The World as We Want It: The Expo as Experiment

As a child, visiting relatives in St. Louis, Missouri here in the United States, I’d often hear references to the 1904 World’s Fair that was held there. Officially known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Americans have tended to use the term “world’s fair” much in the same way that we refer to football as “soccer.”

I’d later find out that not only did my great-grandmother attend the world’s fair, but I discovered that the hospital I was born in was on land that was part of the site. For folks in St. Louis, the event is still an important part of the city’s identity. It not only helped St. Louis shape its identity, but pointed the way forward for the city and the nation.


Expos create their own ecosystems: ones that never leave a city. Modern-day expos are no exception, but as the medium has evolved over the years, they’ve created unique spaces that allow for a wide variety of experimentation.

Naturally, we can think of the architecture itself as being part of that experimental nature. There’s no denying that. The history of world’s fairs is often the history of architecture since 1851. However, the experimentation at an expo doesn’t limit itself to just that. There’s a sociological aspect that is even more important.

Theme parks and the Olympic games are, undoubtedly, related to expos. After all, the concept of an amusement park itself was created at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’s Midway and the Modern Olympic Games got an early boost by being a part of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Most of us have had the experience of visiting a theme park. When you enter the gates, you typically leave the rest of the world behind. The park becomes a world unto itself. It has its own logical consistency. It is its own social ecosystem. The boundaries and the themes presented become your navigational sense: not just geographically, but socially. You’re in a zone where most visitors have the same goals and you interact with both friends and strangers within that framework.

Elite athletes also talk about the Olympics as being social spaces. In Olympic venues, nationalities are certainly recognized, however the relationships between those groups can be quite different from what you’d expect. Free of the usual political constraints of the outside world, the participants create a new virtual world in the Olympic Village. It becomes a glimpse of what could be in an ideal world, but one made real in the experimental world of the Olympics.

Unlike the Olympic Games, however, the participants at expos are people from all walks of life. Millions get to participate in the experiment. And, more importantly, the participants take home the ideas inherent in such an experience into their everyday lives. People can be forever changed by an expo – and that extends to cities, regions, and even countries.

These are exciting times for expos. Milan, Italy’s Expo 2015 is likely to be a groundbreaking event: bringing the nations of the world together to talk about the varied important (and delicious) issues related to food. Astana, Kazakhstan’s Expo 2017 will bring the first world’s fair to Central Asia. And we have five cities on three continents competing for Expo 2020. The world of expos is getting larger – and truly becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

I find it very heartening that more people around the world will have access to the spirit of experimentation that is expos. Our planet’s only hope for evolving to a higher level is for everyday people to be able to see the world anew and to see how things can become better and more equitable for all of us.

You can see that vision at a world’s fair.

Opinions given by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views and position of the BIE