Towers, Needles, and Wheels: Architectural Spectacles at World’s Fairs and Expositions

Today the ArcelorMittal Orbit, an observation tower designed for the Summer Olympics, opened in London. The 377 foot tall structure, England’s tallest work of public art, is part of Olympic Park in Stratford. According to an AP press release, “Some critics have called the ruby-red lattice of tubular steel an eyesore. British tabloids have labeled it ‘the Eye-ful Tower,’ ‘the Godzilla of public art’ and worse.” Its designers, of course, think of it in more flattering terms:

“One of the references was the Tower of Babel. There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long, winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it. What I’m interested in is the way 21st century thinking about older technologies allows one to go both forwards and backwards. The form straddles Eiffel and Tatlin.”

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London

Not surprisingly, the Orbit seems to automatically generate comparison to the Eiffel Tower which was constructed for another kind of international gathering/competition, the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Arial view of the Exposition Universelle of 1889

And not unlike the Orbit, the Eiffel Tower also received a mixed reaction:

“We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”

Signatories included: Guy de Maupasssant, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Charles Gounod, and Paul Verlaine. But, of course, opinions have mellowed since.

The Eiffel Tower was not the only oversized structure built for a world’s fair. There was also the world’s first ferris wheel standing at 264 feet and offering passengers an awe-inspiring view of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, best remembered as the site of President William McKinley’s assassination, featured the 375 foot Electric Tower. At a time when many Americans had yet to witness an electrified city-scape, the tower and surrounding buildings became instances of the American technological sublime.

The iconic Space Needle that has come to symbolize the city of Seattle was built for the Century 21 Exposition that was held in 1961.

The two observation towers that comprised part of the New York State Pavilion for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair still stand today.

2 thoughts on “Towers, Needles, and Wheels: Architectural Spectacles at World’s Fairs and Expositions

  1. Perhaps you did not intend this, but there seems to be a “wirey-ness” to each of these structures. Thin, exposed and largely stripped of frills, the buildings are exemplars of modern architecture—utilitarian and profane in the oldest sense.

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