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Building a Century of Progress: The Architecture of Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair

by Lisa D. Schrenk
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN USA, 2007
368 pp., illus.170 halftones, 26 color photos. Trade, $ 39.95
ISBN: 0-8166-4836-8.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


World's Fairs are fun. Its crowds assemble to observe the exhibits, to participate as allowed, and to spend money at this special, short-term event. Its innovations, eccentricities and spectacle spill over into histories long after the Fairs. In Building a Century of Progress, architectural historian Lisa D. Schrenk gives us a profusely illustrated book on one Fair that is both informative to read and fun to examine.

A panel of distinguished architects gathered in the late 1920s to plan the look of Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair, but its leader Paul D. Cret obviously wanted to borrow as much as possible from the look of the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. That fair showcased Moderne architecture and its juxtaposition of simplified geometric forms and smoothly figurative decoration, and gave the name "Art Deco" to that style.

The fair was held on land beside windy Lake Michigan. Beyond a mammoth Hall of Science decorated with figurative sculpture, many of the buildings were big corporate sheds with three-dimensional sans-serif lettering giving the company name or building’s purpose. Buildings were painted in a vibrant color palette included deep greens and rich reds, and at night a "Scintillator" projected light into grand clouds of mist produced by fountains

Called "A Century of Progress", the 1933-34 Fair was determined to establish an architectural identity well out of the shadow of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago forty years before. But 1933 was in the midst of the twentieth century's worst economic depression, so economy of means was important. Manufacturers showcased new construction materials in the Vinylite House, the Good Housekeeping Stran-Steel House, the porcelain-enameled metal wall panels of the Armaco-Ferro Enamel Frameless House. The Rostone House was of built from synthetic stone made of dust and detritus from Indiana limestone quarries.

An octagonal glass-walled House of the Future was suspended from a central core, borrowing much from Buckminster Fuller's unbuilt Dymaxion home design. . Fuller’s house was not exhibited, but his ovoid Dymaxion car was. A long barroom on the fairgrounds, stocked with Schweppes’ beverages, was nicknamed "the doodlebug" for its similar shape. Considered too individualistic for committee work, Frank Lloyd Wright and Norman Bel Geddes were excluded from designing buildings for the Fair, but both published opinions and alternatives in architectural journals

In this enjoyable book, Schrenk details the influence of the Fair on New York's World’s Fair five years later. This reviewer would have liked her to trace more influences of the Chicago event upon the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, too.



Updated 1st November 2007

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