A Century of Progress by matthew c. hoffman
“Science Finds– Industry Applies– Man Conforms.” ~ theme of A Century of Progress
Movies weren’t the only place where audiences could experience modern architecture. During the 1930s, there were two significant World’s Fairs in the United States. The first exposition was held in Chicago in 1933. Called A Century of Progress, it not only highlighted the progress of a city over the course of a hundred years, but the achievements of the country at large. The fair was about the Future and how that Future could work for us. During its two seasons 1933-1934, fairgoers saw how technology could make their lives better. They also had a glimpse of modern architecture. For many, this was their first experience with the new design concepts that had been born in Europe.
Whereas the New York World’s Fair of 1939 could be described as Streamlined, the 1933 Chicago fair was in the best Art Deco tradition. Pavilions like the Illinois Host Building, the U.S. Government Building, and the Electrical Building– with its Egyptian-like pylons– were clearly influenced by the style. Architect Alfonso Iannelli, who had designed the Art Deco interiors of the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, Illinois, at the close of the 1920s, designed the Hall of Social Science among other exhibits and displays. One of the most striking of all Deco buildings, however, was the Hall of Science, which was designed by Paul Cret. Its Great Hall interior was just as impressive with zigzag patterns– a Deco motif– illuminated by neon lighting from the ceiling. The building was the centerpiece of the exhibition.
The Hall of Science
The Hall of Science at night
Streamlining, an evolution of Art Deco that featured aerodynamic forms, was just then taking root in 1933 through the efforts of industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Geddes was a consultant for the Chicago Fair, but unfortunately, his visionary designs for theatres and rotating, aerial restaurants remained unrealized. A Century of Progress was a showcase of new formal styles as well as new building materials and methods of production. Though few could afford a “House of Tomorrow” in the years that followed– a popular model home that featured a downstairs hangar for an airplane– the processes themselves, such as prefabrication, grew steadily in the decades to come, and these processes were first demonstrated at the fair for potential consumers.
A Century of Progress was about looking forward, so the architecure naturally reflected that. The buildings were not in the neoclassical tradition that had dominated the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Leading architects settled on a definition of modern architecture and built the fair around that. Interestingly, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the preeminent architects in the nation at this time, was not on the commission that oversaw the layout of the fair. This may have been due to his fierce independence which would have conflicted with the teamwork needed for the event. Despite his noticeable absence, progressive architects such as George Frederick Keck and Paul Cret– among many others–successfully created progressive designs that reflected the machine age. These were designs that broke away from the aesthetics of the past. Midwesterners may have never heard of European architects like Le Corbusier, but they could now see up close the strange new forms of Modernism in America.
“Science Advancing Mankind” (with the robot symbolizing Science)
A Century of Progress was an extraordinary event in architecture as well as in science. This was long before the Internet Age, and people had to physically come out to experience its grandeur. It was like another world. Bright colors and spectacular lighting effects added to its festival quality. Unlike amusement parks like Great America or Disney World, there was a keenly felt relevance to it. People saw new technologies on display and they could see how that technology could make their own lives better through efficiency and economy. The fair also promoted education in the seven areas of Science with the hope that it could lead to a new awareness of society’s potential. Pavilions like the Hall of Science offered lessons in the benefits of technology. There were no idle display cases. It was a fair in motion where everything reflected movement. Opening day led the way in this theme with a futuristic lighting ceremony that involved capturing light from the star Arcturus!
If not for the Depression and economic considerations, A Century of Progress could have been even more extraordinary with designs for an airport, moving sidewalks, and a skyscraper-sized Tower of Water. Nevertheless, attractions such as the Skyride, which gave fairgoers a bird’s-eye view of the lakefront, were able to be constructed. This was all accomplished without any government financing. The fair fostered economic recovery in Chicago and actually turned a profit– no small accomplishment given the severity of the financial times. People attended in 1933 and 1934 because they could see firsthand what they had only fantasized about in the movies. It was a future that seemed real with a way of life now possible… once the country turned the corner.
The House of Tomorrow
What relevance could the memory of an eighty-year-old fair have today? In 2011, we’ve drifted away from science and how it can inspire humanity into solving its problems. Certainly instititions like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry teach us the benefits of technology, but today we don’t have events that draw record crowds. We don’t have models like that in our lives. We’re not the world leaders in math and science in our education system. We’re more consumed and obsessed by gadgets than inspired by them. Our vision is confined to the screen size of an iPad. At the dawn of the century, true pioneers like Thomas Edison transformed a society (and the world) by what he invented, but transformative science goes beyond small-scale gadgetry like smart phones and other electronic toys.
When people in our modern society are living on the streets, A Century of Progress showed us how disposable architecture could be erected for everyone. When millions of people today seem jaded by the daily grind of life, fairs like A Century of Progress made people conscious of the joy of living. In 1933, only the Depression held us back. Today, it’s the politicians who have bankrupted our nation that prevent us from building the kind of stable society envisioned in 1933.
Official fair poster: the light of Arcturus coming to Earth…