Beginning with the late 18th century, there have been many international expositions, and they have always been expressions of progress and enlightenment. But the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 was intellectually and artistically the most successful of them all, its only possible competitor the Great Exhibition of 1851, when the fabled Crystal Palace rose up in London’s Hyde Park as an expression of Britain’s empire and civilization.
It all started in the depths of the Great Depression, when a group of public-spirited businessmen and civic leaders, encouraged by the success of Chicago’s “Century of Progress” exposition, adopted the idea of a World’s Fair in New York that, they hoped, would raise morale and perhaps stimulate business in a grim economic climate. Three months after the formation of a World’s Fair Corporation, one hundred “Progressives in the Arts” gathered at a dinner party in New York’s Civic Club. A series of speakers called for a new kind of Fair which, in Lewis Mumford’s words, would “project a pattern that will fulfill itself in the future of the whole civilization.” As Mumford saw it, the Fair should tell a story to people from all over the world “of this planned environment, this planned industry, this planned civilization. If we can point it toward the future, toward something that is progressing and growing in every department of life and throughout civilization, if we allow ourselves . . . as members of a great metropolis, to think for the world at large, we may lay the foundation for a pattern of life which would have an enormous impact in times to come.”
The planners and designers had several purposes in mind of which two were paramount. First, they wanted the Fair to demonstrate that despite the pervasive fact of the Great Depression, the means were available to create material abundance for all. Second, they wished the Fair to serve as a vehicle for asserting democratic values against the looming challenges of Fascism and Communism. In both of these aims they were more successful than one might have thought possible. The Fair did to a great extent succeed in projecting a viable planned environment for both work and leisure in the future, and it did create, as one formulation had it, “a unified whole represent[ing] all of the interrelated activities and interests of the American way of life.” But the sheer vitality of the creation was something no one could have planned. The bursting life of the organism that came into being at Flushing Meadows in Queens under Robert Moses’s direction—on the site of what had been a garbage-strewn swampland—went far beyond the pedagogical purposes of its enlightened planners.
A character in one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories describes a fair as follows: “Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place—under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere and a smell of peanuts—and everything will twinkle. . . . It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon—like a big yellow lantern on a pole.” That was in fact the way the World’s Fair looked, especially at night, but it was breathtaking even in the daytime. The first thing one saw as one came down the boardwalk was the Fair’s dominating symbol, the Trylon and Perisphere, the former a triangular pointed tower 610-feet high, the latter a gigantic globe the size of a city block, both gleaming white during the day and illuminated at night by blue, yellow, and pink floodlights. The Trylon and Perisphere remain alive today not only in the collective memory but in the countless memorabilia that have come down to us from the event: salt-shakers, plates, pencil sharpeners, scarves, glasses and bowls, rings and ashtrays.
The Fair’s central symbol did not spring full-blown from the brains of its designers, the architectural firm of Harrison and Fouilhoux. It was part of a long tradition going back to visionary French architects of the late 18th century who had dreamed of projects based on the revolutionary clarity of simple geometrical forms. Matisse was speaking as a member of this tradition when he said that all spatial form could be resolved into three geometrical shapes: the triangle, the sphere, and the cube.
Globe-and-spire imagery was prominent in designs for the Columbia Exposition of 1893, the 700-foot Globe Tower planned for Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, and the international Christopher Columbus Lighthouse Competition of 1929. Indeed, one of the designs entered in the latter event—a tower-and-globe combination conceived by a team of Russian architects—proved strikingly prophetic of the Trylon and Perisphere. And of course always present in the minds of modern designers was the Eiffel Tower, immensely controversial in Parisian circles when it was built in 1889, its metallic geometrical simplicity a calculated insult to tradition, and to the Parisian mansard roofs and winding streets on which it looked down. The Trylon and Perisphere represented a climactic moment in modern architectural design, and they established themselves instantly in the popular consciousness not just as the signature of an era, but as symbols of the enormous optimistic thrust of modernity itself.
Apart from everything else, the Trylon and Perisphere were of course also male and female symbols, and the designers chose to have their conception of the “World of Tomorrow” gestate, so to speak, within the female globe. They called the whole thing Democracity, and it was the most popular exhibit at the Fair. The crowds approached it along a curved, moving stairway that brought them to the entrance fifty feet in the air. Entering the Perisphere, they stepped onto two revolving balconies that formed large rings apparently suspended in midair. Standing on one or another of them, they looked out on a six-minute animated vision of the world of the future.
