‘After the Expo, everything was modern,’ still is a lasting catchphrase in the popular history of Expo 1958 Brussels in Belgium. Architecture, however, had already turned modern long before 1958. It might sound odd today, but the organisers of the World Expo had announced the Expo’s architecture as ‘not so much modern, but twenty years ahead of its time.’ Moreover, while progressivist architecture journals, both Belgian and foreign, expressed their general appreciation for the overall rapprochement they observed between modern architecture and the public, they also did not hide their disappointment on the average state of architecture at the Expo. The Belgian CIAM delegation even declared that the architecture of Expo 1958 was “a great fiasco.” How can this Expo then be considered a laboratory for architectural and engineering experiment?

The primacy of architecture in planning a post-war world on show

Expo 1958 Brussels was officially recognised by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) as a First Class General Exhibition, constituting the first World Expo of its kind after the Second World War. The honour to host the event was awarded to Brussels, capital of Belgium, a nation which then claimed - not without cause - an exemplary role in post-war reconstruction and with ample experience in organising grand exhibitions. Already in 1952, when the Expo was still planned for 1956, the Commissioner-General motivated the need for this Expo and for sufficient funding by the Belgian government as follows: “Belgium has shown the way to the world in the recovery of its economic balance after the horrible world war that had shaken the foundations of western civilization. (…) Next to the expenditure for our rearmament it is only reasonable to put money into a work of peace. The exhibition of 1956 will confirm the defensive nature of our efforts and it will also express the lively hope of our people to persist in its peaceful activities.”1 In many ways, Expo 1958 had to demonstrate that the long period of war, hardship and reconstruction was over and that peaceful and modern times had commenced, with a bright future ahead.

The World Expo was a true triumph: 43 nations participated and over 41.5 million visitors from all over the world visited the site, among which over 80 per cent of all Belgians, 95.6 per cent of whom considered the Expo an undisputable success.2 The Organisers had introduced a generic, but inspiring and optimist theme, inviting other nations to demonstrate their contribution to a new humanism: a world at peace and unified, even if Cold War tensions were also explicit at the event. The Expo forwarded the theme of “A World View: A New Humanism” (in French, “Bilan pour un Monde plus Humain”) and set out to testify to the benefits of recently developed technologies and the importance of science to the daily life of Man. Professing renewal and progress, on the one hand the Organisers of Expo 1958 honoured the main characteristics and traditions of World Expos through the adoption of both their spirit and their organisational and spatial features. On the other hand, Expo 1958 intentionally differed from its predecessors. Altered conceptions of international relations, changing ideas on progress, rising affluence, the development of the modern welfare state and new building programmes determined the contemporary conditions in which this post-war International Exhibition took shape.

"In contemporary discussions of Expo 1958, probably more than for Expos of today, many discussions centred on architecture"

Expo 1958 was to display a world at peace, revelatory of new power relations and diplomatic positions. Scholarly studies already discussed the complex manners in which the national representations at Expo 1958 reflected tensions, homeland discourses and reconstructed national identities.3 These pavilions were studied as beacons of post-war modern national building policies, and their dissidents. In contemporary discussions, probably more than today in the context of World Expos, many discussions centred on architecture. During the build-up to the opening of the Expo, the Organisers demonstrated themselves as skilled communicators, setting out a general, progressive image of the event, in which architecture obtained a central position through the presentation of models of pavilions, the inclusion of these models in cartoon-like projections of the future exhibition site and the mediatisation of the construction activities on site. Also later, during and after the Expo, architecture remained a central focus, for instance through the organisation of the Expo 1958 architecture competition: the Challenge d’Architecture de l’Exposition Universelle or the Trophée de l’Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles 1958.

The Belgian Organisers had asked the foreign commissioners “to treat the architecture of their pavilions with particular care. We seek to honour the architectural effort of participating nations with an award for the best nation and its architect.”4 Stating that BIE regulations provided for an official competition among the products presented at the Expo but offered no possibility to reward the architects of the pavilions, the Commissariat considered the prize as a means to raise visitors’ interest in the architectural efforts of the participating nations. The Organisers’ choice to put forward the primacy of a pavilion’s architecture over the individual exhibits can be considered coherent with the evolution of exhibition architecture, but also with their attempts to dissociate Expo 1958 from the many contemporary trade fairs by raising architectural standards. Eventually, the architectural challenge was won by Josef Hrubý, František Cubr and Zdeněk Pokorný for their design of the Czechoslovakian pavilion.

