DUBAI: Although the term mega event had not yet been coined, there is no question that the first-ever World Expo at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 was just that. The Great Exhibition was a high-profile spectacle that changed the face of the Victorian capital and captivated the world.
Such was the success of this inaugural World Expo that a grand tradition of international exhibitions, hosted by different cities around the world, was born.
To this day, World Expos are considered a powerful tool for cultural expression and economic development, their impact felt for decades after in the form of trade and diplomatic exchanges.
World Expos are also widely recognized for their architectural legacy. Host nations often invest huge sums in infrastructure projects, vying with one another for signature structures. The iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris was famously unveiled as the centerpiece of the French-hosted 1889 Exposition Universelle.
In 1893, the organizing committee for the World Expo in Chicago was deeply concerned about how to out-Eiffel Eiffel, leading to some truly fringe concepts. One of the suggested designs for Chicago’s signature structure was a replica of the globe spanning 300 meters (the height of the Eiffel Tower), and a scale model of one of explorer Christopher Columbus’ ships.
Another concept called for the construction of a towering spire three kilometers in height — more than three times taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — from which a network of elevated rails would connect Chicago to other cities, including New York, and Boston. Needless to say, the concept was not approved.
The enormous popularity of the Eiffel Tower triggered fierce competition. But although the tower is perhaps the most enduring icon of World Expo architecture, its construction was not without controversy.
In 1886, just three years before the Exposition Universelle was scheduled to coincide with the centenary of the French Revolution, the organizing committee put out a call for design proposals for a fitting Parisian monument.
One of these proposed building a 300-meter guillotine, a grisly reference to the regicidal excesses of the French Revolution. The idea was predictably rejected and the concept for what would become the world’s tallest structure of its day was given the go-ahead.
Originally derided as a “tragic streetlamp” by many of the French cultural elite, the Eiffel Tower turned out to be exceptionally popular among visitors.
The structure was supposed to be torn down 20 years after the Expo, but during World War I it proved to be an excellent radio transmitter in support of the French war effort. Today, the Eiffel Tower is the most visited monument in the world.
With World Expos growing in scale and ambition, they nurtured global curiosity about distant and exotic nations. As the number of visitors touched millions, the cultural and ideological influence of World Expos had become palpably manifest.
At the 1937 World Expo in Paris, the pavilions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany offered two very different responses to the theme of modern life. The two pavilions — designed by, respectively, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler’s favorite architects — even faced one another in a kind of microcosmic standoff between two totalitarian regimes.
The German architect had somehow managed to lay his hands on the design specifications for the Soviet pavilion in advance and used them to literally one-up the Soviets, making the Nazi pavilion taller and more imposing.
The perceived confrontation between the two powers was widely interpreted by the media as representative of Europe’s secret hope that war could be averted if the two regimes could be pitted against one another. History, of course, tells a different story.
By the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, it was the US and the Soviet Union’s turn to face off in a game of Cold War brinkmanship. Tensions were high, but the exhibition offered a rare opportunity for direct contact when 16,000 Soviet citizens travelled to the West for the event.
As part of its strategy to weaken communist influence, America’s Central Intelligence Agency commissioned a special Russian-language print run of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, set against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution, and partnered with the Vatican pavilion to distribute copies. In the pavilion, called Civitas Dei (City of God), the secret book was pressed into the hands of Soviet visitors.
The CIA considered the mission a success. However, Pasternak had not been informed of the plan or its execution and was none too happy about it, especially since the CIA edition was littered with errors. However, the operation may have helped pave the way for Pasternak to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
For visitors, experiential and immersive attractions often constitute the core of the World Expo experience. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, Spanish artist Salvador Dali designed a surrealist funhouse called Dream of Venus intended to counter the fair’s focus on progress and modernity.
One critic said: “The world of machines, cars, and robots had been replaced — or should one say challenged — by a universe of dreams where one could feel a sense of decadence which no doubt clashed with the proposed cleanliness, order, and clarity of the surroundings. What one saw in the pavilion, in fact, was blurred, confusing, not clear at all.”
The pavilion would have been even more confusing had Dali’s original plan been approved, which included live giraffes that would have been exploded as a part of the exhibit. Fortunately for the giraffes, the cruel spectacle was never allowed to happen.
The upcoming World Expo in Dubai, which opens on Oct. 1, has already unveiled its signature structure — its Eiffel for the Emirates, as it were — in the form of the awe-inspiring Al-Wasl dome, which will be used to create immersive shows, projections, and performances.
The UAE pavilion has been designed to look like a falcon at rest, complete with movable wings, while the Saudi pavilion, the largest of all participating nations, holds three Guinness World Records: For the largest LED mirror screen display, the largest interactive floor, and the longest water exhibit.
In addition to architectural wonders, Expo 2020 Dubai promises a host of cultural encounters, debuting the first Emirati opera and a range of public artworks spread across the site. The Arab tradition of storytelling will be integrated into every experience and will connect visitors from around the globe.
Over a period of 182 days, the first World Expo to take place in the Arab world will tell the region’s story and create its own piece of Expo legacy. And hopefully, true to Expo style, there will be a few surprises thrown in too.