Ambition and missed opportunity:
researcher explores expo fairgrounds © Feb. 10, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

A tale of two cities: Melissa Jensen photographs the “Atomium” on the site of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium; a site she believes did not live up to its promise. By contrast, the site of the 1888 fair in Barcelona, Spain [BELOW], has remained vibrant.

photo courtesy of Lisa D. SchrenkA tale of two cities: Melissa Jensen photographs the “Atomium” on the site of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium; a facility she believes did not live up to its promise. By contrast, the site of the 1888 fair in Barcelona, Spain [BELOW], has remained vibrant.

Melissa Jensen grew up hearing her father speak in glowing terms of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park near her home in Queens.

photo courtesy of Melissa Jensen

This international exposition, with a theme of “Peace through Understanding,” was a monument to the culture and technology of the time. The fair occupied a full square mile and featured the iconic Unisphere, a 12-story sculpture of the earth.

Years later, inspired by a seminar in the Architecture Studies program at Norwich University, Jensen toured the site with a local scholar. She found empty buildings, decaying infrastructure and a distinct feeling the area wasn’t safe. Where a fountain once launched magnificent jets of water around the Unisphere, a homeless man now slept.

"It’s such a lost opportunity," said Jensen, now in her final year as an undergraduate architecture student. “How did it become so vacant and derelict?”

The later fate of exposition sites have become a significant topic in Jensen’s education, playing a part in several seminars and a summer research trip to Europe. The combination of unbounded ambition and lost opportunity are not uncommon for fairs, she discovered. Some of these sites, which feature hundreds of buildings and supporting infrastructure designed, at great expense, to awe attendees with a fantasy-like atmosphere, have been turned into parks and city centers of beauty and functionality.

But many end up deserted or underused. Even recent expos that focused on sustainability gave little real consideration to future use.

“Some of them tend to just sit there and rot,” she said.

For example, fairgrounds she considers failures in terms of sustained use include:

  • Expo ’58 in Brussels, Belgium
  • Expo ’92 in Seville, Spain
  • Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany

These sites, often deserted or underused, shared characteristics such as the use of modern or “cutting edge” materials and designs; lack of maintenance and security; and gridlike layouts with little attention to landscaping on the outskirts of cities.

The fairs themselves, she emphasized, were often quite successful and some facilities found temporary new life housing other events. She wasn’t trying to determine why individual fairgrounds had not lived up to their potential or failed to follow plans for later use.

“I can’t honestly answer why,” said Jensen. “These are huge, political battles.”

In contrast, the facilities from earlier expositions—such as two Spanish fairs in 1929 and the 1889 Paris exposition for which the Eiffel tower was constructed—evolved into energetic, beautiful and well-used city sections with original buildings still in use. These facilities and buildings were constructed of more permanent materials with traditional designs. They were continuously maintained, and structures were easily repurposed. These sites were built closer to the center of cities.

Many modern expositions, including some in Asia and one planned for Milan in 2015, have chosen sustainability as a theme, and explored ideas such as modular buildings that can be moved. These are complex ideas she doesn’t believe have fully evolved, however.

“I would love to see an exposition really try to tackle this problem,” she said.

Jensen credits her minor degree in Art History for her interest in the topic. She started with a seminar in international expositions, beginning with the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, taught by Prof. Lisa Schrenk. She followed with a class on Asian architecture. By studying expositions in Asia, with a focus on environmental sensitivity and adaptability, Jensen began to understand the frequent disconnect between a fair planner’s ambitions and its ultimate fate.

Schrenk encouraged Jensen to apply for a research grant through Norwich, and traveled with her for part of the six-week European trip when Jensen visited France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy. During this time she met scholars, talked to site employees and spent hours exploring massive installations ranging from spectacular parks to “a large parking lot.”

It was an exceptional opportunity, Jensen said, and she hopes more architecture students seek summer research grants.

“I met so many people from different places that you just don’t get to meet in Vermont, or even New York,” she said.

Schrenk, author of Building a Century of Progress and scholarly articles about expositions, said she felt Jensen took on a complex and important question; how to use a permanent site after a temporary fair. The project and trip helped Jensen grow as she discussed these issues with scholars, “and really, for the first time, let her feel like she could be a scholar,” said Schrenk.

Jensen will present her topic at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, and publish an essay in Meet Me at the Fair: A World Fair Reader.

She has become passionate about expositions, a rich topic that brings together history, architecture, culture, politics and economics.

“I’m basically studying the world’s biggest parties,” she said.