The changing role of World Expo’s within the 20th & 21st century

21st Century Business Herald: designer column from Totems

(By G. de Gorter. Source:


The best-known first “World Expo” was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom, in 1851, under the title “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”

The Great Exhibition, as it is often called, was an idea of Prince Albert, Queen Vicotria’s husband. It influenced the development of several aspects of society, including art-and-design education, international trade and relations, and tourism. This expo was the most obvious precedent for the many international exhibitions, later called world’s fairs, that have continued to be held to the present time.

Since their inception in 1851, the character of world expositions has evolved.

Three eras can be distinguished:

era of industrialization
era of cultural exchange
era of nation branding
Industrialization (1851-1938)

The first era could be called the era of “industrialization” and covered, roughly, the period from 1800 to 1938. In these days, world expositions were especially focused on trade, and were famous for the display of technological inventions and advancements. Inventions such as the telephone were first presented during this era. An important part of the image of world’s fairs stems from this first era.

Cultural exchange (1939-1987)

The international exhibition in New York City in 1939-1940 presented a departure from the original focus of the exhibitions. From then on world’s fairs became more strongly based on a specific theme of cultural significance, and began to address issues of humankind. They became more future oriented and utopian in scope. Technology and inventions remained important, but no longer were the principal subjects of the fairs. ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’ (New York 1939-40) is a good example of this theme.

Nation Branding (1988 – present)

From Expo ’88 in Brisbane onwards, countries started to use world expositions more widely and more strongly as a platform to improve their national images through their pavilions.

A study called “Expo 2000 Hannover in Numbers” showed that improving national image was the primary participation goal for 73% of the countries at Expo 2000. In a world where a strong national image is a key asset, pavilions became advertising campaigns, and the Expo a vehicle for “nation branding”.

Apart from cultural and symbolic reasons, organizing countries (and the cities and regions hosting them) also utilize the world exposition to brand themselves. Spain used Expo ’92 and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona in the same year to underline it’s new position as a modern and democratic country and present itself as a prominent member of the European Union and the global community.China showed its new position in the world by organizing the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing and the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. themed by “Better city, better Life”

Today’s world expositions embody elements of all three eras. They present new inventions, facilitate cultural exchange based on a theme, and are used for city, region and nation branding.

The majority of the structures on World Expo’s are temporary, and are dismantled at the end of the Expo. Some architectural masterpieces are exceptions. By far the most famous of these is the Eiffel Tower, which formed the grand entrance of the World’s Fair Exposition in 1887, and is now the most recognized symbol of Paris. Also Crystal Palace from the first world’s fair in London in 1851 was intended to be permanent, until a fire in 1936 destroyed it. Another example is the famous German pavilion by Mies van der Rohe for the 1929 Barcelona expo which was first destroyed and later recreated on the original site. It’s one of the most important and best exposed structures of modern architecture.

The Expo-site in Shanghai is now recognized as an important cultural center. The demolition wasn’t the end, but the beginning of a project far more ambitious than a mere World’s Fair. The Shanghai government expressed the “Better city, better life” theme strongly all over the world, and now has plans to transform its chaotic sprawl into something more livable for its 19 million inhabitants within 10 years. For at least five years, China’s central government has tried to convince the country’s major cities that the growth-at-all costs economic model, which has intensified environmental degradation nationwide, had to change. Now Shanghai, arguably the capital of that model, has embraced sustainability as the core of its next stage of development.

The redevelopment of the Expo site could become the most visible symbol of one of modern China’s most difficult problems: coping with the intensifying urbanization of the country.

Many economists consider environmental degradation as the biggest long-term risk to China’s economic future. The extensive Expo site creates a unique opportunity; it will be a test bed for the Chinese vision. A recent study by the Urban China Initiative found that Chinese cities that embraced sustainable growth grew more quickly than those that, relatively speaking, ignored environmental issues.

Shanghai expressed its ambition to become China’s pre-eminent symbol of sustainable growth. The theme of Shanghai World Expo 2010: “Better city, better life”, did not vanish after closing the doors for the visiting public, but will stay alive for a long time and the Expo-site at Puxi will try to stay the center of this phenomena. The influence of the World Expo 2010 will be even larger and more permanent than expected. Perhaps a new era in the development of World Expositions has started in Shanghai

This year, the World Expo will be held in Yeosu; South Korea focusing on the theme “The Living Ocean and Coast”. In 2015 Milan, Italy will be the host for “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”


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