World’s fairs had gone out of vogue by the time the Century 21 Exposition took place in Seattle, Washington in 1962. So, when mayor Allan Pomeroy first came up with the idea in the 1950s, he was going against the grain.
Nonetheless, the decision to host a second world’s fair (the city’s first was in 1909) paid off. In large part, this was due to the dynamic optimism Seattle conveyed through the structures and technologies it put on display.
While the city removed over half of the Century 21 Exposition structures once the fair was over, some of the installations were permanent, most prominent among them the iconic Space Needle.
In this post, we are going to explore some of the Mid Century Modern architectural wonders of the Seattle Century 21 Exposition. But first, let’s put the fair in its proper historical context.
The Seattle Century 21 Exposition Looked to Launch 1950s Optimism Into the Future
The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest does a good job summarizing the mindset of the fair and where it fit (and in a way, didn’t) in 1962.
The Center explains, “Seattle’s 1962 fair reflected not just the customary tenor of international expositions but also the thinking of the decade in which it was conceived and planned, the 1950s. Those who planned exhibits for Century 21 envisioned a life that would be more affluent and fast-paced and automated than their own, but not fundamentally different. They did not foresee imminent social and cultural and political changes and as a result their forecasts of the future frequently proved outdated.”
By that point, the Cold War and the Space Age were already front and center. Commercially, Boeing’s interests guided much of what the fair showcased, and its structures reflect that focus on the aerospace industry.
The Buildings that Defined a Space Age Landscape
A tour of the Century 21 Exposition reads like a who’s-who of Pacific Northwest mid century architecture. Paul Thiry, John Graham Jr., Minoru Yamasaki, and Paul Kirk were some of the architects who worked on the fair’s structures. As Thiry explained, it was their job to design “a world within a world.” Let’s take a look at vintage shots of some of their contributions.
The Canadian Exhibit
Here we see the Canadian Exhibit, also called the Canada Pavilion, designed by Paul Thiry. Describing this beautiful structure, An Architect’s Guidebook to the Seattle World’s Fair, Seattle from the April 1962 issue of Pacific Builder and Engineer, states, “Surrounding the Coliseum is 94,200 sq. ft. of exhibit space in clear span structures of concrete columns and tilt-up walls with a steel joist roof system and metal decking and insulation. The concrete, laid out in a repetitive form which has become the architect’s trademark, relieves what might otherwise have become a monotonous perimeter façade.”
As for the fountain you see in the foreground, that is the DuPen Fountain designed by Everett DuPen. While the piece is abstract, it is meant to symbolize how human life evolved on earth, and was at that time headed for the exciting frontier of space. The fountain still stands in Seattle.
United States Science Pavilion
The design for the United States Science Pavilion was conceptualized by Minoru Yamasaki, a local Seattle architect. The overall layout for the pavilion was inspired by the Swedish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Pre-cast from concrete, the pavilions span 7 acres, and feature a central courtyard.
In the 1950s, Yamasaki visited Venice, where he enjoyed the grandeur of gothic architecture. One can appreciate that influence in the delicate, ethereal lines of the five almost sculptural towers that grace the pavilion.
Today, you can still visit the United States Science Pavilion. But currently, it is called the Pacific Science Center.
Every day during the World’s Fair, about 20,000 people ascended the Space Needle to view the city from above. At the time of its construction, the 605 foot tall tower was the tallest west of the Mississippi River.
Both John Graham Jr. and Edward E. Carlson contributed to the final design of the Space Needle. Despite the slender, fragile appearance of the tower, it has the structural stability to withstand earthquakes up to 9.1 in magnitude.
Pavilion of Electric Power
This photo gives us a glimpse of the Pavilion of Electric Power. The official press book, Seattle: Century 21 Exposition, 1962, says, “In an effort to show how Washington’s generous supply of water is harnessed and converted to plentiful, low-cost electric power, the Electric Utilities has constructed a 40-foot dam with six spillways and a 16×24 foot relief man showing the state’s principle power dams and a transmissions network between 24 major cities. John Bensen, Manager.”
The exhibit’s design and construction were handled by Alden B. Couch, Sales Director of Puget Sound Power & Light Company.
While the Century 21 Exposition was open in Seattle, almost 10 million people had a chance to enjoy these marvelous modern structures when they represented cutting-edge design. Although this post is a blast into the past for our readers, for fair-goers, attending the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962 was a trip into an imagined future.
Alas, that inspiring vision of the future never came to pass. We didn’t launch humanity out into the solar system or journey among the stars. But tethered to an increasingly fragile Earth, we could all use a dash of mid century optimism now and again.