lagoon, the overscaled classical Roman
features contributed to a contemplative and melancholy setting that captured the spirit of
the time, as the destruction and waste of World War I was occurring.
An exception to this era’s general tendency occurred in 1929 at the
Barcelona Exposition, where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was responsible
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for the design of the German Pavilion. This was an elegant single-story
building that relied on simplicity, scale, proportion, and quality materials
for its sense of ornament. The design and its furnishings became the most
celebrated pavilion at the exposition and a model for modern architecture.
After the event, it was dismantled but lost. It was reconstructed in 1979 using the original
The second period of exposition development was initiated by the global economic
depression of the 1930s. Futuristically oriented and intentionally Utopian, these
expositions promoted an optimistic vision of a better life for all. The vision was to be
fueled by scientific innovations, tempered by government guidance, and fulfilled by new
methods of industrial mass production. Throughout this decade, the large-scale steel
structures of exhibition buildings were mainly cubic volumes with flat roofs. The styles
employed were a streamlined art moderne, a futuristic European modernism, a strippeddown
classicism that tended toward the monumental, or a new simple functionalism.
Breaking free from classical iconic constraints, many buildings successfully promoted a
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refreshed aesthetic sensibility. Starting with the theme “A Century of Progress” for the
Chicago Exposition of 1933–34, representative examples include the Hall of Sciences by
Paul Cret; the Crystal House by George Fred Keck, which also housed the Dymaxion
automobile (1934) of Buckminster Fuller; and the Hall of Transportation by Hola-bird,
Burnham, and Bennett. Following in this venue was the Paris Exposition of 1937, where
nationalistic pride was baldly displayed at all pavilions, but the most memorable
overscaled and forceful pavilions were for the Soviet Union by Boris Iofan and for
Germany by Albert Speer. At the New York Exposition of 1939, “Building the World of
Tomorrow” came to be symbolized by the sculptural composition of the Trylon and
Perisphere (Wallace Harrison and Andre Foulinhoux), a 213-meter-high triangular spire
and a 60-meter-diameter sphere.
Expositions after World War II maintained the futuristic tendency begun in the 1930s
but sought a greater application of science and technology for peaceful purposes.
Memorable exhibition buildings were the result of greater formal and structural
experimentation. Continuing the exhibition hall’s legacy of vast enclosed space, Pier
Luigi Nervi designed his famous halls for the Turin Expositions of 1948, 1950, and 1961,
notable for their inventive use of concrete. At the Brussels Exposition of 1958, the theme
“Scientific Civilization and Humanism” was symbolized by the Atomium (Andre
Waterkeyn), a geometric form of an iron molecule 102 meters in height and made up of
nine spheres. They were finished in high-gloss aluminum alloy and housed a restaurant,
viewing platform, and displays devoted to the peaceful use of atomic power. The
nationally competitive nature of the expositions continued with the United States Pavilion
by Edward D.Stone, a 104-meter-diameter rotunda with a free-span roof structure of
concentric cables. Juxtaposed with this was the Soviet Pavilion by Abramov, Boretsky
and Poliansky using a symmetrical tensioning system and steel mast supports to carry an
aluminum skylight system that achieved a clear span of 48 meters. What was achieved
was a symbolic expression of technical and scientific prowess that was to be pursued
through the 1970s. Following on these efforts were the Seattle Space Needle of
Exposition’ 62, Frei Otto’s tensile fabric construction for the pavilion of the Federal
Republic of Germany, Buckminster Fuller’s welded spherical space frame for the United
States Pavilion, and the concrete cantilevered high-density housing complex of Moshe
Safdie (known as Habitat), all at Expo ’67 in Montreal.
Since 1970, exhibition buildings have generally continued to be designed along a
similar trajectory in attempting to symbolize technical and scientific progress. Technical
and scientific endeavors have shifted. The development of expositions has also suffered
with the growing ease of global transportation. The attention of society has moved away
from the heroic expectations and awe that had been imparted by this building type as
similar applications of innovative structural/spatial systems became common for regional
sports, transportation, and institutional facilities. By maintaining the exposition formula,
advanced building techniques have only served to heighten the sense of spectacle at
subsequent exhibitions. However, an exception should be noted that might signal the
introduction of a third period of exposition building development. At Expo’ 92 in Seville,
the British Pavilion, by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, blended both high- and lowtechnical
methods to produce a building that offered insightful and globally relevant
approaches to achieving comfortable but dramatic environments without the customary
demands on environmental resources. The appearance of this building underscores the
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unique venue that expositions can serve as a platform to explore and present a conscious
range of building options for the future of mankind.

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