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A (World's) Fair to Remember

Hanover, Germany, shakes off the welcome mat for millions of visitors at the 2000 World Exposition.

The Canadian Pavillon at Expo 2000, image
Photo caption
Fair-goers mingle outside the oversize maple leaf at the Canadian Pavillon.

The Germans are definitely up to something. Seven days a week, heavy trucks rumble toward a massive site just outside of Hanover, carrying steel, glass, wood, and cement. When darkness falls, floodlights illuminate the shapes of workers, heavily clothed against the final cruelties of the Prussian winter, as they weld and hammer, dig and pour. It is a vision of efficiency, a wonder of scale. And on June 1, when the result is finally unveiled, the whole world will be watching with bated breath.

That's because the whole world is in on the plan. More than 170 nations—from Andorra to Mongolia to Zimbabwe—have cast their lot with the Germans. They've packed up their hopes, their visions, their natural wonders and national curiosities, and brought them to foreign soil. In the end, working side by side, they will have assembled the largest global pageant of the new millennium: the 2000 World Exposition.

For everyone involved, it is a historic moment. For the Germans, it is the public relations opportunity of a lifetime. Eleven years since the Berlin Wall toppled and 55 years after the end of World War II, Germany is being entrusted with the world exposition (or "world's fair" to us Americans) for the first time in history. Painfully aware of their enduring reputation as the bad guys of the 20th century, the Germans are looking to the exposition (and the influx of 40 million expected visitors) as a chance to present the world with a completely different image: that of an open-minded, cultured nation of the future.

But Germany wasn't chosen to host Expo 2000 because it was in need of good press. The Bureau International des Expositions in Paris selected Germany because its proposal was a standout for its progressive, innovatative, and environmentally conscious approach. The winning theme, "Humankind, Nature, Technology— A New World Arising," has defined the purpose of this year's exposition: to create a paradigm in which technology—in harmony with nature—serves humanity. Within this new framework, participating nations have been asked to present local solutions to global problems. Or, to paraphrase the man who once told Germany, "I am a jelly doughnut," to ask not what the world can do for their country, but what their country can do for the world.

Responses to this question have been as varied and individual as the nations giving them. Forty of the African countries are tackling the issues of water conservation and desert usage, banding together in a hall to be opened by Nelson Mandela. The tiny, space-conscious Netherlands has constructed a dramatic, space-saving pavilion—a multitiered structure affectionately referred to as the "Dutch Big Mac." The meat patty (Floor 2) consists of a field of blooming tulips; the garnish (Floor 4) is a living forest.

As a gesture of global community, some participants have elected to share their national treasures with the world. Ethiopia will be gingerly packing up "Lucy," the country's famed 3.2 million-year-old hominid skeleton, for the event; the Vatican will be displaying the Mandylion, purportedly the oldest existing portrait of Christ, outside the papal chambers for the first time.

Still others have taken an Epcot Center approach to presentation, re-creating their national landscapes to spectacular effect. The fjord-happy Norwegians have designed a 49-foot waterfall that will cascade in Scandinavian glory off the front of their pavilion, showcasing the nation's success with hydroelectric power. The United Arab Emirates' exhibit on greening the desert will be housed inside a life-size Arabian fortress—complete with palm trees, live camels, and a 747 jumbo jet load of sand flown in for added authenticity.

The ambitiousness of these designs is all the more impressive when you consider that Germany has requested that participants submit a detailed after-use plan for their structures—both in the name of sustainability and to avoid an "exposition graveyard" like the one left behind from the '92 event in Seville. Most pavilions are slated to enjoy good karma in their next life: Nepal's wooden temple will be reassembled in Hamburg as a tourist information center; the Christian Churches pavilion will be used to reconstruct a Cistercian monastery in central Germany. Most spectacularly (and pragmatically), the Japanese have constructed their elegant, 38,000-square-foot pavilion from rolls of paper. At Expo's end, the building will simply be recycled.

While these Green visions may be awe-inspiring (and certainly are enough to mollify Al Gore for months), organizers also plan to wow visitors with a heavy dose of good old-fashioned entertainment. More than a hundred activities and performances are scheduled for each of the Expo's 153 days, from a marathon, two-day, 20-hour staging of Goethe's unabridged Faust to original modern dance by Vietnamese choreographer Ea Sola to a stadium-shaking concert by Santana. Between the exhibition halls, visitors will also encounter eye-opening art installations—like the "heaven and hell" Ferris wheel that Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco has designed to revolve halfway below ground—as well as nomadic herds of fortune-tellers, dancers, jugglers, and impressionists trained to perform spontaneously. Kids and teens can get in on the fun, too, with special rock-climbing areas to clamber up, international in-line skating stars on hand to provide expert advice, and a constant flow of pop, rock, and hip-hop from the Beat Box stage.

