The exuberant London Olympics made me want to revisit the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, the city where I grew up.
The Space Needle, Monorail and Bubblelator of “Century 21” not only pointed to an exciting technology-driven future. The fair did what great urban spectacles like the Olympics are supposed to do: It put the city on the map, jump-starting a half-century of transformation.
The history of Olympic bids and World’s Fairs is littered with costly failures. Beijing’s Olympics site is dominated by the spectacular empty husk of the Birds Nest stadium. Athens’ stunning venues by Santiago Calatrava attract aficionados of ruin porn.
Hoping to avoid such fates, London focused its Olympics planning on revitalizing an ignored swath of its East End. The costs rose, however, to as much as $14 billion.
Cities are reassessing Olympics bids. Recession-wracked Madrid, looking longingly on Barcelona’s 1992 success, promises a shoestring games if it’s selected for 2020.
I thought about what Seattle did right — for about $500 million in today’s dollars — as I walked the 74-acre fair site. The iconic Space Needle still dominates the city, with an athletic design that sums up the era’s faith in the futuristic with purposefully elegant engineering.
The fair’s centerpiece was the science pavilion, boxlike exhibition structures arranged around a sparkling pool from which elegant fretwork arches rise. It showed visitors the degree to which the city was evolving from hick timber town to engineering hub. Boeing, which dominated Seattle’s economy in the 1960s the way cars dominated Detroit, had inaugurated its 707 — the plane that ushered in today’s era of mass air transportation — in 1958.
The much-modernized Pacific Science Center remains one of the best designs of architect Minoru Yamasaki in his signature Modernist Gothic style. He would find global fame designing New York’s World Trade Center.
I walked past the Seattle Repertory Theater and the Seattle Opera, both founded the year after the fair’s success allowed Seattle to chase big-city cultural dreams.
A distinctive arena with angular columns holding up a handsome cable-suspended roof has served well for hockey and basketball, though San Francisco hedge-fund manager Christopher Hansen now seeks to replace it.
The fair was charmingly modest, and lucky to get far better architecture from talented locals (Victor Steinbrueck, Paul Thiry) than New York City’s overblown extravaganza of 1964. It was said to have made money.
The site still hosts numerous festivals and celebrations. Frank Gehry designed the Experience Music Project for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It showcases a strange amalgam of rock-music history and science-fiction memorabilia. Last spring, a collection of Dale Chihuly glass art opened in a greenhouse-style pavilion erected at the base of the Space Needle.
Ten million people visited the fair in what was then an unpretentious, middle-class city. A lot of them liked the mountains, picturesque bays and slow pace. There was a civic-builder class preparing the city for the future with regionalized planning and sewers that cleared up the crown jewel of Lake Washington.
Seattle also had a powerful engine of innovative growth in the form of Boeing, and a growing customer-focused retail chain called Nordstrom. So people came.
Seattle looked like a write-off around 1970, though, when Boeing was forced to lay off two-thirds of a work force of about 80,000. Yet those who stayed and worked had the skills to take on new challenges a decade later when fledgling companies like Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon.com were ready to grow fast.
Almost everyone who was around then recognizes the fair as a turning point. It was an expression of civic energy and an emerging urban identity. The fair didn’t invent that identity; it proclaimed it to a world that didn’t know.
Barcelona hosted the most successful recent Olympics, but it spent big on transformative infrastructure, as London did.
The lesson of Seattle’s budget World’s Fair is a subtle one. If a city doesn’t have an economy and amenities to draw people, neither the glitziest fair pavilions nor the most glamorous stadiums will make a difference.