Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Century 21 Exposition: Civic Symbolism From 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago this month Seattle's Century 21 Exposition opened for its six-month run. It attracted a lot of attention because it was the first world's fair hosted in the United States since 1940. The Wikipedia entry about the fair is here.

The theme of the fair had to do with science and the progress that might be expected by the turn of the century 38 years in the future. Because it was a small-scale fair, it lacked special pavilions funded by other countries. Most of the international and private corporate displays were in nondescript temporary structures, some of which were torn down once the fair ended.

There were three important specially built structures including the Space Needle. I'll elaborate on the Needle following the Gallery section below.


Contemporary aerial view of fair
The Washington State Coliseum is the large building to the right. The Space Needle, whose top was painted orange in 1962, is near the center and the Science Pavilion is the cluster of white structures to the right of it and just above the Coliseum. Note that Seattle's 1962 skyline isn't very tall, the Space Needle being the highest structure in town.

Washington State Coliseum
A 1962 view of the Coliseum and a plaza where flags of the sates were displayed. It was later converted to a sports arena for basketball and ice hockey.

United States Science Pavilion
This is now the Pacific Science Center, an educational facility.

Space Needle as shown in a promotional rendering

San Antonio Tower of the Americas - 1968
A tower built for the HemisFair exposition.

Toronto CN Tower - 1976
Once the tallest self-supported structure in the world, it remains the highest in North America.

Space Needle and Seattle Skyline - recent
Seattle's Skyline has grown considerably over the last 50 years and the Space Needle is no longer the highest structure. However, it is located far enough from the central business district that it remains distinctive and not buried amongst office buildings and condominiums.

The Space Needle was inspired by a television tower in Stuttgart, Germany. Since 1962 a number of towers resembling that in Stuttgart have appeared, such as those in San Antonio and Toronto. Many of those towers were probably intended as symbols of their location.

I might be wrong, but my impression is that most or even all of those tall towers have come up short (pardon the expression) where being symbolic is concerned. And I think the problem is that those towers were designed by architects and engineers in nice, clean, functional ways that resulted in them seeming pretty similar to one another.

Towers that succeeded in symbolizing their city can be counted on the finger of one hand. Actually, two fingers are all that is needed, because in my opinion only Paris' Eiffel Tower and Seattle's Space Needle unmistakably define their cities in the eyes of the rest of the world.

But why? The answer, I believe, is because their structural shapes are as much decorative as functional, unlike the others that seem to be variations on the theme of a large post with an observation deck placed at or near the top. In the case of the Space Needle, what makes it distinctive is that it is supported by three legs, and that makes it awkward-appearing from many viewing angles. But without that awkwardness, it would be just another modernist tower.

1 comment:

Balfegor said...

Oh? Not Tokyo Tower or Seoul's Namsan Tower? Admittedly, Tokyo is trying to replace the Tokyo Tower image with the newer, taller "Sky Tree" nowadays, but still. They're pretty iconic.