The greatest shows on Earth

Exploring the remains of futures past

AMONG THE MEMENTOS (boardgames, guidebooks, banners, souvenir plates) on display at the permanent World’s Fair exhibition at the Queens Museum in New York, there’s a small blue and white badge that reads, ‘I have seen the future.’

The pin was doled out to the five million visitors who toured the ride-like General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. The badge-wearers were awed by the large-scale model of free-flowing multi-lane highways with remote-controlled semi-automated vehicles – a streamlined hope for the future.

The fair’s souvenir booklet promised ‘many wonders that may develop in the not-too-distant future…this world of tomorrow is a world of beauty’.

Held at the time of the Great Depression and World War II, this vision may have seemed far-fetched or even impossible. But that was part of the appeal for the throng momentarily passing through this new and better (always better) world. Behold!

The museum – housed in the New York City Pavilion from the 1939 World’s Fair – has 900 objects to marvel at, the centrepiece being the Panorama of the City of New York: a giant, to-scale, 3D model of all five boroughs of New York City built for the 1964 fair and meant to be used afterwards as a city-planning tool.

Directly outside the museum in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park (where both the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs were held), towering over the Van Wyck Expressway, is the derelict, rusted steel and concrete New York State Pavilion. Designed by Philip Johnson for the 1964 fair, the roof of the ‘Tent of Tomorrow’ was declared unsafe and removed, leaving what once was a theatre, roller rink and concert venue in disrepair – a ruin of the future.

World fairs or world expos have long plied progress, faith in the forthcoming. At the very first event, the London Exhibition in 1851 (devised by Prince Albert), seven million visitors, including Karl Marx, Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, marvelled at steam engines, factory machines and carriages. At the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889, a time machine offered visitors ‘an early encounter with tomorrow’. The expo’s entrance arch, otherwise known as the Eiffel Tower, still stands.

It wasn’t all talk. Inventions first exhibited at expos include the elevator (New York, 1853), the telephone (Philadelphia, 1876), the Ferris Wheel (Chicago, 1893), commercial broadcast television (New York, 1939), IMAX (Osaka, 1970) and touchscreens (Knoxville, 1982).

Roughly every four years, willing (and mostly wealthy) countries set up their own pavilions in a host city and show off their prowess – in technology, manufacturing, finance and design. And while a benign sense of friendship is at the core of these events – the Disney song ‘It’s a Small World’ was written for the New York World’s Fair in 1964 – competition can be fierce, with every pavilion and stall vying for attention. In Laboratories for Global Space-Time: Science-Fictionality and the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939, Roger Luckhurst writes, ‘The world’s fairs were established to exhibit mercantile capitalism’s internationalist and expansionist ambitions, and they aimed to condense the world into a single, easily traversable site encompassed by the harmonious utopian vision of free trade capital triumphant.’


IT WASN’T UNTIL the Montreal Expo in 1967 that Australia was ready to boldly make a statement on the world expo stage. Optimism was high and technology and manufacturing were advancing. In all creative pursuits – design, music, art, literature – the country was trying out new ideas and looking to the future. Driven by polymath Robin Boyd, who designed the Australian Pavilion’s interior and displays at the expo, the world was about to truly experience modern Australian design.

This was the first time Australia had presented at an international world exhibition since the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The venue then was an annex next to Great Britain’s pavilion, and was praised at the time for its bold mural displays and the involvement of leading Australian modernists. Its innovations would be taken up in 1967’s expo with the theme ‘Spirit of Adventure’. Australia needed a powerful exemplar of a modernised country for inter­national audiences to view. That came in the form of 240 high-backed talking wing chairs: visionary Robin Boyd conjured a plan to make these stereo-sound chairs the focal point of the pavilion and commissioned ­designers Grant and Mary Featherston to design them. The brief? Each chair had to be capable of withstanding the 20,000 people who would sit on it over the course of the exhibition, and each chair had to talk.

Shells were moulded in expanded, rigid polystyrene, and stereophonic speakers were placed in the chairs’ headrests. The chairs showed that Australia possessed advanced manufacturing capacities and designers who knew how to exploit new materials and technologies to expand design possibilities. They also served another function – to educate. In those embedded speakers, visitors could hear about the Australian way of life in the form of Sir Robert Menzies on natural resources, Harry Hopman on sport, Morris West on the Australian character, Googie Withers on Australian literature, Sir Robert Helpmann on ballet and theatre, Prime Minister Harold Holt on industrial development…and Rolf Harris on humour. The commentaries were available in French and English, and visitors just needed to choose their colour – an orange cushion for French or dark green for English.

The chairs were placed in an informal arrangement and were accompanied by occasional tables featuring piles of books on Australian society and ashtrays to evoke the ease of Australian life. Robin Boyd liked that the chairs told the story ‘quietly’; a visitor could sit in one position and receive information instead of having to walk around for it.

The world was impressed. One Canadian journalist summed up the experience in the Montreal Star:

I congratulate the Australians… Their pavilion is a small miracle of good taste and very restful after a day of footslogging… One comes gratefully to the Aussies’ great room with its restful lambswool carpet and sits down in one of the deep green chairs. The chairs begin to talk, but it is a subdued massage, a very soft sell… All very soothing on an otherwise busy day.