Once the sun sets, the entertainment level at the Expo is expected to get downright devilish. One surefire highlight will be the nightly performance of Flambée, a pyrotechnic spectacle on the Expo's man-made lake. As an alternative to environmentally unfriendly fireworks, the show will feature 80-foot-high water curtains, laser and film projections, and cyclists carrying Bengal flare packs. Afterward, those not singed beyond recognition can migrate over to the 4,000-person-capacity disco and shake their international groove thang until 4 a.m.

Of course, if 395 acres of entertainment and innovation aren't enough to keep you occupied, there's still the entire country to explore—a country dressed up, slicked back, and ready to present its new face to visitors. In Hanover alone, nearly every attraction has received a face-lift, from the dreamily ornate town hall to the manicured hedgerows and baroque fountains of the Herrenhausen Gardens. Lufthansa has nearly doubled its service to Flughafen Hannover, bringing in seven additional jets for the job. A new bullet train line to Berlin has been constructed—cutting the trip to the capital down to only an hour and a half. And the newly widened autobahns to Duesseldorf and Hamburg will be patrolled by Volkswagen mechanics ready to assist broken-down motorists with trademark German efficiency and a brand-new smile.

June 1. The Germans will be ready.

World's Fair 2000:

Back to the Future

By Bruce Anderson

Americans seem to have soured on world's fairs. The last world's fair held in the United States, Expo '84 in New Orleans, was an unmitigated financial disaster. After the 1992 fair in Seville, Congress decided that it would not use taxpayers' money to fund future U.S. exhibitions at international expositions.

We are a nation that once loved world's fairs. We put them on postage stamps and the cover of Time magazine. We made movies about them (remember Elvis in It Happened at the World's Fair?) and wrote songs about them (most notably, of course, "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis").

How did these expositions so completely capture our fancy? World's fairs seemed to hatch right out of our imagination, punctuating the landscape with oversize, comic book structures like the Eiffel Tower (which was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris) and the Space Needle (Seattle, 1962), the Trylon and Perisphere (New York City, 1939-40) and Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome (Montreal, 1967).

The buildings looked like temples to the surreal and extravagant; inside, they were mostly shrines to the practical, places to worship technology. World's fairs have always been the home of the better mousetrap. The very first world's fair, the 1851 Crystal Palace exposition in London, featured British furniture that was, gasp, machine made. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 gave the public its first look at the telephone, the typewriter, and the Singer sewing machine. Many of the fair-goers who attended the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago were seeing electricity, which lit the outdoor lamps and triggered the fountains, for the first time. At the 1939-40 New York fair, visitors had their first glimpse of television—and nylon stockings. Sometimes the technology was more fanciful. Sparko, the electric dog, appeared at that same New York fair.

World's fairs have been a place to have fun, too. The Midway Plaisance at the 1893 Chicago fair featured the first Ferris wheel, a monster that measured 250 feet in diameter. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show played the Midway, too. The 1904 St. Louis fair hosted the Summer Olympics and introduced Americans to iced tea and ice cream cones. The entertainment at the 1962 Seattle fair ranged from Igor Stravinsky conducting his Firebird Suite to the Ringling Bros. circus. Often, the entertainment wasn't so family friendly. Little Egypt danced the hootchy-kootchy at the 1893 fair; Sally Rand's fan dance became famous at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago; visitors to the 1939-40 New York fair let striptease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee entertain them.

Today, Americans can go elsewhere for entertainment, new technology, and bawdy titillation. In an age of cheap air travel, satellite communication, and the Internet, the idea of gathering the world in one place may appear redundant, even irrelevant. Fairs that once spent a great deal of time and energy anticipating the future now seem an odd vestige of the past.

But before we write off the world's fair as a doddering anachronism, we might want to reconsider. The cultural offerings—be they Japanese rock gardens or German biergartens, Spanish flamenco or Indonesian monkey dances—found at a typical world's fair have long provided curious travelers with a one-stop world tour. Moreover, with business, technology, and the arts recognizing fewer and fewer national boundaries, our lives today are inextricably linked with those of people everywhere. Almost nothing brings that point home as well as more than 170 nations gathering together, to share food, music, and ideas about the future, on a 395-acre postage stamp in the German city of Hanover.

Photos by Steffen Lowe/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.