Raising awareness can be a poor and vicarious substitute for action, especially given that climate change is demonstrably already happening. Is it enough for Expo Dubai 2020 to power half its site with renewable energy, given how much energy the city uses? Kamran Jebreili/AP

The innocence one might think World’s Fairs have lost in recent years depends on how much one believes they had to begin with.

When Jade Doskow first started photographing her Lost Utopias series in 2007, it seemed eerily prescient. Published as the international banking system teetered on the brink of collapse, the remains of World’s Fair sites she highlighted seemingly captured the ruins of a time before our collective optimism towards the future had vanished. But World’s Fairs still happen. In fact, they’ve never been bigger. Recent and forthcoming expositions in Astana (2017), Beijing (2019) and Dubai (2020), make it clear that World’s Fairs still offer predictions of what is to come, illuminating human aspiration.

Expos are celebrations of art, science, engineering, and vernacular architecture, but they’re also opportunities for cities to announce themselves open for business. Following the carving of the Simplon Tunnel through the Alps, Milan invited the world to L'Esposizione Internazionale del Sempione in 1906. That same year, most of San Francisco was leveled by a colossal earthquake and resulting fires but aimed to re-emerge like a phoenix with the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. With Expo ’92, Seville sought to prove that it, and all of Spain, had truly emerged from the shadow of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Yet all the noble aspirations, centenary celebrations, and talk of the brotherhood of nations boils down to selling a city to an international audience.

Long before the internet, Expos were encapsulations of the global village. Millions flocked to experience foreign cultures and new innovations. With their national pavilions, countries competed for attention in the hope of attracting tourism, investment, or political recognition. But the greatest benefactors were almost always the host cities. Mies van der Rohe’s architectural contribution to the 1929 Exposició Internacional is remembered not as the German Pavilion—after the country that commissioned it—but the Barcelona Pavilion. Demolished the following year, it became a dazzling modernist specter in photographs and renderings until rebuilt in the Catalan city in 1986.

The lasting benefits for cities can be found in their fabric. The profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 provided London with Albertopolis, with its still-flourishing museums like the V&A. Paris was left with a host of buildings from successive expositions including the Eiffel Tower, once intended as temporary. Whether the traces left behind are sublime or ridiculous is subjective—Brussels has the Atomium; Seattle, the Space Needle; Melbourne, its Royal Exhibition Building; Montreal, Habitat 67 and the bones of the Biosphere; Nashville, a life-size replica of the Parthenon. In a deeper sense, World’s Fairs changed the way citizens moved around and engaged with their cities from the initiation of the Paris Métro to the Vancouver Skytrain. Land was reclaimed in Chicago and Liege. Ghent, Vienna, and Suita were redeveloped. Melbourne and Barcelona were illuminated with electric lights. New roads, railways and flight paths emanated like nervous systems across countries, to bring spectators from the countryside and abroad.

Then, the Western-centric story goes, World’s Fairs fell from grace. Part of this was down to audiences simply aging. Who could blame nostalgia towards witnessing the Crystal Palace, the head of the Statue of Liberty in a Parisian park, the extra-terrestrial Trylon and Perisphere, or the Tower of the Sun? This was bolstered by the fact that many of the greatest buildings, like Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building of 1893 with its famed Golden Door, had been demolished and so attained a lost perfection in memory. World’s Fairs seemed to suit children, who would be swept up in the spectacle of monorails, geodesic domes, and Ferris wheels. They’d also fail to notice the temporary, occasionally-shoddy nature of the structures, or the fact that many Expos ran at a financial loss. When the Louisiana World Exposition capsized into bankruptcy in 1984, it seemed to confirm that the promise offered by World’s Fairs had already passed into the realm of Kodachrome photographs and Super 8 film.

It could be said that the biennales, design capitals, conferences, and conventions seen today in a multitude of fields are descendants and usurpers of the World’s Fair. The communications, computing, and media technologies which Expos first showcased to the world, from the Babbage Analytical Engine to the projector, would gradually overshadow them.

