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  • Writer's pictureRadomir Kobryn-Coletti

Vistas of the World's Fairs

"The true function of architecture is to shelter and enhance man's life on earth and to fulfil his belief in the nobility of his existence." - Daniel Burnham.

The early world exhibitions, also known as international expositions, were large-scale events that showcased the cultural, scientific, and technological achievements of many nations in the great cities of the world. The first world exhibition was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, which was held in London in 1851. It was organized by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, and it was housed in the Crystal Palace, a massive glass and iron structure that was built specifically for the event. The Great Exhibition was a huge success and attracted over six million visitors from around the world.

Crystal Palace London Exhibition 1851

Inside the Crystal Palace London Exhibition 1851 large image

America Exhibition, American pavilion inside Crystal Palace London Exhibition 1851

Animal Skins, Fur, inside the London Great Exhibition 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

Russia pavilion, Russian exhibition the London Great Exhibition 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

Art, pottery and antiques sold at the London Great Exhibition 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

Hardware sold at the London Great Exhibition 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

Other early world exhibitions included the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which featured grand inventions such as Foucault's Pendulum and Loysel's hydrostatic percolator, capable of producing fifty-thousand cups of coffee on a daily basis. Following the success of the 1851 'Crystal Palace' fair in London many other cities all across the world from Vienna, Barcelona and Turin in Europe to Melbourne, Australia Lima, Chile and Tokyo in Japan.

These early world exhibitions were designed to promote international cooperation and understanding, and they helped to spur economic development and technological advancement around the world.

Over time, world exhibitions became more and more elaborate, featuring pavilions, performances, and demonstrations from participating countries and organizations. They also focused on particular themes, such as the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris which focused on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, which was held to celebrate the achievements of the past century. Of course, the 1889 Exposition in Paris was most famous for building the Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the world at the time (and four decades following) and it served as the entrance to the Paris exposition.

1889 Exposition Universelle de Paris postcard art high quality image large world fair Paris

But in this article, I'd like to focus on The Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair, which was held in Chicago in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492 to America. The fair covered over 600 acres, featuring nearly 200 new buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals, lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. It was a showcase of American innovation and industry, including new technologies such as the telephone, typewriter, and the first Ferris wheel. The fair attracted over 27 million visitors and had a significant impact on the development of Chicago and American society.

John R Key painting of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893, golden statue at the court of honor, honour. colour.

Colour painting of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893 in color. Large, high quality, high resolution.

How did they construct so many large buildings in so little time?

Creating 200 new buildings in less than 3 years was no small task. One of the most notable construction methods used at the fair to rapidly construct was the "staff" technique. This method involved covering a wooden frame with a mixture of 'Plaster of Paris' (ground gypsum and/or whiting and water) and then reinforced with fibres such as hemp, burlap, cellulose, burlap or jute to create a lightweight and fire-resistant material that could be moulded into a variety of shapes. This allowed architects to create highly ornate and detailed buildings that were both affordable and relatively easy to construct. This technique was used to create many of the ornate and detailed buildings at the fair, including the Palace of Fine Arts, which featured a large dome and detailed sculptures, and the Agricultural Building, which featured a large central dome and multiple smaller domes. However, it was also relatively fragile and the buildings made of it were not meant to last, so sadly nearly all of the buildings were demolished after the fair.

colour painting of the Chicago World's Fair, Columbian Exposition of 1893

colour painting in color of the Chicago World's Fair, Columbian Exposition of 1893

arch colour painting in color of the Chicago World's Fair, Columbian Exposition of 1893

The fairground was designed to be a model city, with wide boulevards, parks, and lakefronts. The fair also popularized the neoclassical architectural style and the 'City Beautiful movement' which aimed to make cities more beautiful and liveable.

The following images are all from the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and are realistic illustrations of the fair as seen by The Poole Brothers in their Art color series "Vistas of the Fair in Color" published from 1894 onwards.

mining building poole brothers colour painting vistas in color of the Chicago World's Fair, Columbian Exposition of 1893

machinery hall at night poole brothers colour painting vistas in color of the Chicago World's Fair, Columbian Exposition of 1893

What was the City Beautiful Movement?

