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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 626-627

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Book Review

World's Fairs

World's Fairs. By Erik Mattie. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. Pp. 259; illustrations, bibliography, index. $45.50.

The world's fairs have been referred to by historian Neil Harris as testaments to the power of an urban dream. On the one hand, the buildings constructed for these fairs have been directly related to the architectural traditions of the time and place they were built. On the other hand, they have possessed idealized qualities--whether manifested in the single buildings of the earliest fairs or the large ensembles of the later ones--that have made them something distinct, a world in themselves.

Expo 2000 in Hannover promises to continue this tradition in architecture and urban design, and marks an appropriate time to review how it has changed over time. Erik Mattie's book is one such review, providing especially good photographs and plans of the fairs, which allow for a comparative analysis. As the title implies, however, there is not much of a thesis, no clear critical stance, no controversies taken up with any apparent passion or conviction, no definitive judgment on what the fairs represented. World's Fairs is primarily a picture book, with more than three hundred illustrations, divided among thirty chapters, based roughly on the number of fairs covered. And coverage is impressive, ranging from London in 1851 to the fairs of Paris, the United States, Australia, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Canada, Spain, and concluding with Hannover.

Mattie begins with a brief introduction in which he reviews the significance of the fairs, which of course have made an important contribution to the history of architecture and design. Not only have they represented an urban ideal, but according to the author they have also manifested an idealized view of world trade and world peace marching hand in hand. How this is reflected in their architecture is not made explicit. In terms of technology and culture, however, Mattie does make an important point about the changing nature of the fairs over time: that in the nineteenth century they were held primarily for industry to display new products and innovations, while in the twentieth century entertainment became primary. Individual exhibits are no longer focused on machine-made products such as locomotives, plows, steam generators, or looms, but rather on media events, multiscreen slide shows, movies, and travelogues that reflect national identities. Having drawn that distinction, though, the author offers no explanation; he does not explore how such a change has occurred in other realms and how it may have effected the fairs or vice versa.

There are truly interesting bits of information provided in the book, and here are a couple of examples. The New York World's Fair of 1964 was boycotted by most nations and industries because its director, Robert Moses, posed impossible difficulties for the fair's sanctioning body. In 1967, [End Page 626] the biggest attraction in Montreal was not Moshe Safdie's Habitat or Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, but rather the giant Russian pavilion designed by M. V. Posokhin. Even though it was one of the least distinguished architectural statements of the fair, Westerners, caught up in the fever of the cold war, stood in line for hours to catch a glimpse of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

Expo 2000 promises to be a spectacular event, once again representing an urban ideal. Electronic media will play an even bigger role than before, as projects relating to the fair's theme of mankind, nature, and technology will be connected from all over the world to the fair site via satellite, a new dimension of virtual reality.

While World's Fairs is a good, well-illustrated source book, much more could have been expected in the way of critical analysis and synthesizing the ideas on architectural and urban issues that the fairs have brought to the forefront--and which they will surely continue to do in the future.

John Stamper

Dr. Stamper is associate professor or architecture and architectural history at the University...


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