Such a view depends on where the viewer’s perspective. Just as manufacturing moved East, so too have World’s Fairs. The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) still has its headquarters in Paris but it’s notable that the World Expo Museum is now located in Shanghai, a city that saw the largest ever World’s Fair in 2010, with 246 countries taking part and 73 million total visitors. As well as broadcasting the city’s strengths globally, the event was used to reinvent the dilapidated industrial areas along the city’s riverside. Though the forthcoming Horticultural Expo in 2019 appears less ambitious, Beijing has planned a multitude of green projects for an expected 16 million visitors. Dubai, by comparison, expects around 25 million visitors for its “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” Expo in 2020. While such figures are astronomical, achievements can also be measured in other ways. Last year, the World’s Fair in the Kazakh capital Astana may have attracted a mere 4 million attendees, but it effectively, if not uncritically, shifted its image away from a backwater post-Soviet planned city.

One notable aspect to this Expo shift—not unlike that of recent Olympics—is the move from liberal democracies to more authoritarian governments. Setting aside the considerable human rights issues with these regimes, the actual processes of establishing World’s Fairs have exacted a heavy toll from parts of their societies. The Chinese government reputedly displaced 18,000 households to provide space for the Shanghai Expo, with Amnesty International highlighting the repression of female anti-eviction activists. Dubai and Kazakhstan have been similarly condemned for autocratic rule, humanitarian abuses, and corruption. In the case of the latter, the former chairman behind the Expo, Talgat Yermegiyayev, was arrested on charges of embezzling funds. Such activities are not absent in the West, with the Milan Expo of 2015 being the focus of bribery accusations and mafia-linked tenders, resulting in police raids and arrests. The lack of accountability and transparency in many of these projects can lead to inflated costs and private profit off of public investment.

How much optimism or innocence one might think World’s Fairs have lost depends on how much one believes they had to begin with. While sinister occurrences could be regarded as anomalies, they were still intrinsically connected to the festivities; the assassination of President McKinley (Buffalo, 1901) and the serial killings of H.H. Holmes (Chicago, 1893) happened amidst the overwhelming influx of Exposition visitors. Certainly, the optimism and innocence could be naivety. “No feature of the great [1904 St Louis] fair has proven to be more popular than the daily demonstrations of the effects of radium,” declared The San Francisco Call, even as this “marvelous element” was irradiating its handlers. In the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the Johns-Manville building boasted an Art Deco relief by Hildreth Meière in tribute to “Asbestos, the Magic Mineral” even as concerns about the catastrophic health impact of the material were becoming a chorus.

Accurate prophecies of what was to come happened almost in spite of the organizers rather than because of them. While the 1937 Exposition Internationale in Paris celebrated “Art and Technology in Modern Life,” the coming age was represented by belligerent Nazi and Soviet Pavilions facing each other down, while the embattled Spanish Republic unveiled Picasso’s Guernica in protest of the brutal aerial bombardment of civilians that would soon extend across Europe. The almost-utopian 1939 New York World’s Fair was directed towards “Building the World of Tomorrow” on the immediate eve of the most destructive war the world has ever seen. When the fair reopened in 1940, it was with the ominous absence of German, Soviet, Czechoslovak, and Polish participation. (The Japanese Pavilion, intended as permanent, was destroyed following Pearl Harbor.)

While globally-focused by their definition, World’s Fairs derived for a long time from narrow entrenched aristocratic and WASP-ish bands of society. With the Columbian Exposition of 1893, attempts to address the chronic under-representation of women only highlighted the inequity. Working for a fraction of the pay of her male compatriots, Sophia Hayden was commissioned to create the Women’s Building but was sacked by a committee of rich socialites for opposing their continual interference. Her exit was blamed on “nervous collapse” rather than independence and integrity. At the same fair, an exceptional team of young female sculptors were assembled, named the White Rabbits, after Lorado Taft had requested permission to employ women due to a shortage of male artists. “Hire anyone, even white rabbits, if they'll do the work,” he was told. It is notable that several of the White Rabbits including Helen Farnsworth Mears and Mary Lawrence had their “female temperaments” blamed when patrons and rivals sought to overshadow or swindle them in their later work.