The City Beautiful movement was inspired by the grand public spaces and monumental architecture of ancient civilizations and European cities, and sought to replicate these elements in American cities. The City Beautiful movement was particularly influential in the design of new city centres and park systems, as well as the development of civic centres and government buildings. The movement was based on the ideas that 'beautification of cities' could help restore and improve urban life.

A principle belief of this new school of urban design was that a more beautiful city would remove social ills such as crime and poverty, as the beauty of the city would inspire civic loyalty and moral fortitude in the impoverished.

The inspiration of architectural design would come from the heights of Europe culture, being the Beaux-Arts style, as popularised by the leading cities of the day, and leading arts academies such as the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris from whence the name 'Beaux-Arts' derived. It would serve to demarcate new buildings in America as on par with Europe and show that the United States was too a leading nation of arts and culture. Their was a strong sense of duty towards the public by the leading architects and designers of the day, with a continuation of the Renaissance ideals that public art and sculptures were for the benefit of the public and promoted an enhanced state of being. Finally, due to many inner urban areas of American cities becoming dirty, crime ridden and unpopular for the wealthy (not unlike today) by beautifying the city centres, the City Beautiful movement's ideas when put into practice would ensure the upper classes would be attracted to return and spend more money in the cities cores.

The Columbian Exposition was the only true physical manifestation of the ideas of the the City Beautiful movement. The design for the main fairground, nicknamed the 'White City', was the antithesis to the 'Black City' of industrial revolution Chicago, buildings stained with soot and polluted slums of emigrant workers. The grand public spaces, formal gardens, and Beaux-Arts architecture of the Columbian Exposition reflected the ideals of beauty both grand and tranquil, environmental harmony and walkable spaces. It was indeed the most significant and extraordinary example of the possibilities for an entirely new imagined world. It was supposed to be the model that all future American cities would follow...

Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, who were responsible for the overall layout and design of the fairground were the brains and visionaries behind the exposition.

Daniel Burnham was one of the most prominent architects of the time, and was known for his work on large-scale public works projects and one of the leading minds behind the City Beautiful movement. Burnham was responsible for the overall design and layout of the 'White City' fairground, and was responsible for many of the buildings, including the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, which was one of the largest buildings at the fair.

Frederick Law Olmsted was an American landscape architect and urban planner, who was known for his work on large-scale public parks, including Central Park in New York City. He was responsible for the landscape design of the fairground, including the formal gardens and parks, which were intended to showcase the natural beauty of the Midwest and provide visitors with a relaxing and peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the fair.

In addition to Burnham and Olmsted, many other prominent architects of the time, including Charles B. Atwood, Charles McKim, and Louis Sullivan, were also involved in the design of the fair.

A notable statue at the fair was "The Republic" by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, which was located at the centre of the 'Court of Honor'. The statue was a representation of the Goddess of Liberty and was intended to symbolize the ideals of freedom and democracy that the fair and its visionary designers were aiming to achieve. Frédéric Bartholdi was also the same sculptor who designed the famous Statue of Liberty, in New York City.

In summary, some of the great world's fairs at the turn of the century, showcased some of the most magnificent displays of architecture, art, science and technology and are unparalleled to this day in their ambition and physical design. The high and noble ideals espoused by the creators of these fairs and the optimistic grand visions sought by architects like Burnham of the Chicago Columbian Exhibition were never reached by any newly built city in America or elsewhere to this day. The temporary buildings and exhibitions demonstrate to us a level of beauty and architectural wonder that were sadly not replicated or remembered enough to serve as inspiration for model cities and urban planning during the 20th century. Politicians, city planners, architects and designers would be wise to revisit the spectacular philosophy of the City Beautiful movement and rediscover the well thought out ideas and visions for a magnificent, healthier and more liveable world.

"Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.” - - Daniel Burnham

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