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World’s Fairs: EXPOs in the 20th and 21st Centuries (part 2)


robert simpson founder of electrosonicIn October 2011 a TiLE Forum was held in Florence, Italy. The opening session was devoted to the EXPO or World’s Fair. Robert Simpson (left), Founder Director of Electrosonic, gave an overview talk “The EXPO phenomenon” describing its origins and development through to the 21st century.

The article that follows is a summary of the second part of the talk, describing the EXPOs of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

A previous article “EXPO Beginnings” concluded with the statement: “A reasonable conclusion is that all the main elements of what we now call “EXPOs” were in place in the 19th Century. The excitement of new ideas, the making of the same mistakes over and over again, the crowd problems, transport systems, exciting architecture, curious exhibits, and even ambitious AV systems were all there in 1900!”Robert Simpson Electrosonic World's Fairs Expo 58

Related: World's Fairs: Expo Beginnings (part 1)/ Aspects of EXPO 2010 -an Audiovisual ReviewAudiovisual technology: A short history of the videowall 

So what happened next? In the years 1901 – 1939 around 36 International Exhibitions were held, everywhere from Buffalo to Turin; St Louis to Ghent; San Diego to Barcelona. Not surprisingly there was no activity in the war years 1939 -1945, and significant developments in the EXPO field did not really start again until 1958 in Brussels.

EXPO 58 suffered from a “free for all” in space planning which meant that some pavilions were obscured by overbearing neighbours and led to tighter regulation for subsequent EXPOs. It was notable for the “cold war” stance of the giant USA and USSR pavilions, where the USA emphasized quality of life and consumer goodies, but the USSR emphasized science and technology, especially space technology.

Disney had developed Circlevision™, a 360° film system, in 1955 and it was a huge draw at EXPO 58, sited in an annexe to the USA Pavilion. EXPO 58 was also the first appearance outside Prague of Laterna Magica, the amazing Czech fusion of projection and live action wrobert simpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 58 uk pavilionhich was to re-appear at EXPO 67. Philips commissioned Le Corbusier to design its pavilion which featured an innovative sound and lighting show using 300 loudspeakers to provide striking spatial sound effect.

The main UK pavilion was a delight, made even better by the presence of the Britannia Pub. The exhibit content was designed by James Gardner, who introduced a sense of humour sadly lacking in other parts of the EXPO (and also in the rather dreary trade exhibition that was tacked on to the back of the UK Pavilion).

EXPO 67 in Montreal may be considered both the most influential and the most fun EXPO of the 20th Century. It occurred just before the rise of themed attractions and only at the start of cheap mass travel, and succeeded in creating a sense of wonder that has been difficult for succeeding EXPOs to emulate.Robert simpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 67 uk pavilion

The UK Pavilion was among the most popular, largely thanks to James Gardner’s “Britain Today” exhibit which caught the spirit of the 1960s. Both this exhibit and those by other designers (including Sean Kenny and Theo Crosby) made clever use of AV techniques where the technology was integrated into the exhibits in a way that was to have a great influence on museum and visitor centre design.robert soimpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 67 labyrinth

Remembered best from EXPO 67 are the giant multi-screen movie presentations and the work of the Czechs. In the “Man the Explorer” Pavilion robert simpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 67 kinoautomat czech pavilionGraeme Ferguson and colleagues presented “Polar Life”, using multiple 70mm projectors and a rotating auditorium. Disney produced a Circlevision™ production for the Telephone Pavilion, and The National Film Board of Canada presented unconventional film formats in the Labyrinth Pavilion amongst many others.

But the Czechs stole the show. Apart from reprising Laterna Magica in the entertainment section of EXPO, the Czechoslovakia Pavilion itself had three innovative presentations that were to have enormous influence on multi-media design. Radúz Cincera created Kinoautomat, an interactive cinema that allowed the audience to choose the story direction. An amazing production was Diapolyecran, a show using 112 moving back projection screens with 224 slide projectors, and Polyvision used a mixture of slide and film projection onto unconventiorobert simpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 67 diapolyecrannal imaging surfaces.

Next up was EXPO 70, in Osaka, Japan. It was no surprise that exhibitors there tried to emulate EXPO67’s successes, but the general view was that such efforts were derivative rather than original. However Osaka held the record for attendance (64 million in six months) for 40 years. The USA and USSR were still facing off, this timerobert simpson electrosonic worl's fairs expo 70 USA pavilion in respect of space exploration. The USA won on points because it exhibited real moon rock.

