World’s Fair, World Fair, World Exposition, Universal Exposition or simply Expo.
These displays of national, corporate and cultural hegemony started as commercial fairs more like today’s trade shows (the Automobile Show?) than the theme parks they are today.
London, in 1851, held The Great Exhibition, an exposition of industrial wares in the single most remarkable building of its time: the Crystal Palace. 1851 feet long (cf. Freedom Tower at 1776’ high!) and made of cast iron and glass prefabricated to be entirely assembled and disassembled piece by piece. That Joseph Paxton designed, fabricated and erected it in 9 months would be remarkable even today, but creating a completely manufactured building (as opposed to, say, artisans stacking stone) in 1851, the same year as Singer created the sewing machine, is hard to imagine. It is a vision mostly passed over in the history of architecture as a ‘greenhouse innovator translating his skills to event buildings’. It is much more.
Among my favorite books is one reproducing the entire set of working drawings for the Crystal Palace. Prince Albert’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum was founded based on profits from the 1851 Exposition, and from their originals they created a mini-version with gatefold page after gatefold page. Read as a book the drawings constitute an argument for modern construction: a steel (in this case cast iron) frame with glass infill at a gargantuan scale. 50 years before the Flatiron Building, it’s only equal was Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve, but it lightness and transparency remained unmatched for decades.
While not yet vertical, the 1/3 mile long building was a staggering apparition. It was filled with the entire world of modernity, including Matthew Brady’s daguerreotypes and Colt’s revolver, the world’s largest diamond, the telegraph and vulcanized rubber, as well as other new materials and industrial machines of every type. And it was a true competitive arena with nations competing against nation for the most technologically advanced. Like a steam powered Comdex!
Scale dominated early World’s Fairs including the thousand foot tall Eiffel Tower built nearly 5 decades after the Crystal Palace. 4 years after Paris the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition included the world’s first Ferris wheel, but otherwise displayed none of the overt modernity embraced in London or Paris. The 1893 Chicago fair was dubbed the White City, organized by Daniel Burnham with Frederick Law Olmstead providing planning and landscaping as a classical stage set in a contrived landscape. The 1893 Chicago fair celebrated the 400th Anniversary of the Columbus crossing, and it wasn’t until the fair returned to Chicago in 1933 that modernism was once again embraced in the metal homes, Dymaxion car, streamlined trains, the Graf Zeppelin and Moderne architecture.
That progress, from a single London building to a white Chicago city devolved eventually into what can only be described as an architectural brawl. The buildings began to drop their air of cooperation and became independent follies, each attempting to erase all the others from the visitors’ field of vision. World’s Fairs became confusing jungles of competing offerings to national pride. Urbanity transformed into Suburbia.
Next years Expo returns to the noble precedent of a densely organized urban plan. More like New York than Milan, this Expo sports an orthogonal plan of Roman tradition. A Cardo/Decumanus ‘cross hair’ generates its own grid and the simple quartering of the site: rational, logical, eminently navigable and easy on the visitor.
Americans seem to love the democratic grid more than Italians. Except for one architect who told me he hated the plan, even though it was easily navigable and the narrow lots assured the visitor a fighting chance to see the whole world of country pavilions. As a plus, for me, it discouraged object buildings, where each nation competed ‘in the round’ with every other country. “But I do object buildings!” was his response.
Ah well, you get the next (and every other) Expo.
The USA Pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal was a huge transparent geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller. Since then the pavilions have become opaque, oddly shaped solid boxes filled with technology. It was a sad decline from Montreal to Shanghai.
We are trying to nudge it back in the other direction.
The USA Pavilion is a project sponsored by the US State Department, who issued an RFP in September 2013 for the May 2015 fair. Milan themed it as the ‘food expo’, based on both a global and personal perspective, and stressing sustainability. Joining the James Beard Foundation and the International Culinary Center we created, in just a few weeks, the concept for the pavilion in response to the urban plan, the theme and our highest aspirations for America:
American Food 2.0 is both a declaration of current innovation in food, as well as a clarion call for American solutions for the globe’s future food problems.