"The Organisers’ choice to privilege a pavilion’s architecture over the individual exhibits is in line with their attempts to dissociate Expo 1958 from contemporary trade fairs"

It is not clear if the Organisers succeeded in effectively raising the attention of national committees by their architectural initiatives, but the competition is most probably a clear sign of a rising general attention for architectural representation in the wider discussions of the Expo. An important detail, however, is that the Organisers did not suggest to be modern, nor to innovate, nor to rely on daring techniques. Moreover, if the architecture of the projects built under their own supervision can be taken as measure of the Organisers’ vision of an appropriate exhibition architecture and not just as a neutral decor , then their position on post-war modern architecture seems rather mitigated – a claim that can be supported by looking at the work of the architects of the organisers’ Technical Service.

A laboratory for exhibition architecture?

The specific context of the World Expo, marked by a high density of buildings, all of which are trying to demonstrate something and all of which crying for visitors’ attention, seemed to create conditions which some critics considered beneficial, others detrimental to architecture. Either way, this observation of the special condition of Expos could as well confirm the functioning of the World Expo site as a “laboratory” for architecture: a place where architects and their production are “tested”, and thus: behave differently, or even a place which seems to invite for innovations of all kinds. The panorama of architecture at Expo 1958 questions this situation of laboratory and takes up, in all its diversity, an ambiguous position with respect to progress in architecture. What is clear, is that as the first major post-war World Expo, expectations of both professionals and the public at large were very high.

Some projects wholeheartedly confirmed the Expo as an ideal condition for architectural innovation within the discipline of architecture. Le Corbusier’s pavilion for the Dutch electronics firm Philips is most probably the most telling and “futurist” example: in its engineering options (reinforced concrete hypar shells, engineers: Hoyte C. Duyster of contractor Strabed and Yannis Xenakis of Le Corbusier’s office), in its architectural approach, but most of all in its re-definition of the use of media in the exhibit. The multi-media spectacle, the exhibits and the architecture of the pavilion were designed to reinforce each other, creating a multi-layered, complex experience evocative of the modern experiences in contemporary society.

Le Corbusier announced his ambitions to the client as follows: “The reason for my intervention is not to make once again another room in my career, but to create with you the first “electronic play”, electronic, synchronic, in which light, design, couleur, volume, movement and ideas come together in one surprising whole, well-accessible, of course, by the public at large.”5 The highly complex and fully artificial environment was designed as an experiment in the steering of human experiences by controlled, artificial situations and layered messages. The architecture of the pavilion was no longer a mere “bearer” of the new media, but became an integral part of it. The pavilion was designed as a “machine to educate and to think,” a show intended to evoke emotional reactions to provoke the spectator to “take part” in the show by giving the message a personal interpretation and meaning. Although realised through the latest advances of technology, the pavilion brought a complex, slightly critical message on the impact of technology and science on the daily life of modern Man. A similar ambition was planned for the Polish pavilion by Jerzy Sołtan and his team,6 but this project remained, unfortunately, unexecuted.

"Was a fenced, ephemeral event a relevant context for experiments in post-war architecture?"

The Expo as an architectural laboratory not only performs the “tests” of the professionals of building – architects and engineers – but also of the commissioners of pavilions and Organisers of the Expo. Most commissioners wanted to convey the image of a post-war modern and prosperous nation or company. The Organisers wanted to offer a glimpse of the future, demonstrating a universalist humanism in line with the theme of the Expo. The lasting impression of the many, juxtaposed and superposed modern representations at the Expo resulted in a general rapprochement between modern architecture and the public at large, who had always been rather critical of modernist buildings and design. Most informed professionals considered this as a major contribution of the Expo, one of which it was expected that it would bear fruit also beyond the fences of the laboratory. British architecture historian and critic James M. Richards was most clear about this feat, concluding that “Exhibitions have more than an entertainment value. To architects they present an opportunity of, as it were, flexing their muscles in public and showing what feats they are capable of when uninhibited by the responsibilities of permanence; to the public they offer an experience of a world where everything is modern. (...) which is endangered only by the fact that exhibition buildings are, by their nature, somewhat fantastic and showy, and the public’s erroneous impression that outrageous constructions and outlandish forms are what modern architecture is all about may be confirmed by what it sees there.”7

