World Exhibitions and Urban Planning

The tradition of International Exhibitions began with the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition which was held in London. It expanded upon an existing European tradition of regional and national commercial fairs as well as a more recently emergent “exhibitionary complex,” enjoyed by the people of the time, comprised of museums, public monuments, panoramas, arcades, and early department stores. After this first international exhibition in 1851, exhibitions would become fixtures of European and American life, taking place every 1 to 5 years, mostly in major cities such as Paris, London, Chicago and New York. These Exhibitions became seen as symbols of a dawning culture of mass spectacle in the West, bringing together crowds of varied national backgrounds, gender, and class in a shared experience of visual consumption.

Historically, these Exhibitions had a major effect upon the Urban Planning of the city or area which is hosting the Exhibition. Nineteenth-century world’s fairs were the epitome of modern times, as were the cities that hosted them. Cities such as Paris, London, New York and Chicago were metropolitan centers that were truly examples of universal modernity during this period. These cities were cosmopolitan, financial, and cultural centres that concentrated and combined both national and international trends. World’s fairs were thus, the controlled portrayals of these cosmopolitan cores, as much as they were the cities greatest spectacles showing off the marvels of the city and its capabilities.

World exhibitions were conscious representations of what was thought to be the epitome of progress and modernity, and they were the ideal rendition of the modern city. Fairs embodied and fostered the primary components of nineteenth-century modern existence: the belief in positive, universal, and homogeneous truth; the presumption of freedom; the concept of ending history by summarizing the past and controlling the future; and the creed of nationalism as an intrinsic part of both international cosmopolitanism and economic imperialism. While in some instances the impacts of the Expos are barely visible, in other instances the strong impacts produced involves alterations to the structure and the urban forms of the city or of the wider territory in which the Expos have taken place. Exhibitions proved to be important instrument of renewal as a catalyst of urban regeneration with growing, substantial and lasting physical impact. Being that, landscapes are made by ideas as well as construction, and the last decade of the century was full of ideas about society and the city might be like in the future, the buildings created for the Expos were very cutting edge and modernistic.

2 thoughts on “World Exhibitions and Urban Planning

  1. Overall, this was a very good read. I would however question your overall positive outlook on major international events. With the prestige that comes with holding these events comes the necessity to beef up ones city with new and improved architecture. This architecture yes improves the city, yet in many cases they are built for a single purpose. By building architecture that suits one purpose has lead cities to leave these costly investments empty, only to become an eyesore for the cities inhabitants. Many examples of this are after many of the modern Olympics that have take place within the last 50 years.
    For some reason I needed to mention this negative aspect to your posting, and for this I am sorry.

  2. Interesting, the legacy of Vancouver’s Expo certainly had and effect on the city and the rest of the province. Expo 86 was an exciting time in British Columbia, although I never did think that rushing the first part of the Coquihalla highway’s completion and its accompanying debt was necessary. The exposition did leave us with a lot of memories and I’ve enjoyed using the infrastructure, which is its legacy (eg. BC Place, the Skytrain) many times.

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