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The history of Expo through 5 major moments, from 1851 until today – Domus

London, 1851
Conceived by Henry Cole, enthusiastic after his visit to the Paris Exposition in 1849, the London Great Exhibition was the first truly international Expo, where the most advanced themes and innovations of an entire era converged from a global-scale context. No subject was given, the vocation was purely commercial, and above all, to mark the distance from previous exhibitions, came the unprecedentedly strong identification between an event and an iconic architecture: the Crystal Palace. The 39-meter-high iron-and-glass greenhouse designed by Joseph Paxton housed on its 92.000 square meter surface a powerful scenic system, created through the interaction of Owen Jones’s decorations (from which Jones himself drew his 1856 book The Grammar of Ornament) with the over 100.000 objects on display, ranging from the first public toilet to the legendary Koh-I-Noor diamond. After the three-month exhibition — which reportedly attracted 6 million visitors — Prince Albert wanted to continue the educational spirit of the project by establishing the Museum of Manufacturers, the future Victoria and Albert, in 1852.
©Photo Josse/Scala, Forence, 2017. In Domus 1014, June 2017
Paris, 1889
The exhibition celebrating 100 years since the storming of the Bastille was based on the spectacularisation of progress (panoramic hot-air balloons, reconstructed villages, magnificent shows), as well as of a mainly colonial history. However, this Expo was one of the first to also assert itself as an urban-scale display. The whole of the Champ de Mars was in fact occupied by a multitude of multifariously shaped and themed buildings, created under the supervision of Charles Garnier (the architect of the Opéra), linked by the innovativation of an electrical network, and by a temporary railway line. Clearly the symbol that the event would leave to history is the 325-metre trellis, made of over 18.000 metal elements, known as the Eiffel Tower; but the celebration of the iron industry will also see the engineer Gustave Eiffel involved in working with Ferdinand Dutert and Victor Contamin in designing the great Galerie des Machines, a 115-metre span roof, later dismantled in 1909, that throughout a twenty-year career would prove extremely versatile, hosting the most diverse themes.
Montreal, 1967
The first half of the 20th century would pass amidst forced interruptions and increasingly sharp contrasts between the rhetoric of the exhibitions and actual international tensions. After war and reconstruction, Expo 67 represented a return to the large scale and the spirit of innovation of the fundamental Universal Expositions, applied above all to the realms of the city, of construction and housing. The theme was Terre des Hommes/Man and his world. Man and his activities. Everything spoke about future and research, the whole site was covered with futuristic multi-screen projections, but the urban legacy of the event was the aspect that would make history: the site itself was largely created from scratch, extending an island in the middle of the Saint Laurent river and adding a new one not too far. Then there were the buildings: Frei Otto’s enormous tensile structure for Germany, Habitat 67 housing cluster designed by Moshe Safdie as an aggregation of prefabricated volumes, and the icon of an entire era, the Biosphere, the 60-meter-high geodesic dome designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller for the United States pavilion, originally wrapped inside an acrylic membrane (burnt down in a fire in 1976) and operating today as the permanent structure of an environment museum.
Hannover, 2000
The turning of the millennium produced a change of pace: World Expos became five-yearly, and the strategic choice of their location became a priority, so that the legacy of the great event could be better reabsorbed by host cities, avoiding abandonment as it happened in Seville (1992) or Lisbon (1998). The masterplan was ready in 1994, providing a basis to the development of a large number of soon-to-be-famous architectures, first and foremost the Dutch pavilion by MVRDV, but also the Japanese gridshell designed by Shigeru Ban; and that was what saved the event from complete disaster (ineffective communication of the theme, less than half of the expected visitors; critics at the time wondered about the end of an era, if not of the Expo model itself). Many structures have been in fact reabsorbed into the urban fabric: the Mexican pavilion by Ricardo Legorreta, for example, has become the library of the Braunschweig University of Arts, and the Dutch pavilion, after ending up for sale on eBay, is now about to be transformed into a co-working structure. A very Expo note: for the occasion, Kraftwerk created the Expo2000 jingle, which was later extended into a song.
