World’s Fair Towers

On January 14, 2015 · 6 Comments

I suppose this is something of a Part 3 addendum to the recent Southern Swing articles although maybe it’s not truly the case. Perhaps it would be better to call it "inspired" by those earlier articles. We broke the return trip into a two-day event with an overnight stay in Knoxville, Tennessee. The hotel happened to be located near the Sunsphere, a tower designed for the 1982 World’s Fair. That was a happy coincidence although unintentional. We never saw the tower during daylight because there’s a lot of darkness near the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice. That’s why I couldn’t get a decent photograph although I still gave it a shot. The sight also made me wonder about towers that have been built for World Fairs in general. Some of them became iconic structures while others fell into relative obscurity.

Sunsphere (1982) – Knoxville, Tennessee, USA

Sunsphere (my own photo)

The Sunsphere that we saw in Knoxville seemed to fall amongst those that didn’t quite capture public imagination (map); "It represents the sun, source of energy, and reflected the energy theme of the fair." I guess that wasn’t inspirational enough. It looked like a giant Van der Graaf generator. I guarantee it would have become iconic if it actually shot giant bolts of lightning. Sadly, it did not.

During the fair the Sunsphere featured five primary levels, an observation deck, a kitchen, two dining levels, and a cocktail lounge. It had a hard life once the fair ended, standing either vacant or underused for three decades and counting. However, it’s available for rent should someone want to use it for a wedding reception, a corporate event, or a 12MC reader happy hour.

As an aside, I wasn’t aware that the World’s Fair was still a thing. Apparently those events still exist and one will be held in Milan in 2015. None have occurred in the United States since 1984 and that’s probably why I though EPCOT or something must have replaced them by now.

La Tour Eiffel (1889) – Paris, France

La Tour Eiffel
La Tour Eiffel by Christopher Chan, on Flickr (cc)

I had no idea that the Eiffel Tower in Paris was a remnant of a World’s Fair (map). It served as the centerpiece of the Exposition Universelle of 1889 which also commemorated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The tower that Gustave Eiffel erected brought strong negative reactions from critics at the time and became a beloved symbol despite their pronouncements. Twelve Mile Circle doesn’t need to mention anything else about the Eiffel Tower, right?

It would be many years before another World’s Fair would attempt to feature a tower. How could any other city top such an iconic structure?

Atomium (1958) – Brussels, Belgium

Atomium landscape
Atomium landscape by Vase Petrovski, on Flickr (cc)

Neighboring Belgium made an honest attempt in 1958 with its Atomium for the Brussels World’s Fair (Brusselse Wereldtentoonstelling / Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles) (map). This was the height of the atomic age. An oddly shiny building with 9 interconnected spheres climbing 102 metres and fashioned in the form of an iron atom enlarged 165 billion times seemed to be an optimal choice for the times. The Atomium can still be visited today and its website describes it as,

A seminal totem in the Brussels skyline; neither tower, nor pyramid, a little bit cubic, a little bit spherical, half-way between sculpture and architecture, a relic of the past with a determinedly futuristic look, museum and exhibition centre; the Atomium is, at once, an object, a place, a space, a Utopia and the only symbol of its kind in the world, which eludes any kind of classification.

I agree.

Readers can also use Google Street View to go inside of the Atomium. It’s quite a structure.

Space Needle (1962) – Seattle, Washington, USA

Space Needle and Pacific Science Center
Space Needle and Pacific Science Center by Terence T.S. Tam, on Flickr (cc)

Seattle’s Space Needle (map) didn’t quite hit the same iconic status as the Eiffel Tower although it probably came closer than any of the other examples. Certainly, it would be recognized instantly by many people far beyond the Pacific Northwest. Fashions had begun to transition from the atomic age into the space age and the Seattle World’s Fair reflected those changing times.

Tower of the Americas (1968) – San Antonio, Texas, USA

Tower of the Americas
Tower of the Americas (my own photo)

I’ve been to the top of the Tower of the Americas. San Antonio’s convention center is located next to HemisFair Park where the tower was built (map). I went to San Antonio a few years ago for a conference and I had a little extra time so I rode to the top.

This World’s Fair featured "The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas" as its theme. I’m not sure how the tower reflected that concept although it’s still impressive. The fair commemorated the 250th anniversary of San Antonio and supposedly the theme also referenced several nations that held sway of Texas territory. Some might say 6 Flags Over Texas, other might claim 7 Flags, or whatever.

