Last week I had the opportunity to visit the National Building Museum in Wasington, D.C. Set well beyond the National Mall and the Smithsonian Campus, the National Building Museum is housed in an imposing brick structure formerly the home of the D.C. Pension Bureau. The Museum's featured exhibition was a retrospective on America's World's Fairs of the 1930s, five in all: Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, New York, San Francisco.
The exhibit was a surprisingly thorough look at the planning, culture, technology, architecture and design that went into each of these unique events. Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress expo was organized to inspire a nation in the throes of a depression. New York's 1939 World's Fair celebrated the globalized world of tomorrow, personified most memorably by the famous Trylon and Perisphere and Henry Dreyfuss' Democracity as its centerpiece. To close out the decade in 1939 and 1940, San Francisco engineered the man-made Treasure Island for the Pageant of the Pacific, a celebration of Pacific culture and America's Manifest Destiny fulfilled.
While the exhibit was a great history lesson and a fun bit of retronauting (see: Westinghouse's Elektro the Motoman) I was most intrigued by the show's conclusion. In the "World's Fairs Today" section, the historians made the typical case about the interconnectedness of the modern era and the decline in demand and need for these global celebrations. The conclusion also added that the United States had its membership revoked by the B.I.E (the Bureau of International Expositions) after not paying its dues for two years, thus rendering the U.S. ineligible to ever host the event again. Additionally, Congress no longer allocates funds for a U.S. Pavilion at any World Exposition. This resulted in a rather embarrassing (yet still surprisingly popular) U.S. Pavilion at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. Funded by sixty multi-national corporations, the pavilion was designed by a foreign architect (a Canadian no less) and featured only three short video presentations -- not exactly reminiscent of the American Dream showcased so fantastically in the early 20th century.
While I understand the need to cut back and decrease anything deemed superfluous in the days of debt ceilings and soaring unemployment, I cannot help but wish that we (America) still had the desire to participate in and host these inspiring creative events. Having spent the last few weeks working in D.C. and admiring the amazing public monument and museum that is the city itself, I feel that we again need a meaningful celebration of American ingenuity, industriousness, and creativity to inspire the world and our own citizens. It is no secret that our recent global headlines as a nation have been ones of disappointment, fraud, war-mongering, and ineptitude but that is not the country I want to be a part of.
The five World's Fairs the United States hosted in the 1930s came on the heels of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, a time when the nation needed inspiration and hope for a brighter future. After rising to the status of a world power shortly after the turn of the century, America had fallen into its greatest economic downturn ever. It was our ingenuity, creativity, and ability to deal with adversity (two wars, a nuclear threat) that powered us to even greater accomplishments by the 1960s and 70s. Today we face a similar impasse. With the threats of a "double dip" recession, the teetering European economy, and a growing polarization of extreme views domestically, we again need the inspiration the World's Fairs brought nearly a century ago, bringing us together as Americans and citizens of a unified World.
While it may seem ill-timed or even negligent to host a massive, costly celebration right now, I see the potential of such a convocation: bringing international energy and focus to down-and-out urban centers in need of global energy and influence. Perhaps this desire is really just a bit of design-nostalgia, a wish that our modern cities were a mix of planned triumphs and teeming growth. Maybe the future truly does lie more in digital connections, leaving the spectacle and pageantry of the world's fair as a decidedly twentieth-century exploit.
Side-note: one of my favorite features of the exhibit was the Official Exposition Colors for the 1939 World's Fair. I've recreated it in its entirety here on my personal blog. It is a beautifully fitting palette for the Fair's theme and many of the colors still seem fresh today.
Willem Van Lancker is a product designer (UX) at Google with a passion for ethnography, maps, data visualization, and producing delightful user experiences.
Willem came to Google from IDEO where he worked as a communication designer focusing on understanding business systems and organizations through visual communication. Previous to IDEO, Willem worked for Apple, where he designed user interfaces for products including iPhone and iPad, and adidas, where he created new brand identities for various major league sports teams respectively.
Willem is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a degree in Graphic Design. While at RISD, Willem teamed with a small group of Brown and RISD students to create A Better World by Design, a now-annual three-day conference encouraging social and environmental impact within educational policy. He also served as a researcher and core member for RISDâ€™s Strategic Plan, charting a new course for RISDâ€™s academic programs and student life initiatives focused on how students of different disciplines can innovate through collaboration.
When he is not working on new innovations for Google, Willem can be found writing, sailing, playing squash (both the sport and the gourd), following English (and American) football, and occasionally regretting the decision to eat that bacon-wrapped hotdog from a food-cart in the Mission District.