The USA Pavilion site is long and narrow permitting only 15 meters (under 50’) of building width, but longer than a football field. Rather than a closed box we countered with a pavilion both visually transparent and accessible without long queues: a large covered ‘forum’ referencing seminally American food icons: the Boardwalk, Food Trucks and the American Barn. With a defined exhibition experience on the ground floor, below the Boardwalk, and an open rooftop terrace, the building moves from the most controlled to the most self-guided as the floors stack up. It is a demonstration of openness and transparency (national ambitions) as well as the meeting of science and nature (combining to help solve food issues). Advanced thin film photovoltaic glass panels top a glass floored roof terrace, and a vertical (and harvestable) farm creates one of the porous facades.
The exposed repetitive structure and ramped wooden floors recall a barn and allow a circuit through the Boardwalk even when not queuing for the media presentation below. A moving sculptural screen dominates the Boardwalk space and a kinetic sculpture in the rear garden demonstrates the carbon cycle with a reinvented clockwork movement. It’s a place to be amazed, be informed and to have fun. And it is a nod to the Crystal Palace in a bolt-together demountable pavilion of steel and glass, wood and concrete, filled with modern technology.
At the end of March 2014 President Obama, while in Rome to meet the Pope, held a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Renzi to announce the US participation in the Milan Expo. That same day Secretary of State Kerry signed the participation agreement officially joining the Expo and exhorting the gathered business representatives to support our efforts (the US participation is entirely privately financed, unique among all the other countries). The sprint to May 2015 has begun, with scarcely more time than Paxton had for his palace!
There is a tradition of Words and Buildings.
It’s easy to see that in the distant past, where buildings spoke to a population as dynamically as movies speak to us today, words on buildings were simply captions to the real story. And it’s easy to see that in the friezes on classical buildings, or even our own main Post Office* in New York, the messaging on a building carries real weight.
At the Lincoln Memorial the second inaugural and Gettysburg Address are etched into the walls, high in the air forcing you to look almost to heaven to read some of the most remarkable words an American has ever written.
But there is a more pop version of the Words and Buildings meme.
At the Harley-Davidson Museum we embedded the signage in the building rather than apply it to the surface in a gesture to the solidity and weight of the brand.
At the WIN shelter playground in Brooklyn we jumped scale to the point that the word PLAY could be read from space: the Google Earth view shows what most residents can see from the adjacent towers.
But in a triumph of quantity over size, we have just today installed nearly 800 words, a large chunk of the Fry 1,000 Words every child should know. The effect is a room, within the Brooklyn Public Library in Brownsville, made of words. In a renovation designed by Biber Architects, Carin Goldberg has created a version of the Fry Words that is simply gorgeous. And Lonni Tanner, our client and library innovator, not only pushed us to create this monument to words, but has plans to spread the learning throughout the neighborhood.
Today when the words were finally going up, in a library closed for renovation, a student snuck in, for a moment, unnoticed. He was shooed out by the library staff, but the idea that he so wanted to get back to the library, combined with the look of disappointment when he realized it was closed, was true joy and pathos in equal measure.
Soon the library will reopen, completely rethought within the still beautiful Carnegie Library building, and we hope it will seem as information rich today as it must have been when it opened 100 years ago.*At the James Farley Post Office, zip code 10001, the McKim Mead and White masterpiece behind the fallen Penn Station, the frieze was penned by a draftsman in the architect’s office. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” was a placeholder for the eventual inscription, but as happens often things on drawings have a way of sticking.
The hand wringing about the Folk Art Museum reached a climax today as the New York Times reported on the personal rift that the recommended demolition has created. It has, as one polled architect said, turned into a Greek tragedy, while I would say it is the closest thing I have ever seen to architecture as high school. Maybe soon it will be an off Broadway musical.
