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Enduring images of the ephemeral KENNETH POWELL World's Fairs by Erik Mattie. Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. 256pp. £45

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'An ephemeral theme park' was Sir Roy Strong's recent judgement - hardly novel - on the Millennium Festival at Greenwich. As much could be (and was) said of many of the showcases of design, technology, trade and industry recorded in this fascinating book. It all started, of course, in London, with the 1851 'Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations'. In a little more than five months, six million people poured through the Crystal Palace - which, by my calculation, exceeds the most optimistic predictions for the Dome. The profits from the Great Exhibition provided the land for 'Albertopolis', the most densely developed museums and higher-education quarter in Europe - and the 1851 commissioners are still in business, doling out grants to scholars and researchers.

'Ephemeral theme parks' can therefore provide lasting benefits - but should we regard ephemerality as necessarily bad? A recurring feature of the 'world's fairs' was that they encouraged innovative and experimental architecture and engineering, expressed in structures which were not necessarily intended to have a long life. The Crystal Palace (which survived, in fact, until 1936, albeit on a new site) provided a powerful image - not upstaged until 1889, when the Paris Exposition Universelle produced Dutert & Contamin's Galerie des Machines (not to mention the Eiffel Tower).

The Galerie des Machines, long ago demolished, has influenced generations of architects and engineers via the illustrations in books such as Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design. Pevsner and other Modern Movement historians excised or excoriated the non-progressive flip-side of the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century - the florid contents of the Crystal Palace and the Gothic, Baroque, Moorish and other exotic styles which reflected the tastes of the typical exhibition-goer.

Erik Mattie, 'a collector of world's fair memorabilia', draws no conclusions from his scrapbook of drawings and photographs, but it is clear that the idea of the great exhibitions as necessarily 'progressive' is insupportable. The 1893 Chicago Exposition famously launched the 'American Renaissance', that great upsurge of revived Classicism, subsequently sweeping America, which Louis Sullivan and others saw as deeply reactionary.

The dichotomy between the popular and the progressive continued into the twentieth century - Barcelona in 1929 produced not only Mies's German Pavilion (later demolished, and now rebuilt) but also the Pueblo Espanol - still a prime tourist attraction. Up-to-date technology could appeal to the masses - when it was expressed in something like the Ferris Wheel, a big draw at Chicago in 1893 - but it was not until the inter-war years that images of the future fully captured the popular imagination. The New York World's Fair of 1939 - which attracted nearly 45 million visitors (but nonetheless made a loss) - featured futuristic exhibits like the Bridge of Tomorrow, the 700ft Trylon, the Perisphere and the Futurama. Industrial stylists such as Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy vied with modernists like Aalto, Niemeyer and Lescaze, while Salvador Dali created a 'Dream of Venus' installation which featured 'a tank with female bathers milking a bandaged cow'.

The scene was set for the 1958 Brussels Expo, focusing on the Atomium and including Corbusier's remarkable Philips Pavilion (the nearest he came to High-Tech), the New York Fair of 1964 - where Paul Rudolph's Galaxon was dropped in favour of the far less subtle, but unforgettable, Unisphere - and the 1967 Montreal Expo. The long-term gains of the 1967 Expo included a new metro system, new roads, bridges and hotels and Moshe Safdie's celebrated Habitat housing scheme. Thereafter 'expos' were expected to produce lasting benefits. Seville 1992 was, in this respect, a failure - the site has degenerated into a second-rate business park. The lessons have been absorbed by the planners of the 2000 Hannover Expo. As the Greenwich organisers agonise over the problems of coping with 35,000 visitors a day, Hannover is counting on 300,000.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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