The Architectural Legacy of Barcelona’s World’s Fairs

When world’s fairs close shop most of their buildings and structures are torn down and forgotten. This is as planned; most world’s fair architecture is designed to be temporary. Moreover, some world’s fair architecture was later destroyed by fire including London’s Crystal Palace and Chicago’s White City.  There are notable exceptions to this intended and unintended architectural ephemerality, of course. The Eiffel Tower is just the most famous instance of an enduring architectural legacy bequeathed to a city by a world’s fair. Seattle’s Space Needle would be another. We might also add a number of contemporary museums that are today housed in buildings first designed as world’s fair pavilions. Examples include the Queen’s Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Barcelona’s diverse architectural heritage which includes ancient Roman structures alongside bold modernist designs with medieval cathedrals between them also features a surprising number of prominent world’s fair contributions. A number of these are from the Exposición Universal de Barcelona held in 1888. But the most grand and impressive structures are gathered around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc and were built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.

While in Barcelona two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in some of these public spaces. Below are a few shots I gathered with a couple of additions for perspective, both temporal and spatial. To begin with, here is a shot taken from atop a former bull fighting arena now turned into a stylish shopping center. The shot was taken with my iPod so the quality is a bit lacking, but it shows a good bit of the roundabout that is Plaça d’Espanya along with several of the structures built for the 1929 Exposition. These include the Venetian inspired towers, the St. Peter’s inspired colonnades, and the Spanish Renaissance inspired palace in the background. Also visible is the Montjuïc Communications Tower built for the 1992 Olympics.

This panoramic black and white, which clearly I did not take, shows the same area and more as it appeared in 1929.

Here is another look at the Venetian towers, this time from Montjuïc toward Plaça d’Espanya. As you can tell, most of these shots were taken on a rather cloudy day which is unfortunate.

The four columns were intended to represent the four red bars of the Catalonian flag. Because of this the originals were torn down by then Spanish President Primo de Rivera. The columns visible today were reconstructed in 2010.

Below is a shot of what was for the fair the Palau Nacional and which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Once more looking out from the Museu Nacional toward Plaça d’Espanya. Visible to the right of the towers is the converted bull fighting arena.

Remarkably, alongside these buildings that hearken back to the architectural past there was also built one of the early twentieth century’s most famous specimens of modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion (today often referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion). As Paul Greenhalgh has put it referring to the German pavilion and the surrounding structures, “It is difficult to imagine these buildings being of the same century, and even more difficult to imagine them as part of the same event.”

Greenhalgh describes the juxtaposition as the “most dramatic example of contrast and competition between history and modernity at an exposition.” The Mies pavilion, he adds, “stunning in its opulent austerity, is an extraordinary essay on the potential of urban, domestic space to function as pure art.”

This first shot below is not my own, but taken from Wikipedia. It gives you a good look at the whole without any visitors present. Below are series of my own shots from inside the house. The original was torn down shortly after the fair in 1930. However, Spanish architects reconstructed the structure based on original plans and existing photographs between 1983 and 1986.

The pavilion also housed the sculpture below (seen from a distance above), Georg Kolbe’s Alba or Dawn. 

Finally, the fountains that line the avenue leading from Museu Nacional to Plaça d’Espanya including the massive fountain directly in front of the Museu Nacional, the Font màgica de Montjuïc, continue to put on a dazzling night time display as they were designed to do in 1929.

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.

Corporate Modernism

From Laura Burd Schiavo’s “Modern Design Goes Public” in Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s:

“[The world’s fairs of the 1930s] were decidedly public. They introduced modern design to the tens of millions who visited the fairs and those exposed to them through extensive coverage in popular periodicals, on the radio, and in newsreels. What might have been an aesthetic experiment or marketing ploy before 1929 soon became an urgent response to crisis. During the Great Depression, the spectacular demonstrations aligned modern design with a vision of a better future that celebrated consumer progress and trumpeted mass production and corporate leadership. The world’s fairs were popular interpretations of what it meant to be modern in the 1930s, lessons that could be taken home and applied to everyday lives.”

Historian David Nye dubbed this collusion of modernist aesthetics with corporate interests, “corporate modernism” (fittingly enough):

“The future that corporate planners imagined no longer had the neoclassical overtones expressed in the architecture at the pre-1915 fairs in Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, and San Francisco. The fairs of the 1930s adopted the geometrical forms and flat surfaces of the international style … Indeed the invention of ‘corporate modernism’ was one of the more remarkable adaptations of business to the 1930s. Part of the impulse came from increasing competition among manufacturers, whose products often performed equally well, and who therefore needed styles that set their products apart … To repackage products they turned to industrial designers to rework the appearance of objects, emphasizing sleekness, streamlined contours, and functional appearance. The demand for ‘the new’ beams incessant: last year’s style began to seem second-hand; and corporations increasingly advertised and packaged products as innovations recently arrived from the future.”

Intersection of Tomorrow, Futurama Exhibit
GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes