revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology

in 1964, new york hosted the world’s fair — an event that served as a showcase for mid-century american culture and technology. taking place on a sprawling 646-acre site at flushing meadows-corona park in queens, the fair was dedicated to ‘man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe’. many of the pavilions on view were built in a mid-century modern style that was influenced by ‘googie’ architecture, a design style informed by car culture, jets, and the space age. many large corporations also chose to participate, with companies such as SC johnson and IBM joining automotive giants ford and chrysler in presenting their vision for the future.


with expo 2020 readying to open in dubai later this year, designboom takes a closer look at the 1964 edition, which took place under the theme ‘peace through understanding’. read more about the fair, and some of its most eye-catching pavilions, below.

1964 world's fair new york
the johnson wax pavilion | image courtesy of SC johnson



the johnson pavilion comprised soaring white arches and a giant gold disk, which appeared to float above the ground. the structure was conceived by herbert fisk johnson jr. — the company’s third-generation company leader — as a ‘totally unique pavilion’. johnson jr. commissioned lippincott & margulies, the firm that created the company’s ‘double diamond’ symbol, to design the building with a 500-seat theater. this would invite visitors to watch ‘to be alive’, an 18-minute color movie produced by francis thompson that showed the daily lives of people around the world.

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
the IBM pavilion | image courtesy of IBM



the IBM pavilion was designed by charles and ray eames and eero saarinen. the pavilion appeared as a covered garden, with all exhibits contained beneath a ‘grove’ of steel ‘trees’. the egg-shaped structure sitting atop the grove hosted a theater within which visitors watched ‘think’ — a film by charles and ray eames that explored problem-solving techniques for issues both commonplace and complex — from organizing the seating chart for a dinner party, to city planning.



the IBM pavilion | video courtesy of eames office



shaped and styled in the form of an enormous typewriter carriage, a 12-tier ‘people wall’ — shown in the video above — lifted 500 visitors at a time up inside the theater to watch the show, which made use of 14 synchronized projectors and nine screens. below the ovoid theater, the eames office created a range of activities to introduce IBM’s latest products.

1964 world's fair new york
the U.S. royal tires ferris wheel | image by retroland USA / CC BY-NC 2.0



with a diameter of 80 feet (24.4 m), the uniroyal ‘giant tire’ is believed to be the largest non-production tire scale model ever built. at the 1964 world’s fair, the tire functioned as a ferris wheel with a total of 24 gondolas each carrying four people. today, the structure is located in michigan, alongside interstate 94.

1964 world's fair new york
the new york state pavilion | image by retroland USA / CC BY-NC 2.0



designed by architects philip johnson and richard foster, with structural engineer lev zetlin, the new york state pavilion was one of the site’s most significant structures. according to people for the pavilion, a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness of the historic value of the structure, johnson’s aim was to achieve ‘an unengaged free space as an example of the greatness of new york, rather than a warehouse full of exhibit material’.



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the design consisted three elements: the main open-air structure known as the ‘tent of tomorrow’, three ‘astro-view’ observation towers, and a circular theater known as the ‘theaterama’. the tallest of the three towers stands at a height of 226 feet (69 meters) and contains two observation platforms. the new york state pavilion was designed to showcase the varied attractions that the state had to offer, from its natural scenery and wildlife to achievements in the fine and performing arts. the structure still exists today, although its future purpose remains up in the air.

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
the general electric pavilion  | image by retroland USA / CC BY-NC 2.0



the general electric pavilion contained an exhibit called ‘progressland’, which was produced by walt disney. the audience was seated in a revolving auditorium called the ‘carousel of progress’, where they viewed an audio-animatronic presentation that documented the evolving role of electricity within the home. following the world’s fair, the attraction was moved to disneyland in california before relocating again in 1975 to florida’s walt disney world resort. to keep it up to date, the attraction has been updated numerous times over the years.


chrysler turbine car at the chrysler pavilion | image by rochkind / CC BY 3.0


part of the chrysler pavilion took the form of a giant car, the rear of which is shown above. another aspect of the brand’s enormous display was its turbine car (shown in the foreground), an experimental two-door hardtop coupe powered by a turbine engine and manufactured from 1963–1964.

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
the 1965 ford mustang fastback in front the ford pavilion | image courtesy of ford



ford introduced its famous mustang automobile to the public at its pavilion in april 1964. the car has been in continuous production since, making it the longest-produced ford car nameplate.



ford’s magic skyway | video courtesy of video courtesy of D23



meanwhile, ford’s pavilion featured the ‘magic skyway’ ride (shown in the video above), in which guests rode in convertibles past scenes featuring dinosaurs, cavemen, and a futuristic cityscape. after the fair, the audio-animatronic dinosaurs were relocated to disneyland.

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
space park | image courtesy of NASA, public domain



sponsored by NASA, the department of defense, and the fair itself, the ‘space park’ exhibited many of the rockets and vehicles used in america’s early space exploration projects. exhibits included a full-scale model of the aft skirt and five F-1 engines of the first stage of a saturn V, a titan II booster with a gemini capsule, an atlas with a mercury capsule and a thor-delta rocket.


aerial view of the site, including belgian village | image courtesy of the barrie family / CC BY-SA 2.0


contrasting the site’s modern and futuristic architecture, the ‘belgian village’ was a faithful recreation of a medieval flemish town. in the photo above, the village is shown next to the vatican pavilion, which displayed the pietà — michelangelo’s masterpiece that depicts the body of jesus on the lap of his mother mary after the crucifixion.

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
belgian village | image courtesy of roger W / CC BY-SA 2.0



lined with cobble streets, the belgian village contained more than 100 buildings, including a church, a carousel, and a rathskeller — a basement bar or restaurant. the setting proved popular with visitors who were introduced to belgian waffles.

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
the krofft’s ‘les poupées de paris’ pavilion | image by anthony conti, digitscd / CC BY-SA 3.0



les poupées de paris (the dolls of paris) was an adults-only musical puppet show created, produced, and directed by sid and marty krofft. according to sources, the show was heavily attended and was financially successful. in fact, the show toured the united states throughout the 1960s and was seen by an estimated nine and a half million people.



the puppets inside the ‘les poupées de paris’ pavilion | video courtesy of larry engler



the port authority heliport (shown in the video below) was the first building to open at the world’s fair site. as its name suggests, the building served as the aerial gateway for the event — 120 feet (37 meters) in the air. designed by allan gordon lorimer, the building is supported on four tapered columns offering panoramic views of the new york skyline. the building exists today a banquet hall and is currently known as ‘terrace on the park’.



the port authority heliport | video courtesy of british pathé



if arriving by helicopter wasn’t an option for the majority of visitors, guests were able to sample a ‘new dimension in transportation’ once on site. according to untapped cities, a monorail ran 40 feet (12 meters) above ground on two tracks that ran parallel to each other in closed loops. seven two-car monorails ran the route, stopping at stations along the way. the experience was designed to ‘incorporate the best features of a scenic ride’. find out more about the monorail in the video below, and watch the TV commercial for the subway special that transported thousands of people to the event.



a ride on the monorail | video courtesy of ReDefinedHistory



world’s fair subway special – TV commercial for NYCTA | video courtesy of trainluvr

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
the unisphere fountain | image by anthony conti, digitscd / CC BY-SA 3.0

revisit the 1964 world's fair in new york, a showcase for mid-century culture and technology
the world’s fair site with the unisphere at its center | image by anthony conti, digitscd / CC BY-SA 3.0

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