Knute Berger is a Seattle-based author, journalist, and commentator with a longstanding interest in Expos. He is the award-winning "Mossback" columnist for the Cascade Public Media news site Crosscut.com, Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle, where he serves as consulting historian, and Editor-at-Large for Seattle magazine. He has written several publications including “Space Needle, Spirit of Seattle”, and is a regular commentator on public radio.
By organising World Expo 1962 – which opened to the public 60 years ago this month – Seattle, then a small, globally obscure port city in the far northwest corner of the continental United States, sought to put itself on the map as an ambitious, tech-oriented city with its eye on the future. It wanted to brand itself as a “launch pad” for the Space Age and provide hope in the Cold War era. The Century 21 Exposition was architecturally ambitious, seeking to create a permanent landmark that would, like the Eiffel Tower, create an instantly recognisable symbol. The result was the Space Needle, a futuristic 184-metre-tall observation tower. The goal was to showcase the scenic beauty of the region, symbolise and dramatise Space Age architecture with its “flying saucer” motif, and prove commercially viable with the first free-standing revolving restaurant in the world.
When Vancouver, the largest city in Canada’s British Columbia province, hosted a Specialised Expo in 1986, it joined the Pacific Northwest’s other major cities, Seattle (1909, World Expo 1962), Portland (1905) and Spokane (Specialised Expo 1974) as hosts of international exhibitions. Looking back on the 35 years since Expo 1986 Vancouver, this event has also gained important symbolism as the last Expo hosted in North America, with the gap between then and now far longer than the previous interval (between 1940 and 1962) caused by the interruption of World War II.
Twenty years ago, I came away from the Hannover’s Expo 2000 with the feeling that the Expo idiom was a bit tired, perhaps drained of some of the ambition that energised earlier World Expos. It had an environmental and sustainability theme, but it lacked dramatic architectural gestures or iconic structures. Attendance was lackluster. It did reflect a greater reliance on technology for visitors: in a time before smart phones, electronic information kiosks informed visitors. The entire Luxembourg Pavilion consisted of dozens of computer terminals where visitors could send free emails to anywhere in the world. Lines for them were long. From the perspective of the average iPhone user today, such a pavilion seems antique.
Alfred Heller, dean of American Expo writers, died in December 2019 at the age of 90. Alf had attended almost every Expo since his first, the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition in his native San Francisco. He was a mentor to many of us who write on the subject. From 1981 to 1995, he published World Fair magazine, and he authored his personal memoir of Expo history and his observations, “World’s Fairs and the End of Progress: An Insider’s View,” published in 1999.
The iconic symbol of the future now stands in solidarity with our isolation.
We’re 20 years into Century 21 — the theme of the Expo 1962 Seattle – and while some wild ideas were presented at that forward-thinking event, we never imagined the future would look quite like this.
Time capsules, those repositories of artifacts concealed for the future, have a long association with Expos. A project in Seattle this year is inviting people to continue a capsule tradition at the Space Needle on the site of World Expo 1962 - Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition.
Renovations and improvements to Seattle Center, the legacy site of Expo 1962 - the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle-, continue with some ups and downs.
The Space Needle has been undergoing a USD 100 million upgrade and renovation, including the installation of the world’s only rotating glass floor called The Loupe. A television documentary on the renovation project called “The Space Needle: Remaking an Icon” by Seattle station KING-TV contains exclusive film footage of the project—including showing how the Needle has been able to remain open despite construction 152 metres in the air. The documentary recently received a local Emmy Award nomination. It is well worth watching.
Fifty-six years on, “Paul’s Paraboloid”—otherwise known as KeyArena and formerly known as the Coliseum—is going to be reborn as a shelter for Seattle’s own, brand-new National Hockey League hockey franchise. On 4 December, the NHL announced the approval of an expansion franchise in Seattle for the 2021-22 season, citing the city’s thriving market and the promise of a new “spectacularly re-designed” state-of-the-art facility. The total cost of the expansion, including the expansion fee for the hockey team and cost of the renovations, at $1.4 billion.
The arena’s roof, said to be shaped like a native Salish woven hat, was designed by Northwest modern architect Paul Thiry to top a three-acre facility for the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962. Originally it housed Washington state’s exhibits featuring a new-fangled machine called a UNIVAC computer and such exotic amenities as the Bubbleator—a plastic elevator that “took” visitors into an exhibit of the World of Tomorrow showcasing both hopeful and scary possible futures in the 21st century.
On April 21, 1962 the Century 21 Exposition opened its gates in Seattle. The six-month Expo attracted some 10 million visitors and left an indelible vision of what the future would be like for a generation coming of age in the Space Age.
The Expo was developed during the early efforts to get humans into space. It featured the first pavilion ever by NASA, the United States’ space agency. It was funded in part by federal spending spurred by the Soviet’s launch of the satellite Sputnik. And it was built during the first successful manned space flights. John Glenn’s Friendship 7 space capsule, in which the astronaut orbited the earth, was exhibited at the Expo, which was also visited by astronauts and cosmonauts.
Fifty-five years ago today, on 21 October 1962, the Seattle World’s Fair, also known as the Century 21 Exposition or Expo 1962, closed its six-month run. It had been an unqualified success with some 10 million visitors. It made a small profit, raised awareness of Seattle’s emergence as a modern tech city and provided the city with a recognisable international symbol in the Space Needle.
Striking the set on the first Space Age Expo was not the end of the story. The fair came to be because in the mid-1950s city voters had approved funding for a “civic center,” and fair boosters used that funding to leverage additional public and private money for an Expo that would result in a permanent cultural hub.
I just returned from a visit to Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Though it’s a small fair in a remote country (at least for those of us in the USA), I thought it was well done and offered more than expected.
Here a few things I enjoyed about it, and one thing I didn't.
Every Expo is a one-of-a-kind experience. Yet there are things they have in common that make the case for why everyone should go to one.
With Expo 2017 Astana coming up, here are my top reasons to go:
On April 21, 1962 - 55 years ago - Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition, also called the Seattle World’s Fair, opened its gates. My first memory of the fair dates from late 1961 when my Cub Scout group went to the top of a downtown office building. From there we could see the Space Needle rising—its iconic saucer top was just taking shape. We boys—I was eight years old at the time—were thrilled.
The theme of Century 21 was exactly one to inspire us: “Man in the Space Age.” Our small city in the far Northwest of America was becoming ground zero for the New Frontier. Science fiction was becoming reality.