Shanghai, 2010
It is impossible not to talk about cities when talking about Expo 2010. The theme of the first major Expo of the millennium — the first to take place out of the extended “Western bloc” – was Better City, Better Life. The monumental event, recognized as the most expensive edition to date, landed on a large area joining the two banks of the Huangpu River, causing expropriations and the relocation of thousands of residents — as it was immediately denounced — and for six months hosted the largest number of countries ever assembled, ironically, around themes of improving the living conditions of urban populations. The architecture did not spare large numbers and large scale, as stated by the monumental Chinese pavilion, as well as it consecrated a new generation of star-architects  such as Thomas Heatherwick, the author of the British Pavilion. The legacy of the event today is represented by the Expo Park, where the Chinese pavilion has been preserved and a museum of the history of the Expos has been created.
photo: Cesarexpo, cc by-sa 3.0
London, 1851
Conceived by Henry Cole, enthusiastic after his visit to the Paris Exposition in 1849, the London Great Exhibition was the first truly international Expo, where the most advanced themes and innovations of an entire era converged from a global-scale context. No subject was given, the vocation was purely commercial, and above all, to mark the distance from previous exhibitions, came the unprecedentedly strong identification between an event and an iconic architecture: the Crystal Palace. The 39-meter-high iron-and-glass greenhouse designed by Joseph Paxton housed on its 92.000 square meter surface a powerful scenic system, created through the interaction of Owen Jones’s decorations (from which Jones himself drew his 1856 book The Grammar of Ornament) with the over 100.000 objects on display, ranging from the first public toilet to the legendary Koh-I-Noor diamond. After the three-month exhibition — which reportedly attracted 6 million visitors — Prince Albert wanted to continue the educational spirit of the project by establishing the Museum of Manufacturers, the future Victoria and Albert, in 1852.
©Photo Josse/Scala, Forence, 2017. In Domus 1014, June 2017
Paris, 1889
The exhibition celebrating 100 years since the storming of the Bastille was based on the spectacularisation of progress (panoramic hot-air balloons, reconstructed villages, magnificent shows), as well as of a mainly colonial history. However, this Expo was one of the first to also assert itself as an urban-scale display. The whole of the Champ de Mars was in fact occupied by a multitude of multifariously shaped and themed buildings, created under the supervision of Charles Garnier (the architect of the Opéra), linked by the innovativation of an electrical network, and by a temporary railway line. Clearly the symbol that the event would leave to history is the 325-metre trellis, made of over 18.000 metal elements, known as the Eiffel Tower; but the celebration of the iron industry will also see the engineer Gustave Eiffel involved in working with Ferdinand Dutert and Victor Contamin in designing the great Galerie des Machines, a 115-metre span roof, later dismantled in 1909, that throughout a twenty-year career would prove extremely versatile, hosting the most diverse themes.
Montreal, 1967
The first half of the 20th century would pass amidst forced interruptions and increasingly sharp contrasts between the rhetoric of the exhibitions and actual international tensions. After war and reconstruction, Expo 67 represented a return to the large scale and the spirit of innovation of the fundamental Universal Expositions, applied above all to the realms of the city, of construction and housing. The theme was Terre des Hommes/Man and his world. Man and his activities. Everything spoke about future and research, the whole site was covered with futuristic multi-screen projections, but the urban legacy of the event was the aspect that would make history: the site itself was largely created from scratch, extending an island in the middle of the Saint Laurent river and adding a new one not too far. Then there were the buildings: Frei Otto’s enormous tensile structure for Germany, Habitat 67 housing cluster designed by Moshe Safdie as an aggregation of prefabricated volumes, and the icon of an entire era, the Biosphere, the 60-meter-high geodesic dome designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller for the United States pavilion, originally wrapped inside an acrylic membrane (burnt down in a fire in 1976) and operating today as the permanent structure of an environment museum.
