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On its 50th Birthday, a Look at the Starchitecture of the '64 World's Fair

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On this day 50 years ago, on a 646-acre swatch of Queens, the 1964 New York World's Fair unveiled the future. Here architects built a world The Jetsons (which debuted in '62) might have encountered: disk-shaped rooms perched on white pillars, curving white bands arching above a Ford automobile display, and an egg on stilts, where IBM gave most visitors their first one-on-one interaction with computers. Inspired by an incipient Space Age and girded with the most modern of building materials, things like fiberglass, stainless steel, and reinforced concrete, designers produced an environment ripe for a consumer tech show, one where the General Electric Carousel of Progress, the US Royal tire-shaped Ferris wheel, and Wisconsin's display of the World's Largest Cheese could delight Baby Boomers, then children, and offer optimism at a time when socio-political springs—including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War—were repressed and ready to pop.

The fair's theme, "Peace Through Understanding," became a lens in which to exhibit "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," a motto represented in exhibits on color TVs and Picturephones, in 12-story stainless-steel Unispheres, and, of course, in the It's a Small World ride, which made its debut at the fair. In the decades that passed, the themes and environs of the fair—on display in Curbed NY's recent gallery of archival photos—came to define the aesthetic of the period as a whole, one entrenched in an eclectic and optimistic blend of the atomic power and Googie architecture. The fair was a reflecting pool for the years between 1957 and '67, when the Cold War simmered, the Space Age bloomed, and popularized air flight made everything more reachable.

Though Baby Boomers are quick to wax starry-eyed poetic about their first 'Bel-Gem Brussels Waffle' at the Belgium pavilion or their first boat tour through It's a Small World, the fair, at the time, was far from universally beloved. Not only was the 1964 New York World's Fair not formally sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions—the transnational authority on official World Expos—but, actually, its architecture, too, was somewhat throttled by critics, who thought it all disjointed and saccharine. In fact, publications in Europe took to calling it a "street fair," the ultimate snub for a World's Fair, and mocked it's laissez-faire, privatized approach to architecture, which allowed for grounds covered with flashy and highly commercial structures. (Oh hey there, Sinclair Oil's Dinoland.) The late, great, New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it, on the whole, "disconnected" and "grotesque," writing that the fair lacked "any unity of concept or style."

That's not, however, to call it entirely dilettantish; in fact, many hot designers of the era were well represented, including Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and the Eameses. To celebrate 50 years since the opening of the fair, and its influence in characterizing an era, here's a look at the projects crafted by the most influential design minds of the time, including a display lauded as "pop art at its best," a 22,000-square-foot terrazzo map on the floor, and a hydraulic-powered, movable "People Wall":

Philip Johnson's New York State Pavilion

Created with the colors and levity of a circus tent and the sweeping, space-cadette scope of the architectural era, the New York State Pavilion became the 1964 World's Fair's keystone structure. New York's then-governor, Nelson Rockefeller, nabbed famous American modernist (and glass house enthusiast) Philip Johnson to create the fair's largest structure, one that would emblazon the fairgrounds with proof of New York's innovativeness and spectacle. Author Nathan Silver, who chronicles ruined urban spaces in his book Lost New York, writes that the superstructure "somehow captured, without belittling, the spirit of public assembly for entertainment." Johnson aimed for, according to an organization dedicated to preserving the pavilion, "an unengaged free space as an example of the greatness of New York, rather than a warehouse full of exhibit material." To build Johnson's vision, structural engineer Lev Zetlin's team built the bicycle-wheel-style roof on the ground, then "carefully jacked [it] on the top of the 16 columns" before fitting it into place.

Johnson designed the pavilion as a multipurpose fun zone, showing off New York's performing arts in the Theaterama, its innovations in the Tent of Tomorrow, and its scenery in the Astro-View Towers (↑), which were inspired by the buildings of Superman's Krypton. In the center was a place for street performers and a small zoo. The floor, a 22,000-square-foot terrazzo replica of a state road map, was then the largest two-dimensional map ever created, consisting of 567 four-feet-square tile, costing $1M to make, and calling upon the experts at map publisher Rand McNally.

Photo by littleny/Shutterstock

As one of the last structures left on the fairgrounds, the New York State Pavilion was opened by officials for today and today only, offering the public (and their Instagram followers) a perusal of the ruins. Preservationists hope to raise money to fund its restoration, a project estimated to cost $72M.

George Nelson's Irish Pavilion

Irish architect Andrew Devane, who was tasked with creating the building for the Irish Pavilion, tapped midcentury designer and Herman Miller standby George Nelson, whose designs range from marshmallow sofas to bubble lamps to full-blown houses, to craft the interiors. Nelson produced what is appears to be, well, classic Nelson: an open and window-encased room with minimalist seating, primary colors, and familiar shapes done up in unexpected ways. Thematically, Nelson wanted to emphasize Irish literature, which encountered a monumental renaissance in the decades leading to the '64 fair, largely led by the likes of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Along the back wall, visitors saddled up to listening stations to hear Irish literature being read. Floating above were cubes covered in author portraits and quotes. According to the George Nelson Foundation, the American Institute of Architects lauded the exhibition and presented it with an award.