What they saw was the model of an ideal city of the future, a well-organized community whose inhabitants, a million in all with a working population of 250,000, lived in five satellite towns (“Pleasantvilles” if they were exclusively residential, “Millvilles” if they accommodated some industry) surrounded by lush green areas used for both agriculture and recreation. Linking the elements together was a system of superhighways which carried residents to and from their jobs at the business and cultural heart of the community (designated the Center). In a clear allusion to the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, power was centrally generated by a giant hydroelectric dam.
As the crowd watched, the voice of radio announcer H.V. Kalten-born explained how Democracity worked, while daylight faded over the great dome, dusk slowly deepened, and thousands of stars gleamed overhead. A mighty chorus then sounded from the heavens, while from ten different locations on the dome a parade of marchers—farmers in work clothes, mechanics carrying tools—came into view. Drawing closer, they were seen to represent the various ethnic groups that made up an American metropolis, and hence to comprise a kind of tableau of national unity. The music rose to a diapason, then subsided, the marching men vanished behind drifting clouds, and in a blaze of polarized light, the panorama of hope came to an end—its narrator, ironically enough, soon to become known in every American household with a radio for his grim nightly reports about the progress of World War II.
The designers had intended the Perisphere show to serve as a kind of crystallized vision of the Fair as a whole, a declaration that American democracy had within it the possibility of creating a life of modern abundance. There were, of course, other visions of the future abroad in the world of that time. The Fascists had their authoritarian state, the Soviets their collectivist paradise, each one purchasing order at the price of freedom. The Trylon and Perisphere theme center asserted a competing vision, one buoyed up on the wave of optimism generated by the 19th-century movement for progressive reform and reinforced by the modernist movement in the arts. It was a vision that combined enthusiasm about the possibilities inherent in science and technology with a Whitmanesque faith in the idea of democracy. The vision no doubt contained some contradictions, but it was potent stuff amid the surrounding international gloom. World War II broke out just as the Fair was completing its first summer. On September 1, 1939, Hitler, having signed his pact with Stalin a few days before, hurled his forces into Poland; two days later England and France reluctantly went to war. Once again, in Lord Grey’s famous words, “the lights were going out all over Europe.”
Maybe so, but across the Atlantic, the World’s Fair was nothing if not luminous. The crowds who left the Perisphere and looked back at the largest globular structure ever built could see a shining world, apparently suspended in air on jets of red-, green-, and blue-colored water, an arrangement of mirrors on which the water played rendering the actual supporting columns invisible. At night, powerful lights projected moving cloud patterns on the surface of the sphere, creating the illusion that the building itself was revolving. With such a prospect before them, how could Americans not be optimistic?
One of the Fair’s most perceptive critics, the architect Douglas Haskell, writing in Architectural Record in 1940, drew an interesting comparison between the New York Fair and the one taking place the same year in San Francisco. Haskell detected a certain paradox in the fact that the Western exhibit had been the one which produced “the rounded and harmonious achievement” while the East, in a reversal of traditional roles, “played the pioneer.” He went on to say that “although New York’s experimentalism sometimes went wide of producing a finished harmony, it did bring forth a wealth of new material.”
If indeed the Fair fell short of achieving a “finished harmony,” it was probably because the energies it released were too great for such an effect. One thing the planners did produce, however, was a comprehensive overall design. The Trylon and Perisphere served as the center of a wheel with the leading avenues and malls acting as spokes. Thus, Constitution Mall—and the name of course was thematic—ran east to the Lagoon of Nations and the Court of Peace where one could visit the pavilions of foreign nations. Two other spokes, the Avenue of Patriots and the Avenue of Pioneers, served as routes for specially constructed Greyhound sightseeing buses which charged ten cents a ride, had seats facing outward, and boasted horns that played The Sidewalks of New York. Another spoke connected the Court of Communications, with its great pylons, to the Plaza of Light, with its Electrical Utilities building. World’s Fair Boulevard led from the permanent aquatic amphitheater on Fountain Lake past the New York State exhibition building to the Transportation building across Grand Central Parkway.
