The Exposition Universelle ('Universal Exhibition’), from which the Expo derived its name and purpose, goes considerably further back in time. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London in 1851, is commonly considered the first such exhibition. It was itself a response to The Exhibition of Products of French Industry, held in Paris eleven times from 1798 to 1849, where the achievements of post-revolutionary France and the resources of its growing colonial empire were on display. The London exhibition aimed to offer a more international perspective, presenting exhibitors from Britain and its ‘Colonies and Dependencies’ alongside 44 foreign states from Europe and the Americas. Housing the exhibition was its centrepiece, the Crystal Palace. Joseph Paxton’s enormous modular structure of cast iron and 294,000 panes of plate glass was constructed in just eight months in London’s Hyde Park and represented an architectural revolution.
While the Great Exhibition undoubtedly sought to prove Britain’s industrial and technological superiority on a world stage, is nevertheless still held up as landmark in the history of the International Exhibition, and was soon replicated in other cities including Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Melbourne (1880), Barcelona (1888), Brussels (1897), St. Louis (1904), Milan (1906) and San Francisco (1915). In Paris, the Exposition Universelle soon followed suit, shifting from a national to international focus. Its 1867 edition presented over 50,000 exhibitors, of whom only 15,000 came from France and her colonies. This was the first time that Japan, newly opened-up to the outside world, had a presence and the art shown proved hugely influential on Van Gogh and other post-Impressionists artists, who went on to integrate its aesthetic into their own work. Innovations on display included reinforced concrete, elevators, and the telegraph, all of which would radically reshape the urban world in decades to come. The next Paris exhibition, held in 1889 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, included the tallest structure in the world at the time. It was ascended by almost two million people during the run of the exhibition – this iron tower of three hundred metres constructed by the firm of Gustave Eiffel.
After a hiatus forced by the First World War and its aftermath, an intergovernmental organisation, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), was created in 1928 to oversee the selection, regulation and organization of international exhibitions. Between the wars these were hosted by Barcelona (1929) – site of Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated pavilion – Chicago (1933), Brussels (1935) and Paris (1937). In 1936, a new strand of smaller-scale ‘Specialised Expos’ was launched, the first, in Stockholm, having the theme of ‘aviation’. This was followed by further exhibitions focused on water, housing, sport, energy and later by even more niche subjects such as ‘citrus fruits’ (Beit Dagan, Israel, 1956) and the ‘Reconstruction of the Hansa District’ (Berlin, 1957).
Over time, the overarching themes of the larger World Expos shifted from an emphasis on the values associated with industrialization and colonialism to an agenda of cultural exchange, starting in 1939 with New York’s Building The World of Tomorrow, and continuing with The Festival of Peace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1949 and A World View: A New Humanism in Brussels in 1958. Two more North American Expos followed, in Seattle in 1962 and New York in 1964, which took the themes of Man in the Space Age and Peace Through Understanding respectively. These left two architectural icons: the Space Needle in Seattle and Unisphere in Queens, New York.