EXPO 1958, BRUSSELS


Expo 1958 opened as the first major international exhibition since the end of World War
II. As a world’s fair, the exhibition in Brussels continued the century-old tradition of
economic and technological competition among participating nations. Although
technology and commerce were important aspects of the fair, its organizers cast the event
as a cultural exchange, a celebration of the art and culture of the atomic age. To this end,
the various pavilions (representing 43 nations and a variety of corporations) celebrated
the broad spectrum of contemporary architecture, from the glass-and-steel modernism of
Vjenceslaw Richter’s Yugoslavian Pavilion to the hyperbolic paraboloid of Guilliame
Gillet’s French Pavilion. Amid the spectacular variety of architecture present at the fair
loomed the specter of the Cold War (the American press referred to the event as a cultural
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Cold War). The United States and the Soviet Union faced off, the Soviets displaying their
technological prowess with a model of the Sputnik satellite and the Americans emphasizing a
rhetoric of democracy, prosperity, and freedom. Against this backdrop, the fair’s
towering theme building, the Atomium (modeled on a steel molecule), called attention to
the benefits of atomic energy in an era when nuclear war seemed ever more likely.
No single architectural style governed the fair, and this allowed each participant to
explore a variety of forms, materials, and technologies. A number of buildings celebrated
structure and engineering, drawing on recent developments in precast concrete, tensile
structures, and modern materials, such as plastic. Overall, the fair was characterized by
the swooping, projecting, and dynamic geometric forms so popular in the structural
exhibitionism of the 1950s. Amid the profusion of parabolas, cantilevers, concrete, and
glass, two pavilions stood out: the American Pavilion, for its imperialistic and political
overtones, and the Philips Pavilion, for its innovative combination of space, light, and
sound.
The American Pavilion epitomized the economic and cultural competition that
pervaded the fair. Located on a choice location next to the rectangular glass-and-steel
Soviet Pavilion (dubbed “the refrigerator” by American commentators), Edward Durell
Stone’s circular pavilion housed a series of exhibits intended to showcase the cultural and
technological achievements of the United States. The U.S. government viewed the fair as
a chance to elevate American prestige in Europe, to counter Soviet propaganda, and to
divert attention away from its crushing defeat in the space race (the Soviets had been the
first to successfully launch an earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in 1957). To this end, the
Department of State and the American Institute of Architects chose Edward Durell Stone,
the architect of the United States Embassy (1954–58) in New Delhi, as the architect for
the pavilion. Stone designed a circular building with no internal supports and an elaborate
roof structure comprised of tension cables and concrete compression rings (resembling a
bicycle wheel laid on its side) supporting translucent plastic panels. Stone wrapped the
exterior of the building with a slender colonnade and a plastic grillwork, combining
classical forms and motifs with strikingly modern materials (a recurring theme in Stone’s
architecture).
The pavilion designed for the Philips Corporation remains one of the most
interesting of the exhibition. Philips Electronics (a major international
producer of items ranging from lightbulbs to loudspeakers and tape
recorders) decided to commission a unique multimedia work of art for the
exhibition instead of the typical trade show display of products. Philips
commissioned Le Corbusier to design a pavilion to house a unique
multimedia exhibit that combined a musical composition by the modern
composer Edgard Varèse titled Poèm Èlect ronique with a collage and film by Philippe
Agostini. Le Corbusier created a striking design for the pavilion,
combining a hyperbolic paraboloid and a conic section. The building
consisted of a thin shell of concrete sprayed on a tensile structure of steel
cables, surrounding an open plan on the interior (the expressive nature of
Le Corbusier’s design recalls his Chapel [1955] at Ronchamp). Varèse’s
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eight-minute composition filled the unique acoustics of the structure, and
the projected imagery covered the abstract geometries of the interior of the building. This overwhelming sensory and intellectual experience left
many visitors confused; nonetheless, Varèse’s work stands as a significant example of
spatial composition in 20th-century music.
Although the fair and its architecture received little scholarly attention following its
close, there was a resurgence of interest in the fair in the 1990s. As part of the ongoing
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reappraisal of modernism in architecture, the fair epitomizes the variety of modernist
idioms available to architects and clients in the late 1950s. In addition to Le Corbusier’s
Philips Pavilion, there has been a rediscovery of Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn’s own
version of modernism (Fehn’s Norwegian Pavilion combined pinewood, plastic, and
bush-hammered concrete in a more humanizing and organic version of Miesian
modernism). Other scholars have focused on the role of the fair in the complex
relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold
War.
Regardless of the political overtones of the Brussels World Exhibition, the public saw
the fair as a stunning success, both for its optimistic view of technology and for the sheer
exuberance of much of the fair’s modern architecture. At a time when the public was
tiring of modernism (particularly the corporate idiom of rectilinear glass-and-steel
architecture), the celebration of structure and dynamic architectural forms seen at the
Brussels World Exhibition reinvigorated interest in the possibilities of modern
architecture. Although experiments into the expressive and sculptural possibilities of
concrete in architecture had been under way for nearly a decade (particularly in the work
of Matthew Nowicki, Felix Candela, and Pier Luigi Nervi), the fair called attention to and
promoted some of the more innovative possibilities of modern architecture, setting the
stage for the overwhelming public acceptance of works from Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera
House (1973) to Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (1962) at John F.Kennedy Airport in
New York.

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