For architects who were born in the 1950s, it was a formative experience
Published in: Architectural Record
Date: May 2014

“I was in disbelief, thinking I was seeing something from the future,” says Ann Marie Baranowski of her first glimpse of the New York State Pavilion. James Sanders recalls the flared entry area of the General Motors Futurama — “this great big swoopy thing” — and the forest of steel girders (with thousands of Plexiglas leaves) supporting IBM’s egg-shaped arena. The tower of light — 600 aluminum prisms bracketing a 12-billion-candlepower beam aimed skyward — made a powerful impression on Alex Gorlin.

“The fair’s phantasmagorical architecture,” he recalls, “freed my mind from our tiny apartment and enabled me to imagine a future.”

Fifty years ago, an architectural wonderland opened in Flushing Meadows — the 1964-65 World’s Fair that Robert Moses created to bring millions of visitors to Queens and raise money to build a permanent park there. Unlike several earlier fairs, notably the 1893 Chicago exposition, with its all-white neoclassical confections, Moses’s effort lacked an architectural through-line; each of the 140 exhibitors did pretty much what it pleased. That meant the 650-acre fairgrounds lacked visual coherence, but also that companies and countries would compete to attract visitors, if not with high architecture than with garish architectural gimmickry, including bright colors, odd shapes, and novel materials.

Critics — which is to say, adults — were almost universally dismissive of the effort. In a Life Magazine article titled “If This Is Architecture, God Help Us” Vincent Scully wrote: “I doubt whether any fair was every so crassly, even brutally, conceived as this one.” For her part, Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in the New York Times, called the fair “disconnected, grotesque, lacking any unity of concept or style,” though she added that it is “just those accidental juxtapositions and cockeyed contrasts built into the fair that give it is particular attraction and charm.” She called much of it “trick or treat architecture.”

But for children, especially children interested in design, it was another story altogether. Ask a 50-something architect who visited the fair about it, and you will see eyes light up, as detailed descriptions of long-ago buildings emerge: the Tower of Light, whose base resembled Superman’s Fortress of Solitude; the petal-like structure embracing the golden Johnson Wax theater; the Kodak pavilion, with its moon-like roof; and General Electric’s lightbulb-studded Carousel of Progress. (They also remember the exhibitions inside, which included George Nelson’s witty displays for Chrysler but for the most part equated progress with rampant suburbanization — making, as Scully put it, “a strong argument against letting auto manufacturers have a say in city planning”).

For some kids, the fair became a kind of obsession. “I was mesmerized by a documentary about the making of the Unisphere,” says Barry Goralnick, a solo practitioner in Manhattan. Alex Gorlin, who heads his own Manhattan firm, kept detailed diaries of his trips to the fair, which he illustrated with crayon drawings of the buildings. “It was the confirmation not just that architecture was my calling,” Gorlin says, “but that architecture could be something amazing. Says Baranowski, a principal at Jacobs KlingStubbins, “I’m surprised by how much I remember. It was a formative experience for me.”

Indeed, among architects born in the mid-1950s, the fair was a touchstone. Sanders, who visited more than 20 times, even celebrating his 10th birthday at the fair, says, “the nature of it being these slightly showy, gaudy things wasn’t lost on me. It wasn’t serious architecture. But that didn’t make it any less fun.”

Whether they came from the suburbs (like Baranowski, who remembers Chicopee, Mass. as architecturally bland), from nearby Rego Park (like Gorlin), or from Manhattan (like Sanders), the fair’s stylistic smorgasbord was unlike anything they had ever seen. “I connected it to the Jetsons, and I remember thinking, ‘This is the future,’” says Baranowski.

And in a way, it was the future. The fair’s most daring buildings, in many cases, didn’t explore new construction methods so much as pretend to explore new construction methods — using jerry-rigged carpentry and tacked-on sheetrock to simulate the kinds of things that architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid would create, with more time, more money, and CAD systems, decades later. Put another way, the fantasies of the fair came back with a vengeance in the “starchitect” era of the 1990s and early 2000s, when technology caught up to the vision. (In this respect, the fair was superior to the 1893 Chicago exposition, whicih has been blamed for stalling the advent of modernism.)

In books and articles about the fair, it is remembered as an anachronism — as an attempt to put a happy face on an America that was coming apart at the seams. (The Kennedy assassination had happened five months before the fair opened, and the news around the time of the opening included race riots and Kitty Genovese’s murder.) But Sanders, who heads his own Manhattan firm, remembers it quite differently. It was, he says, “the end of an age of innocence, the last time people could believe the future was going to be better, and architecture would very much be part of it.” Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect, was a bit older — a college student — when he first visited the fair, which he calls “this marvelous place in which everything seemed possible. I distinctly remember seeing for the first time how planning, landscape architecture and architecture could fuse into what felt like, at the time, a better world.”

Youthful idealism? Perhaps, but the same idealism has guided architects who visited the fair through careers rooted in public service.

There were some buildings that adult critics admired. The Spanish pavilion, designed by the Madrid architect Javier Carvajal with the help of New Yorkers Kelly and Gruzen, was lauded by Huxtable for its “somber palette of muted earth colors in tile floors and walnut ceilings.” Another critical favorite was the Japanese pavilion, a mast-hung, stone-faced edifice by Kunio Maekawa. Several Scandinavian offerings garnered praise, as did the Hall of Science, a cathedral-like triumph by Wallace Harrison. The IBM pavilion was showy, like all the corporate displays, but at least it had pedigree: The building, an egg-shaped structure into which a steeply-raked grandstand was raised on hydraulic lifts, was designed by Eero Saarinen, and it contained exhibitions created by Charles and Ray Eames, in a multi-screen format that is influential to this day. And some critics, including Huxtable and Scully, liked Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion, with its poured concrete observation towers and tensile roof protecting a vast, mosaic map of New York State.

What does it say that Johnson’s pavilion has been rotting for more than 40 years, becoming an eyesore/oddity at the intersection of two of Moses’ own highways? Slammed at the time, in part because it failed to meet its financial goals, and plagued by neglect (and cynicism) ever since, the 1964-65 World’s Fair has suffered more than its share of indignities. But in the minds of the children who experienced it as an architectural Land of Oz, it remains a triumph.

Perhaps the highest praise for the fair, as a springboard for childhood architectural fixations, comes from Scott Specht of the New York firm Specht Harpman. Born in 1963, “I was too young to have seen the fair,” says Specht. “But my parents made the trip, and when I was about 6 or 7, I found an official souvenir map that they had packed away. I remember being completely obsessed with that map for years — it was highly detailed, full-color, and drawn in axonometric projection. I researched every building, and in those pre-internet days, tried to gather as much information as I could.”

These days, the Internet makes gathering information about the pavilions a cinch. But no Google image search can capture the excitement felt by future architects who were lucky enough to visit the World’s Fair as children.