Just as nations displayed their greatest hits in their dedicated exhibition pavilions, some of the world’s most imaginative designs were the structures themselves. And while many buildings – such as the New York State Pavilion – were just temporary structures, some have thrived and come to represent the cityscape. Every year in Seattle, 1.3 million guests take the forty-three-second elevator ride to the observation deck of the Space Needle from the 1962 World’s Fair. Space-age futurism is still on display in Brussels with the Atomium (1958), which comprises nine spheres connected by tubes. One of the spheres holds a permanent exhibition dedicated to Expo 58. Back in Queens, the gleaming steel globe of the Unisphere is still a popular photo opportunity fifty-seven years after the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In Shanghai, host city of the 2010 World Expo, the China Pavilion stands boldly in Pudong and is now the China Art Palace, a museum dedicated to modern Chinese art.

World expos have long afforded the opportunity to unveil innovative design, acting as a calling card for great architects to showcase their ideas, as Boyd did in 1967. Anyone today who strolls the grounds where the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition was held will see, among the Venetian-inspired towers and a Spanish Renaissance-influenced palace, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s German Pavilion, an emblematic work of the modern movement. The glass, steel and marble structure, now known as the Barcelona Pavilion, was re-created on the original site in the 1980s. Nearly a century after its design, the building might go unnoticed because it looks so thoroughly contemporary.

Originally the US Pavilion, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome from the 1967 Montreal Expo still stands. The structure is made of steel and acrylic cells, and includes a complex shading system to control internal temperatures. It’s now known as the Biosphere and is a museum dedicated to the environment. At the Shanghai 2010 Expo, the Thomas Heatherwick-designed UK Pavilion, the Seed Cathedral, was encased in 60,000 acrylic rods, each embedded with its own plant seed. After the expo, the rods were auctioned off for charity.

At the upcoming Dubai World Expo, opening in October 2021, Australian firm Cox Architecture won a competition to design the Opportunity Pavilion. Made from organic materials, including timber, stone and woven rope, it’s one of three themed pavilions that all address sustainable development solutions. Australian architectural firm Woods Bagot has designed the Dubai Exhibition Centre, an event and meeting space. Meanwhile, Australia will have its own pavilion again after forfeiting a place in the 2015 Milan Expo. Blue Sky Dreaming, designed by Brisbane’s bureau^proberts architecture firm, features a labyrinth of raised aluminium panels that form a cloud-like canopy over the structure. Australia is being promoted as a country of connected optimists, but with international travel restrictions still up in the air, we might need to view Dubai’s six-month-long party online.


WHAT HAPPENS WHEN the carnival leaves town? Let Expo 1992 in Seville be a warning. Overgrown weeds and empty beers cans encroach the leftover pavilions on La Isla de La Cartuja, which also features a replica Ariane rocket and a colourful obelisk known as the Tower of Europe. While the abandoned spaces are adjoined by Cartuja 93, a research complex, and Isla Mágica, a theme park, the site makes a stark juxtaposition with the cathedrals and cobblestoned streets of Old Seville, just across the Calatrava Bridge.

After the Dubai Expo site closes on 31 March 2022, the plan is to reopen it six months later. The organisers plan to carry over Expo’s vision of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ by recycling and converting more than 80 per cent of the built environment, promising residential space, education facilities and parkland equivalent to six soccer pitches. Some buildings will remain unchanged, including the Santiago Calatrava-designed UAE Pavilion, inspired by a falcon in flight. We’ll see what legacy it leaves in the coming decades, just as we have with Brisbane, the city that hosted Expo 88.

Eighteen million visitors headed to Brisbane’s South Bank to experience the world’s best new ideas and the carnival atmosphere; the rest watched daily highlights on television. Like Queens’ Corona Park, once an ash dump site, Expo 88 helped rejuvenate the forty-two-hectare South Bank Parklands, though the development did displace low-income tenants by forcing them out of the area. Nostalgic remembrances of the event focus more on sleepy Brisbane coming alive after the long Joh Bjelke-Petersen years rather than on any design or architectural monuments. It was left to enterprising design lovers to salvage the best from this expo.

On a self-guided walking tour of Brisbane’s Expo 88 site, beyond the sculptural art highlighting the theme ‘Leisure in the Age of Technology’ (a life-size juggler, butterfly catchers, dancers), there’s the Skyneedle, an eighty-eight-metre-high beacon with a copper collar (known as the Night Companion during the expo). Rescued at the eleventh hour from being shipped off to Tokyo Disneyland, hairdresser Stefan Ackerie took out a second mortgage on his Gold Coast home to save the sculpture. It was moved to South Brisbane, 600 metres from its original expo location, and is now accompanied by a dual-tower block – the Skyneedle Apartments. Equally memorable were the giant, colourful ‘Australia’ letters by Ken Done. They were saved from the scrap heap by student Kurt Jones in 2018 after he noticed them stored on a plot of land at his college. Jones set up a social media campaign to preserve and restore the six-metre-tall letters to their former glory. They’re now at the Caboolture Historical Village.

And what of the Featherston talking chairs, that vision of the future from Montreal 67? A commercial version of the chair, Expo Mark II, was developed for national and international release and described as a ‘personal discotheque’. This model is still available and features Sonos Connect wireless streaming. An original 1967 model will fetch as much as $15,000 – a collector’s piece for lovers of futuristic design and for world expo nostalgists.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review