Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A group of architects, engineers, and venture capitalists are pushing for it. There are obvious problems—and a not-so-obvious benefit.
When the writer Henry Adams visited the 1893 Chicago's World's Fair, he found his reaction to it "uncommonly complicated." He wrote to his friend Lucy Baxter:
A pure white temple, on the pure blue sea, with an Italian sky, all vast and beautiful as the world never saw it before, and in it the most astounding, confused, bewildering mass of art and industry, without a sign that there was any connection, relation or harmony or understanding of the relations of anything anywhere. I wonder whether the 20,000,000 visitors carried off the same sense [of chaos] that I did.
This was the Columbian Exposition, the most famous World's Fair in history. In the midst of a slumping economy and growing awareness of urban poverty, it introduced electricity to the masses and valorized productive urban life (Daniel Burnham launched his iteration of "City Beautiful" there). What perplexed a prominent 19th century intellectual would later be understood as having ushered in the 20th century.
This might help frame the news of a fundraising kick-off for a 2022 World's Fair in Los Angeles. A group of venture capitalists, architects, engineers, and marketing gurus, under the name Los Angeles World's Fair (LAWF), are brewing plans for a two-year fair showing off the technology and culture of the future—including a Hyperloop, “3D-printed gourmet delicacies,” and self-driving cars. Theme: "The Connected City." Right now, they're trying to pull together $100,000 on Indiegogo to support economic and architectural feasibility studies for their plans, which sound as chaotic and Quixotic as Adams' take on Chicago circa 1893.
"Today our beautifully diverse neighborhoods are separated by a web of jammed freeways," LAWF's website states. "If L.A. can connect all of our countless distinct communities—physically and emotionally on a global stage—then perhaps the world will see first-hand how it can be done."
LAWF—which has the support of the L.A.County Board of Supervisors and METRO Los Angeles, as well as corporate backing from the engineering firm Psomas—wants to build the first "decentralized" world's fair, with venues scattered across all 88 cities in Los Angeles County. The region's growing transit network (the latest expansions of which are slated for a 2023 completion) would serve as the fair's infrastructual and thematic underpinning.
"Angelenos are transitioning back to transit, and our approach is consistent with that," says Dotty Kaminsky, LAWF's executive director. "Each new pod or pavilion would be built within a .5 mile radius of a new or existing transit station. And it would have a second life—maybe it'd turn into a homeless shelter, or low-income housing, or an art gallery. We'd ask each community what they want."
It's an optimistic sentiment. Potential Olympic-sized ruin-porn is an obvious hurdle in LAWF's bid for public support. As CityLab has often pointed out, mega-events can be massive strains on city economies. Millions of dollars are poured into structures that get little use after the event goes dark, but continue sucking up money in maintenance requirements. "They also take up dozens of acres of valuable real state for years or decades," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist told CityLab in January. And those jobs created by construction, which Kaminsky also harped on? Well, they'd dry up.
Robert Rydell, a professor of history at Montana State University and an expert on World's Fairs, says organizers get in trouble when they conceive of fair structures as necessarily permanent.
"Some of the most successful fairs had buildings that were meant to be ephemeral," he says. "Japan's Expo in 2005 brought in about $100 million in profit, and the structures mostly came down. Chicago's World Fair buildings were wood frame and plaster. It's one of the magical qualities about these events."
At the same time, many cities have museums, structures, parks, and even plumbing that originated from World's Fairs and are still used extensively (San Diego's Balboa Park, the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, St. Louis' sewage system). And the benefits of a World's Fair are different, more complex, than an Olympic Games or a Superbowl.
"People sometimes say that World's Fairs don't mean very much anymore, but they don't appreciate how much of an impact they have on the cultural life of cities," Rydell says. "It's not just new structures; it's also the artifacts and materials that the city acquires that can inform people a century hence about what life was like."
Perhaps you've come this far, still wondering, Wait, World's Fairs still exist? Yes. They're now called Expos, they happen every five years, and can actually be quite successful. Milan is hosting one in May. It's just that there hasn't been one in the U.S. since New Orleans in 1984 (which, overshadowed by L.A.'s Olympics, went bankrupt), and there are no plans from Congress to host one any time soon. That's because the U.S. is no longer a member nation of the Bureau International des Expostions (BIE), the global regulatory body of expos and fairs. Due to the failure of the New Orleans fair and the one prior, and anti-internationalist sentiment in '90s-era Congress, the U.S. stopped paying dues to the BIE in 2001.
And that—other than, well, raising massive, massive funds—is probably the biggest challenge that the Los Angeles World's Fair currently faces. Although there have been World's Fairs not sanctioned by the BIE (take New York's heavily corporate World's Fair of 1964), they have trouble creating the sort of globally minded, wonders-of-humanity aura that official ones are known for.
"It's very difficult for member nations of the BIE to participate in a non-BIE-sanctioned event," says Rydell. "The best strategy would be to work with Congress to figure out a way for the U.S. to re-engage with the BIE."
Kaminsky says that her organization is hoping to get a partial blessing from the BIE, since their plans for a two-year event don't fit within its normal bylaws, anyways (BIE expos are six months, tops). "We are trying to run for 21 months, unsanctioned and 3 months sanctioned," she says.
Or LAWF could just invite a bunch of corporations to inhabit their fancy glass pavilions. Visit Monsanto's cricket farm! Or Sinopec's biofuel station!
But that doesn't sound very "grassroots," as Kaminsky took great pains to characterize the momentum and support behind her organization. "We are building the fair as a connected city," she says.
And a corporate fair, or none at all, would be a shame. For all the hyperbolic PR language behind the LAWF campaign, and all the bad memories of Epcot it evokes, I'm all for it. Slow and aggravating as progress might be, Los Angeles—and California—are changing the way its citizens get around. There aren't many other places in the U.S. where you can watch that kind of major transit transformation happen. Light and high-speed rail might not be exactly futuristic at this point, but they do offer hope in terms of how cities are responding to an increasingly uncertain and urbanized future.
And hope is what a World's Fair is really all about—and probably the best argument to be made for one in Los Angeles, with as many problems as it and other cities have.
"Historically, there's a correlation between interest in World's Fairs and heightened anxiety about the future," says Rydell. "When you're anxious about the world's political and economic situation, a World's Fair can offer a range of possible solutions."
Operative word: "can." As Kaminsky and her associates are surely learning, the devil will be in the details.