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When the ephemeral becomes a lasting symbol

Architectural, emblematic, cultural, social… the heritage of World Fairs is multi-faceted and enriches the landscapes of their host cities. From the initial and ephemeral gesture to the emergence of lasting symbols, here is an overview of these legacies that became one with the identity of the cities and even the countries that have hosted them.

Paris, 1889. An unloved tower that became an icon

The Eiffel Tower has not always enjoyed its symbolic status. Initially criticised for its appearance deemed unsightly, this feat of engineering was not originally designed to last. The 312-metre tower, the tallest in the world when it was unveiled, was the result of a competition organised by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to celebrate the country’s scientific and technical progress, a century after the start of the French Revolution. It was its strategic and military value, as a mast for long-distance radio communication, that ensured its continued existence. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, the Eiffel Tower is now inseparable from the City of Lights and is one of its main tourist attractions.



Seattle, 1962. A capsule suspended in space

Fancy a dinner on board a flying saucer? The city of Seattle made this futuristic dream come true, before Neil Armstrong even set foot on the moon, by building the Space Needle observation tower, the work of John Graham and Edward E. Carlson. Since its construction, the 185-metre tower has housed a rotating restaurant, accessible by external lifts that resemble space capsules. As an emblem of the city, the mere presence of the image of this UFO in films, TV series, documentaries and photographs is enough to embody the city of Seattle.



London, 1851. Hyde Park, the lungs of London

Hyde Park gained worldwide fame when it hosted the first World Fair in 1851, the Great Exhibition. The event’s iconic structure, the Crystal Palace, was built in this park, which dates back to the 17th century and is one of the largest in London. The success of the Great Exhibition, a showcase for the nation, gave rise to numerous cultural events. The park’s 140 hectares are now the lungs of the British capital, with an increasing biodiversity, more than 4,000 trees, 100 varieties of roses, and a rich fauna of birds, insects… as well as its famous squirrels.



Lisbon, 1998. Reinventing living spaces

The 1998 specialised World Fair was the opportunity for large-scale renovation of several districts west of Lisbon. Old industrial wasteland was rehabilitated to host the event. After the event, the organising company Expo Urbe repurposed the land used for the exhibition to develop over 300 hectares of housing units and offices that now form Lisbon’s main business centre. Shops, hotels, schools, universities and a hospital were also built on the redeveloped land. The exhibition was an intense accelerator for the development of the city and the country, and notably for the tourism sector.



Aichi, 2005. Rediscovering nature’s wisdom

“Nature’s wisdom”, the theme of the 2005 World Fair in Japan, showcased the hills located near Nagoya: on the site, centuries-old forests and ponds are found alongside the various pavilions built for the fair. The park, made famous by the event, remains accessible by train, allowing walkers to discover these natural spaces. The Aichi Kaisho Forest Centre was also set up after the event, to preserve the forest and its 3,400 plant and animal species.



Montreal, 1967. Habitat 67: reinventing urban housing

Habitat 67, a residential complex designed by architect Moshe Safdie, was an emblematic development for the Montreal World Fair. This idealist architectural structure of 158 apartments aimed to reconcile the quality of life of suburban houses with the density of the city, while offering tenants affordable housing. Designed to accommodate working class families, this unusual assembly of 354 concrete cubes, listed as a historic monument in 2009, offers a bird’s eye view of the river, the Old Port and the city of Montreal. It has become a popular living space and continues to be a strong architectural symbol of the city.



"Transforming exhibition pavilions into permanent venues implies defining new audiences and uses."

Bertrand Lemoine,
architect, engineer and historian, honorary director of research at CNRS.

How can we understand the evolution between the initial intention of building a structure dedicated to such an event and its subsequent use?

B. L. World Expos follow an almost theatrical scenography that brings together what they show within a given time (several months) and in a given place. Each dedicated space forges a microcosm of the world and reflects its latest developments and innovations at a given moment. From this point of view, everything is, by its very nature, ephemeral at a World Expo. However, the necessary investment means that the buildings are preserved to a greater, lesser or monumental extent and in a more or less concerted manner from the outset. Transforming the pavilions into permanent venues means defining new audiences and uses. It is no longer a question of showing what is being done but what can last over time.

To what extent do these infrastructures become symbols and heritage in their own right?

B. L. World Expos are unique events for the cities that host them and it is only natural that they want to preserve the legacy of such splendour. In reality, things are more complex. The Eiffel Tower is a unique case: its scientific use has allowed it to outlast the 20-year concession of the land on which it was built. Its strategic and military value surpassed the symbolic and architectural value and guaranteed its survival. Today, the building has taken on a different dimension from that of the 1889 Paris World Fair, which was the basis for it. The Grand and Petit Palais were built from the outset as buildings intended to remain permanent after the 1900 Paris Exposition. This pursuit of long-term sustainability in buildings requiring the most investment was, for example, already in mind when the Palais de Chaillot was built in 1878 on what is now the Place du Trocadéro. The Space Needle in Seattle, the Atomium in Brussels, the China Pavilion in Shanghai are all symbolic achievements of these cities. Today, the scale of current exhibitions means that they have to be relocated from city centres, making it more difficult to integrate this heritage after the event. Incorporating the principle of sustainability means that their heritage is not destined to be short lived.

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