Hannover, 2000
The turning of the millennium produced a change of pace: World Expos became five-yearly, and the strategic choice of their location became a priority, so that the legacy of the great event could be better reabsorbed by host cities, avoiding abandonment as it happened in Seville (1992) or Lisbon (1998). The masterplan was ready in 1994, providing a basis to the development of a large number of soon-to-be-famous architectures, first and foremost the Dutch pavilion by MVRDV, but also the Japanese gridshell designed by Shigeru Ban; and that was what saved the event from complete disaster (ineffective communication of the theme, less than half of the expected visitors; critics at the time wondered about the end of an era, if not of the Expo model itself). Many structures have been in fact reabsorbed into the urban fabric: the Mexican pavilion by Ricardo Legorreta, for example, has become the library of the Braunschweig University of Arts, and the Dutch pavilion, after ending up for sale on eBay, is now about to be transformed into a co-working structure. A very Expo note: for the occasion, Kraftwerk created the Expo2000 jingle, which was later extended into a song.
Shanghai, 2010
It is impossible not to talk about cities when talking about Expo 2010. The theme of the first major Expo of the millennium — the first to take place out of the extended “Western bloc” – was Better City, Better Life. The monumental event, recognized as the most expensive edition to date, landed on a large area joining the two banks of the Huangpu River, causing expropriations and the relocation of thousands of residents — as it was immediately denounced — and for six months hosted the largest number of countries ever assembled, ironically, around themes of improving the living conditions of urban populations. The architecture did not spare large numbers and large scale, as stated by the monumental Chinese pavilion, as well as it consecrated a new generation of star-architects  such as Thomas Heatherwick, the author of the British Pavilion. The legacy of the event today is represented by the Expo Park, where the Chinese pavilion has been preserved and a museum of the history of the Expos has been created.
photo: Cesarexpo, cc by-sa 3.0
Every two weeks in Paris, the Académie des Sciences used to put on display, along the rue de la Harpe, four models of machines that foreshadowed new ways of producing. This was in 1683, and this is what Linda Aimone and Carlo Olmo, in their book Le Esposizioni Universali 1851-1900, present as the first example of an industrial exhibition: prototypes, living symbols of progress, displayed and shared with everyone.
And this is, in essence, what Expos have always proposed: societies, and their contribution to innovation.
Of course, it is “only” a century and a half , or a little more, since Expositions have also become Universal, World’s Fairs — since 1851, when 25 countries gathered at the Crystal Palace in London for the Great Exhibition — still, it is to be remarked that the Expos with their specific mission were perhaps the first plastic, and mass produced, representation of the idea of a globalized world, something that was even difficult to think of at first.
Throughout their history, they have known different phases and forms: the first Expos were the voice of production, of  the industrial revolution, but very soon they became checkerboards of international, political and identity positioning (up to the sinisterly iconic display of Paris 1937, with the statues of Stalinist workers and the Nazi eagle facing each other from the two corners of the Champ de Mars).
As modernity and the Second World War, came and made the world much smaller, Expo would evolve as well, together with its languages and its systemic short-circuits. Sure, in postwar years, the Cold War became the general framework regulating almost all international relationships, but under the coordination of the Bureau International des Expositions, a certain enthusiasm for a future made of community thinking, of ideas that had been considered science fiction till  then, made a huge comeback: everything was connected, everything was progress, research. It was the steel atom (the Atomium) built in Brussels in 1958, it was Diana Ross singing next to a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome from Montréal in 1967.
Expos became one with their host cities. But perhaps this did not realize completely: over the decades, specialized expos multiplied and the problem of abandoned exhibition sites became more and more relevant. This did not, however, prevent the birth of what today we might call an “Expo style” in architecture, temporary and highly technologized, still present and thriving today.
The new millennium has brought signals of an increased awareness  about all these issues: the decision has been taken to reduce the proliferation of events, bringing World Expos to a five-year cycle and reinforcing the importance of their thematization, as well as the attention to their legacy for cities (these two aspects have entailed real processes of cross-level transfiguration for some urban systems, as it happened in Milan in 2015).
All this is happening in very different ways, for sure, as the five milestones we have selected in the history of Universal Exhibitions will show.
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