It is no accident that the global reach of World’s Fairs began in the age of empire. The Great Exhibition, of Victorian London, boasted of “Works of Industry of All Nations,” whether that meant gifts from client regimes or items forcibly extracted. Often, this meant people. Some were early celebrities such as the Apache resistance leader Geronimo, who was displayed at the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo in 1901 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. At the latter, another popular attraction was the Igorot Village, populated by tribal peoples from the Philippines. The aim was to justify American colonization, internally and externally, by demonstrating the supposed barbarism of the natives compared to Western civilization. They were presented naked, covered in tattoos, and were encouraged to eat dog meat before the audience. In the succession of Colonial Exhibitions, subjugation and theft was whitewashed as a benevolent civilizing mission, even in Belgium, where the treatment of the Congolese population amounted to torture and mass murder. “Frequent and long-term contact with the Europeans has removed every type of savagery from them,” Jules Charles-Roux claimed at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, while baskets filled with severed hands were being delivered to their neighbor’s colonial administrators in Congo.

The postwar and post-colonial World’s Fairs, notable for their idealistic intentions, frequently employed symbols of progress and peace. At times, this was wishful thinking as with the Port-au-Prince Fair of 1949, which failed to anticipate the coming of Papa Doc and his murderous Tonton Macoute less than a decade later. As the Cold War deepened and led to the brink of nuclear war, the Fairs came couched in the comforting language of global harmony. The machinations behind the scenes were typically politically-charged and occasionally ill-tempered, as when a bullish Robert Moses played tough (and counter-productively) with the BIE, who reacted by calling for a boycott of his 1964 New York World's Fair. Where they were genuinely prescient was in the rise of consumerism, mass communication, and electronics—the aforementioned New York World’s Fair of 1964 had, for example, a Saarinen and Eames’ designed IBM Pavilion, with its giant “ovoid theater” egg, while General Motors resurrected their Futurama from 1939. Multinationals were gradually eclipsing states, just as nostalgic and profitable retrofutures were gradually eclipsing utopian visions of progress. 

Today, the question is whether there will be a future. As civilization tries to recover from automobile-dominated “cities of tomorrow” and the by-products of 200 years of fossil-fuel-driven progress, sustainability has become the by-word of every Expo. Some signs are encouraging. Many former sites have been turned into parks and green spaces—Milan’s Expo site is due to be turned into a verdant “innovation hub” for one—but there are perils. One is the tendency to use greenwashing language when the Fairs are hugely inefficient, in terms of pavilions being erected and demolished, as well as the energy, transport, and waste involved with catering for millions of visitors. Most expositions now come with well-intentioned proposals on eco-friendly building, sustainable urban development, and access to food as a fundamental human right—the Hannover Principles, the Shanghai Declaration, the Milan Charter—though how binding or effective they are remains to be seen.

Another is what we might call “pavilionization,” whereby environmental concerns and ideas are celebrated in award-winning venues, in place of actual industrial-scale engagement with the issues. Raising awareness can be a poor and vicarious substitute for action, especially given that climate change is demonstrably already happening. Is it enough for Expo Dubai 2020 to power half its site with renewable energy, given how much energy the city, funded on a sea of oil, uses on construction, desalination and maintaining a metropolis in the desert? Will Beijing’s effort to “bloom at the foot of the Great Wall” with its horticultural “Live Green, Live Better” Expo achieve anything more than an image relaunch of a sandstorm and smog-shrouded capital? Are cities themselves an innate part of the problem?

With the Trump administration conceding a 7 degree rise in temperature by 2100, future generations may look back not with nostalgia but with rage and disgust that the window of opportunity to negate or mitigate climate change is being wasted. Perhaps it is time to host World’s Fairs, not with noble platitudes in sparkling metropolises, but in the places facing impending catastrophe. There are potential host cities like Jakarta and Bangkok that are sinking and flooding. Cities like Lagos, Dar es Salaam, and Kinshasa that face population explosions and infrastructure implosions. There are cities where the water is running out like Cape Town, São Paulo, and Bangalore. World’s Fairs could take place in any of the nine Indian cities that dominate the top 10 worst for global air pollution. Or they could be hosted in the Siberian cities at risk from melting permafrost like Salekhard, Norilsk, and Anadyr.

Expositions will continue to reflect humanity’s concerns, distractions, and delusions. While it’s important not to blame the mirror for the reflection, it’ll be vital to move it closer to the unsightly unfolding realities. Many will lament the death of optimism, but it may well be pessimism that offers any real chance of hope.

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