Starting in the mid-19th century and occuring at varying intervals ever since, the world expositions have tracked the international progress of science, technology and society. Initially, these focused primarily on trade, but post WW2 they began to tackle loftier cultural ideals. During the early years of the space age, this focus inevitably came with a side-helping of technological utopianism and futurism. Half a century later, surviving features from these sites – expositions ran for months, but the majority of installations are temporary – often have a retrofuturistic appeal. I visited several of them as a result of this before realising there was a connection; consulting the list I discovered others that my travels had also intersected. So I decided to keep track from now on!
Expo 58, Brussels
The World’s fairs seemed to strike a chord with Belgians – they hosted eleven of them, with five taking place in the capital, Brussels. The final one, Expo 58, left this lasting structure, the Atomium – a scale model of an iron crystal. It’s actually a building rather than a sculpture – several of the nodes contain museum exhibits, and the edges linking them have stairs and escalators. Sadly I didn’t have time to check out the inside, but I did enjoy a picnic in Heizel Park, where the exposition took place.
Century 21 Exposition, Seattle
This was the first exposition site I encountered, with the 1962 fairgrounds (now known as Seattle Center) remaining a key tourist location. It’s linked to the city centre by – what else – a monorail built for the fair, with the original trains still operating. Once there, various attractions from the exposition can be found, including the Sputnik-like fountain and iconic Space Needle, which has become Seattle’s official landmark. Development has continued, most notably with the Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry architectural masterpiece built around the monorail and also home to the science fiction museum.
Expo 67, Montreal
The artificial Notre Dame Island in Montreal’s harbour is of note for both its Formula 1 circuit – home of the Canadian Grand Prix – and its rowing basin, used for the 1976 Olympics. But it wasn’t created for either of these events – rather, its origin is in the 1967 exposition, expanding the (natural) Saint Helen’s Island to form Parc Jean-Drapeau. Unable to resist the opportunity to complete a lap of the circuit – albeit by cycling – I hired a bike and visited both, unwittingly encountering several remnants of the Fair during my tour. Although the outer ‘skin’ of the American Pavillion was destroyed by fire, this makes it easier to admire its steel skeleton. This structure is one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, ticking both my architecture and maths geek boxes! Fittingly for the Exposition’s theme of Man and his world, it’s now an environmental museum. Habitat 67 – surely one of the world’s more impressive masters theses – isn’t located on either of the islands, but is close by on the other side of the river, and is another architectural delight.
Expo 86, Vancouver
I was oblivious to Vancouver’s role as host of the 1986 Exposition, despite a major part of its legacy being the SkyTrain system of automated, elevated light rail – for which an ancestral connection to Seattle’s monorail should have been obvious! Even if the thematic link hadn’t occurred to me, one of the routes is called the Expo Line… I also encountered some of the other lasting infrastructure developed for the fair: BC Place stadium, and the pavillion at Canada Place. However, despite staying nearby to False Creek, I failed to visit Science World and thus missed out on its geodesic dome.