Eero Saarinen's IBM Pavilion

Finnish-American modernist Eero Saarinen, whose life's work spanned from slick and sloping airport terminals to the Tulip and Womb chairs of Mad Men sets to masterful full-on houses, may have died in 1961, but IBM, one of the designer's long-time client, ended up realizing his firm's mockups for its pavilion. Working with Charles and Ray Eames, who created many of the interactive displays housed by the structure, Saarinen designed what is essentially an egg—ahem, a prolate spheroid—propped on 45 rust-colored metal trees.

The egg, carved with the letters "IBM" repeated 1,000 times, was actually a theater that perched 90 feet above the fairground, suspended over a faux grove of exhibition courts and puppet theaters. The "People Wall" (↑), a steep, 12-tier grandstand seating structure, hydraulically lifted visitors into the egg from below. In the grove, visitors got to see a mainframe computer translate Russian as well as interacted with a handwriting recognition program that read the date people wrote down and told them historical facts about it. Apparently, for thousands, this was the first direct interaction they had with a computer.

Charles and Ray Eames' IBM Exhibitions

The film shown inside IBM's spheroid "Information Machine" was the creation of husband-and-wife design duo Charles and Ray Eames. Think, as the show was called, used 14 large screens and eight small ones to explain how computers use human logic, like how many chairs to include for a dinner party, to solve enormously complex problems, like weather prediction.

Down below the canopy of the pavilion's fake trees, the Eameses also created an exhibition that showcased the widely practiced whimseys of, um, math. Mathematica … A World of Numbers and Beyond demonstrated "the richness of [math's] ideas and the variety of its aspects" by offering interactive experiments "intended to show the joy and excitement that mathematics find in pursuing their science." Yeah, OK. If you say so, Charles and Ray.

Jo Mielziner's Bell Pavilion

By the time the World's Fair opened, Jo Mielziner was already known about town as a premier set designer, producing scenes for the plays and musicals of Broadway's Golden Age. For the 400-foot "floating wing" of the Bell System Pavilion (↑), which he worked on with the architects at Harrison & Ambramovich, Mielziner conceived of a theatrical ride that took visitors (in batches of 1,000!) through the wild and raucous escapades history of the technology of communication.

The event itself, wherein ride-goers sat on cocoon chairs that swished on a conveyor belt, implemented some totally fresh cinematic techniques. The 14-minute ride whisked people through 50 three-dimensional video scenes, while original music thrummed from individual speakers within the seats.

George Nelson's Chrysler Pavilion

Nelson beat out 32 other firms in the competition to design the Chrysler Pavilion. Despite the fact that Chrysler's budget was, as the George Nelson Foundation describes, "but a fraction of what the competition at Ford and General motors had planned," Nelson's setup was elaborate, boasting cars on a moat, a merry-go-round built with little French Simca cars, a zoo "with animals made of car parts," a 64-foot-long Chrysler auto, and a superstructure housing four theaters. Life critic Vincent Scully called it "the surprise of the World's Fair" and "pop art at its best." The exhibition's cartoonish look, and the fact that the fair was in the height of the car culture era, meant Nelson's pavilion was the third-most-visited place at the fair.

Jo Mielziner's Pietà

Mielziner also set the stage for Michaelangelo's La Pietà, a marble sculpture that, until 1964, hadn't left the Vatican since it was brought to the Old St. Peter's Basilica in 1499. The Official Guide to New York's World Fair called "the most important work of art at the fair." For his part, Mielziner created an softly-lit, fabric-encased environment swathed in midnight blue and lit from above.

George Nelson's Hall of Presidents

Yes, there's a reason why Nelson's receptionist recalled the World's Fair as being one of the largest projects the firm had ever taken on: Nelson's team had its hands full with all of his commissions. His third, the Hall of Presidents at the Federal Pavilion, was a directive that came straight from President Kennedy, who, according to the George Nelson foundation, "wanted to see important objects and documents from the history of the American presidents on display." The original Bill of Rights and inaugural address of George Washington were on view in this circular hall.

Bonus: Designs of Walt Disney

More prolific than any of these designers, however, was professional wonderland creator Walt Disney, who was the mastermind behind the Pepsi-sponsored It's a Small World ("a Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children"), the General Electric-sponsored Progressland, which included the revolving auditorium known as the Carousel of Progress, and Ford's Magic Skyway, a pavilion that showcased the world's first Ford Mustangs as well as the prototypes for Disneyland's PeopleMover, and, you know, audio-animatronic dinosaurs.

· Recalling a Vision of the Future [NYT]
· History of Philip Johnson's New York State Pavilion [People for the Pavilion]
· George Nelson at New York World's Fair [George Nelson Foundation]
· Celebrating the 1964 New York World's Fair [NYWF64]
· All Philip Johnson coverage [Curbed National]
· All Eero Saarinen coverage [Curbed National]
· All Eames coverage [Curbed National]
· All George Nelson coverage [Curbed National]