EXPO 70 heralded the birth of IMAX. Graeme Ferguson and colleagues had been frustrated by the need to use multiple cameras in their quest to get giant images for their EXPO 67 productions; so working with engineer William Shaw, they developed  IMAX, a system using 70mm film running sideways, so each giant frame used 15 perforations of film instead of the usual five.

robert simpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 70 fuji pavilionThe first public showing of IMAX was in the Fuji Pavilion at EXPO 70. The IMAX format became a mainstay of prestige EXPO Pavilions in succeeding years, and hundreds of permanent installations followed.

The Fuji Pavilion was an example of an EXPO trend to include corporate pavilions. The early international expositions had corporate support, but mainly as the providers of exhibits within throbert simpson electrosonic worls'd fairs expo 86 GM pavilionemed pavilions. The idea of complete pavilions being corporate came later, particularly in the USA. In the second half of the 20th Century they became prominent features of Pacific Rim EXPOs.

General Motors had a giant pavilion at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, but a much more subtle presence at EXPO 86 in Vancouver. While the pavilion did have transport related exhibits, the show that everyone wanted to see was “Spirit Lodge” produced by Bob Rogers. This was an auditorium show based on a clever combination of live action and projection, narrated by an American Indian. Visitors thought that they had seen the latest holographic projection, but actually the effects were produced by traditional stagecraft.

robert simpson electrosonic world's fairs expo 85 NEC Pavilion expo 93 samsung pavilionCorporate pavilions were to the fore at EXPO 85 in Tsukuba, Japan, with many giant film presentations; but big electronic imagery had started to arrive, The NEC pavilion had a large back projected videowall, driven by laser discs. The show was space themed, and copied the precedent set by the Czechs in 1967 by allowing the audience to choose the route of the spacecraft. EXPO 85 was also notable for a 45m diagonal outdoor videoscreen – the Sony Jumbotron™.

Another major corporate example, in which the pavilion embraced completely the theme park approach, was the Samsung Pavilion at EXPO 93 in Taejon, Korea. This took visitors on a space journey using two giant simulator platforms that could each accommodate 60 people.

The most fun EXPO in Europe in recent times was EXPO 92 in Sevilla. European EXPOs have had less overt corporate participation, although the Telephone Companies of Europe got together to sponsor the Telecommunications Pavilion at EXPO 92, which featured the world’s biggest videowall made from 850 “traditional” monitors.

robert simpson electrosonic world's fairs parades and water showsParades have become a popular component of EXPOs, and EXPO 92 had the best parade, with a very witty production by a group from Barcelona. Another component was a night time lake show incorporating giant water screens; this approach had first been seen at EXPO 90 in Osaka, and went on to be seen in Lisbon EXPO 98, Hanover EXPO 2000, and, in a very weird show, Aichi, Japan, EXPO 2005.

The most recent EXPO was EXPO 2010 in Shanghai. This was the biggest ever, with 73 million visitors, 250 exhibitors and a 5.28 site. The crowds, security checks, high summer temperatures, and long distances between pavilions made it a daunting experience. Longest queues, at eight hours, were generated by the Saudi Pavilion. However, there were some good things to be seen.

Notable was that all projected images were now electronic, the use of film in the EXPO environment had ended with the turn of the century. Using image blending techniques, images could now be any size, for example the Saudi Pavilion had a 1600 sq.m. screen.

robert simpson electrosonic world's fairs pavilionsMemorable pavilions included the host China Pavilion with its outstanding “River of Wisdom” exhibit, the amazing “basket” pavilion of Spain, the high quality, and clever, Germany Pavilion and the enigmatic UK Pavilion.

Reviewing the EXPOs that have taken place over the past 60 years leads to a couple of conclusions and a couple of questions.

  • The EXPO has not really changed – the pattern was set in the 19th Century.
  • People are still curious and like spectacle. Pavilions with “shows” are the most popular with the public. But walk-throughs with stimulating content can succeed.
  • How does one make the EXPO visit relevant to today’s audience?
  • How does one solve the problem that an EXPO has multiple objectives, some of which conflict with, and adversely affect, the visitor experience?


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