Has anyone written a serious analysis of how buildings (Cooper Union, Folk Art Museum, American Center in Paris, etc.) have taken on the new role of murdering institutions? To be fair these may be more institutional suicide than architectural homicide, but it’s interesting that the tragic loss of a credible home for the Folk Art Museum or the end of tuition-free Cooper Union becomes irrelevant compared to the fetishism of a single building. I feel caddish for even thinking it, but does it matter that the museum was so challenging to display a collection in? Maybe not in the context of choosing sides on the school playground, but here a serious discussion seems warranted, if only to unveil the real culprits.
The article did relish the irony that the same firm that participated in a very dubious relocation of the Barnes Collection (“forever” = 75 years, according to the court ruling permitting the move) has now suffered a similar shift in the mathematics of permanence. If “in perpetuity” is now 75 years, perhaps 12 years is “a suitable interval” or a “long and fruitful life”.
And while the Cooper Union building may not be dysfunctional it was commissioned and built without a successful capital campaign by a board of trustees bordering on criminal in their breach of fiduciary responsibility. The loss to the architectural world over the next 75 years because of this change may even exceed the loss of the Folk Art Museum. Think of the hundreds or thousands of talented students who can no longer attend a first rate architecture school because of the institutional and ethical collapse.
Recently the brilliant Manufacturers Bank by Gordon Bunshaft has been defiled, in an act of patricide, into a Joe Fresh, leaving even the iconic vault a mere decorative display. I don’t remember the outrage being quite so well reported as the current one. True, an alteration is not a demolition, but in this case the city has suffered an enormous desecration.
There are many arguments for why the Folk Art Museum should be saved; among the most convincing is what it does for the scale of the block and how well it shows very small works of art. And the facade material is simply divine; bronze poured onto concrete producing the closest thing to a molten tapestry.
But the argument has become one of personality, schadenfreude and the chance to publicly take sides in what is billed as a great debate. It has so overwhelmed the real issues of cultural hegemony, real estate as birthright, and civics & civility as to make a single building a Greek tragedy. Even the article today seemed to be an overeager opportunity to look respectful more than a thoughtful consideration. And while it is unfortunate that friends and colleagues clash, it is more unfortunate that the matter has such a distorting public airing.
As everyone can barely resist weighing in with their own ‘solution’ I will offer mine: move it (yes, move it) to any 40’ wide lot in the Manhattan grid and it would be the finest home, gallery, museum or store in the entire city.
And my guess is you can pick it up for a song.
The Art of War
While we are not above marking the tragic with the comic, in Venice it is a high art.
At the Hotel San Fantin the facade is made of cannon and cannonballs from the 1849 siege of Venice by Austria, triggered by the declaration of the independent Republic of San Marco by some Venetian enthusiasts. While the siege was tragic, ending in cholera and surrender, the facade is an almost comic display of honor.
Likewise, at Santa Maria del Giglio, relief maps of fortified towns engaged by Antonio Barbaro line the facade (at eye level, just in case you might miss them) in lieu of saintly apparitions. This panorama of 6 panels ranging from Candia (Corfu) to Rome to Padua to Zara in Croatia, are the heaviest travel guide ever…each marble panel is at least 6 feet wide and weighs in at around 3000 lbs.
From the ridiculous to the submerged, Carlo Scarpa’s Monument to the Partisan Women of WWII is a seemingly toppled bronze near a scattering of stone blocks, covered or uncovered as the tide decides. It is a beautiful idea and surprising that it hasn’t produced the meme-like standards that Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, or the WTC pools, has. I guess is just isn’s monumental enough, but it is quite thoughtful and provocative…as a memorial should be.
Matt Mullican at Venice Biennale
(need I say more?)
This is New York…
…and always has been, at least from a certain moment on. It’s not just the firmly held street wall, but the deep facades showing off their chiaroscuro. It’s not a New York invention, exactly, but in New York it nearly precisely marks the moment that the city became a modern city.
This photograph could have been taken nearly any day during the past century, but was taken today, on the way from one place to another, just in passing.
It is what I love about New York.