This geometrical arrangement accommodated the conceptual plan of the Fair, a division into seven thematic zones containing “focal” exhibits designed to represent the future possibilities of life in such areas as communications, public health, science and education, and transportation. A seventh zone, the 280-acre amusement park on the shores of Fountain Lake, served no educational purpose whatever, but proved so successful that it was enlarged during the Fair’s second year. Here the public took a breather from more didactic pursuits and enjoyed such attractions as Billy Rose’s Aquacade, Frank Buck’s “Bring-’em-Back Alive” Jungleland, Admiral Byrd’s Penguin Island, the Dance of the Doves starring Gypsy Rose Lee, and a new drink called the Zombie, which was served in glasses a foot tall and was supposed to be so potent that only one was allowed to a customer.
The Fair’s layout did not meet with unqualified approval. Some critics argued that good design need not necessarily adhere to “neoclassic” principles of logic; others felt that the rigidly geometrical arrangement contradicted the idea of dynamic growth that was supposed to be the theme of the Fair. Defenders of the layout countered that the very clarity of the plan was in its way a creative statement, dramatizing the Fair’s emergence—via a designer’s drawing board—out of what had previously been a deserted swampland.
Interesting as these arguments were, they had very little to do with the energy and variety that visitors actually experienced at the Fair. The overall design may have been evident to someone looking at a blueprint, but a visitor strolling along one or another of the Fair’s avenues was not likely to be aware of it. Perhaps his attention was caught by some of the players who cavorted along the boulevards, singing, dancing, juggling, playing the banjo, and attracting crowds wherever they went. Or perhaps he was watching one of the lavish fireworks displays or sound-and-light shows that had been devised for the public’s entertainment by the ebullient Grover Whalen, New York’s official greeter, who was also president of the Fair corporation. People came for the spectacle, heeding the advice of Joseph Wood Krutch in the Nation to avoid “buildings given large inclusive titles” and immerse themselves in the panorama as a whole.
The buildings themselves were constructed in a variety of styles within the general guidelines that had been laid down by the board of design. Art Deco, the International Style, Beaux-Arts moderne, were all represented, as was the idea—deriving from the architecture parlante of late 18th-century France—that a building should immediately announce its function. Thus, the Marine Transportation building declared itself by means of a huge pair of ocean liner bows and a 150-foot mast; the Aviation building consisted of a conically-shaped hall suggesting a wind tunnel or vast hangar; the Cosmetics building looked like a powder box. A giant igloo housed the Carrier Corporation air-conditioning exhibit, and the RCA building was shaped like a gigantic radio tube. To top it all off, the National Cash Register pavilion had a huge cash register on its roof which continually kept track of attendance figures. Apart from such visual puns, there was also a marvelous proliferation of towers, domes, and spirals spreading along the avenues, all projecting the same cumulative message: art and architecture had joined forces to celebrate a new age of technology. It was not the heavy power of iron and coal that was being celebrated this time around but a new era of electricity and flight.
The immense impact of this new technology on American life could not have been foreseen in 1940. But much of what viewers were seeing, and marveling at, for the first time as they took the guided tour through the spectacular General Motors Futurama show did actually come to pass, and within a short time: superhighways, high-powered automobiles, and mass air travel. And what was true of the General Motors exhibit was true of exhibits throughout the Fair, in scores of displays like the one at the Eastman Kodak building, where mass high-tech color photography and three-dimensional polaroid photography were predicted for the first time or the one at Westinghouse Electric, where a gigantic voice-activated robot (named Elektro) performed a variety of tasks to the delight of spectators. Another device which excited a great deal of comment was an ingeniously-fashioned contrivance for keeping an isolated chicken heart alive and pumping. Developed by Charles Lindbergh and a French scientist named Alexis Carrell, it prefigured developments like organ transplants and artificial hearts that have transformed 20th-century medicine.
Displays like these proclaimed that a better tomorrow was within reach—not just anyone’s tomorrow but an American tomorrow, democratic and streamlined. An unabashed expression of American nationalism, the Fair commemorated the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration, and induced President Roosevelt himself to preside at the laying of the cornerstone of the United States Government building. More eloquent than ceremonies like these, however, were the two time capsules lying buried in the fairground in an area not far from the Du Pont exhibition (“Better things for better living through chemistry”) surrounded by low stone benches and identified by a round granite marker. The capsules, which contained such representative artifacts of American civilization as cameras, radios, combs, needles and thread, a telephone, and so on, had been sunk into their subterranean vaults on September 23, 1938 with instructions to posterity for raising them again on September 23, 6938. In a way, they constituted the very heart of the Fair, assuming as they did that American civilization would not only still matter five thousand years hence, but would be the basis for the world of the future.