The Skyneedle (1988) – Brisbane, Australia

Entire Skyneedle
Entire Skyneedle by Mervin, on Flickr (cc)

The weirdest World’s Fair tower might have been the Skyneedle in Brisbane (map). It reached 88 metres and appropriately matched World Expo 88. However the tower did not accommodate visitors. It was too small. Instead it shot a beam of light around the city. The Skyneedle was supposed to be relocated to Tokyo Disneyland once the fair closed. Instead, it became the possession of a local hairdresser entrepreneur, Stefan, who moved it to his headquarters nearby. Yelp had a number of amusing reviews:

Standing tall, proud and pointless Brisbane’s Skyneedle is capable of the occasional light show and little else. Even its powerful beam is only allowed to be used on special occasions as it is a potential risk to plane’s coming in to land at Brisbane airport. But despite its inherent absurdity, or more correctly, because of its inherent absurdity Stefan’s Needle has become a much loved part of the city skyline.

Pity the Skyneedle.

On January 14, 2015 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “World’s Fair Towers”

  1. Scott Surgent says:

    I attended the Brisbane World Fair. However, I have no recollection of the Needle. I recall that you were given a faux passport booklet, and each nation’s pavilion had a stamp that you could get, and I tried to get one for every single nation. I don’t recall if I was successful. I imagine that a few months later, I lost my booklet completely. I stayed at a scary youth hostel within walking distance of the Fair, but located in an industrial part of the city, where at night, there was nothing, completely dark. But it was fun.

  2. Philip Newton says:

    I have read that the Eiffel Tower belongs to the category of “famous for being famous”.

    That is, people go there not because it’s particularly pretty, or particularly big, or particularly historic, but because “you’ve got to see the Eiffel Tower if you’re in Paris because everyone sees the Eiffel Tower when they’re in Paris”. A sort of circular reasoning 🙂

    And I’ve read about the Atomium that it’s theoretically illegal to publish photos of it without permission, because it’s a copyrighted structure and Belgium has no “freedom of panorama” like, say, Germany does (which would allow people to take photos of pretty much anything as long as it’s taken from a public area).

  3. Calgully says:

    Not exactly a tower, but more impressive even though less well known is the “Royal Exhibition Building” in Melbourne. On the UNESCO World Heritage register as “the only substantially intact example in the world of a Great Hall from a major international exhibition”, the Exhibition Building is one of Australia’s great architectural treasures, and its size and height almost qualify it as a tower.

    From the UNESCO website: “The complex was designed for the great international exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 in Melbourne. The building is constructed of brick and timber, steel and slate; it combines elements from the Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance styles. The property is typical of the international exhibition movement which saw over 50 expositions staged between 1851 and 1915 in venues including Paris, New York, Vienna, Calcutta, Kingston (Jamaica) and Santiago (Chile). All shared a common theme and aims: to chart material and moral progress through displays of industry from all nations.
    The scale and grandeur of the building reflects the values and aspirations attached to industrialization and its international face. The Building boasts many of the important features that made the expositions so dramatic and effective, including a dome, a great hall, giant entry portals, versatile display areas, axial planning, and complementary gardens and viewing areas.,144.973756,3a,75y,230.66h,84.77t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sexpXCh-lUZAtIdCd-rv7DQ!2e0

  4. Greg says:

    A section on the Sunsphere without a mention of its crucial role in a classic Simpsons eipsode?!

  5. David Overton says:

    @Philip Newton, well yes, I’d agree that if you’re in Paris you’ve got to see the Eiffel Tower. However it is (IMHO) a pretty impressive landmark and distinctive feature of the Paris skyline. The views of Paris from the top are also unrivalled. Some of my own picture of and from it:

    @Calgully, I sat many of my university exams at the Royal Exhibition Building. Whenever I go there I get flashbacks of trying to solve differential equations. It was also the site of the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament in 1901. There is a famous painting by Tom Roberts commemorating the occasion:

  6. Nelson says:

    “None have occurred in the United States since 1984” I saw a tv show that said the US had effectively dropped out of the World Fairs due to lack of interest, meaning nobody would pony up the money. It was a case of “Go big, or go home”. Nobody wanted to be blamed for a weak showing, and nobody wanted to pay for a strong one.

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