The Fair’s optimism transcended depression and war. The brilliance of the exhibits seemed to augur, if only implicitly, a new American world order, America as the world’s future. Almost explicitly it opposed the declining British empire as well as the ascending new orders of Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia.
Not every exhibit at the Fair, to be sure, shared the American dream of 1939. Several of the foreign pavilions among those clustered at the Court of Peace proclaimed quite different visions of the future.
Nazi Germany had no pavilion at the Fair, but the one representing Mussolini’s Italy was especially brilliant, with its synthesis of the classical architecture of ancient Rome and the modernism of 20th-century Italy. What struck the eye first was the building’s colonnaded front, surmounted by a huge tower that formed the pedestal for a statue of the goddess Roma. Once inside, the visitor encountered displays of scientific and technological achievements as well as a shimmering array of manufactured goods that produced an impression both of elegance and of extreme modernity.
This impression was strengthened by Italy’s entry to the Transportation exhibit elsewhere at the Fair—several cars from a luxury passenger train designed to achieve speeds of 100 miles an hour. Sleek of outline and fashioned of gleaming red metal, they were as impressive an example of industrial modernism as anything at the Fair. They were also an unmistakable political metaphor: Italian Fascism here declared that it had its face toward the future and was speeding toward a second Roman empire. The metaphor was reinforced by a giant statue of II Duce himself, in the pavilion’s hall of honor, with the empire outlined in maps of copper and marble.
If the dominant note of the Italian pavilion was speed, that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was bulk. Inside the ponderous building, paintings, sculpture, and bas reliefs proclaimed—in heavy “boy-meets-tractor” socialist-realism fashion—the achievements of the Soviet system. There was a life-sized reproduction of the famous Moscow subway, cleverly designed with mirrors so that it looked longer and larger than it actually was.
The façade was divided into eleven sections, each ornamented to represent one of the Soviet socialist republics. A central tower was topped by a huge statue of a thick-legged, thick-necked Soviet worker brandishing a red star that gleamed in the night. This made the Soviet pavilion the tallest structure at the Fair—with the single exception of the Trylon—a fact with ideological implications lost on no one. Its overall impression was of a massively heroic structure that had obviously been designed to impress and intimidate.
The Japanese pavilion contained what must have been the single most remarkable object of the entire Fair: a giant Liberty Bell made almost entirely of cultured pearls. But apart from this singular achievement, the most striking thing about the building was its reticence. It displayed no aeronautical or scientific achievements and made no claims to empire, despite the fact that Japan had occupied Manchura in 1931, and had eventually undertaken a full-scale attack on China itself. It had built up its navy and air force, sunk an American gunboat on the Yangtze, and engaged in skirmishes against the British. Yet its pavilion was modeled on an ancient Shinto shrine, complete with dwarf shrubbery, a tiny arching bridge, and guides in silk kimonos who gave periodic demonstrations of the Japanese tea ceremony.
This was not the world of tomorrow but the world of yesterday, an effort to contradict the widespread sense that the Japanese were barbarians. The pavilion sought to root Japanese claims to power and empire in the ancient—and, one was invited to think, superior—cultural traditions of that mysterious island. In the year 1940, it is doubtful that many visitors to the Fair found those claims persuasive.
One of the pavilions most admired in the early days of the Fair had been Poland’s, with its rectangular golden tower, modern and light, rising above the main entrance. Inside, one found memorabilia of ancient Polish kings as well as examples of Polish science, technology, and the arts, and even a fashion show featuring the latest Warsaw styles. The emphasis was on Polish democratic traditions and the important role Poland would play in the Europe of the future. But the Polish pavilion was gone by the second year of the Fair. So was the Finnish pavilion, which had closed to the strains of Finlandia following Finland’s defeat at the hands of Stalin.
Nor did the Soviet pavilion survive for long. After the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Poland, the whole structure was pulled down and carted away. By the summer of 1940, it had been replaced by a bandstand.