These “outrageous constructions and outlandish forms” indeed gave rise to divergent criticism, even if it were these forms – think of the Atomium or the Civil Engineering Arrow (in itself an engineering feat) – the public associated the modern architecture of the Expo with. While they never formulated it as such, much of the criticism by contemporary architects could be united by the question of the Expo’s relevance as an all too sterile laboratory for contemporary architecture: Was a fenced, ephemeral event with controlled, simplified and embellished representations of the post-war world a relevant context for experiments in post-war architecture, desperately searching to re-invent its position in the changed, post-war society and seeking to link up with “real life” beyond the boundaries of the discipline, and certainly beyond those of the Expo grounds?

Which post-war modern architecture?

Most pavilions at Expo 1958 were built in a modern idiom, but by the end of the 1950s official commissioners and their architects, all over the world, struggled with the universalist claims of modern architecture, with its worldwide spread, its acclaimed purely rational basis and its changing societal position. This struggle with diversity in modernism did not result in a state of crisis at the Expo, however. The British Architects’ Journal even saw it as a positive tendency, concluding that ‘the exhibition has emphatically given the lie to the old jibe that Modern Architecture is a language in which you can only say one thing. This is, in a sense, the natural consequence of universalization, for any language … tends to be enriched when more people use it and for more diverse purposes.’8

More recently, Sarah Williams-Goldhagen and Réjean Legault have clarified and illustrated these post-war doubts within the discipline of architecture in their still convincing book Anxious modernisms,9 demonstrating the many hesitations and lack of confidence among post-war architects and this, in a period generally associated with a joyful, carefree and light-footed architecture. The latter idiom of architecture was surely present at Expo 1958, but it cannot be considered a dominant tendency. It was the case, for instance, in the Brazilian pavilion by Sergio Bernardes, a light, open steel struction with a sweeping hanging roof and a tropical garden in the centre, illustrative of the new building techniques mastered in Brazil, but also the spatial qualities associated with freedom, leisure and airiness: open, curving and lightweight.

Similar observations can be made for the Yugoslavian pavilion by Vjenceslav Richter, ‘an almost unearthly, genial architectonic thinking’10 according to Flemish critic K.N. Elno. Non-aligned Yugoslavia constructed a lightweight steel structure with an open ground floor and a light-flooded interior of complex spatial qualities, in which architecture and exhibition were staged in unison. Using very different strategies and tectonics, the open and large pavilion of international transportation by the Belgian architects Robert Courtois, Henri Montois, Thierry and Fréderique Hoet-Segers, Jacques Goossens-Bara and Robert Moens de Hase (with engineer Abraham Lipski and decorator Eliane Havenith) for this open shelter of 200 metres long and 70 metres wide, evoked a similar, universal image of surveyability and playfulness while referring to an airplane wing constructed out of steel and clad in aluminium. For its structural optimisation and its innovative material use, the pavilion was later awarded the international Reynolds Aluminium Award. Jury member Pier Luigi Nervi gave his motive on the occasion: “This work demonstrates the indissoluble relation between architectural aspects and structural substance.”11 These are only a few, high-end examples of lightness and openness of what were considered a new kind of open, liberated space, including the new technological means used to achieve it, which seem to confirm the image of Expo 1958 as a festive, all-modern exhibition, demonstrative of a merry, mid-century modernism. The full picture is, however, much more complex, especially when considered in the context of the ongoing international architectural debate.

Glass boxes and more class boxes

Architecture critics of the time tried to detect dominant tendencies at Expo 1958 and most of their accounts were either ambiguous, or quite critical. It is confirmed, however, that Expo 1958 was considered an important architectural event, and that was all the more true for the pavilions of the participating nations. The British Architects’ Journal published lavishly on Expo 1958 in its May 1958 issue, claiming that “The Brussels Universal and International Exhibition is the most important architectural event of 1958 … it is also a very good exhibition.”12 In a retrospective overview, the editor-in-chief of the French magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui Alexandre Persitz also concluded that Expo 1958 “allowed for a unique confrontation and took place at a crucial moment.”13 In August 1958, the British Architectural Review devoted an entire issue to Expo 1958. As cited above, Richards argued that modern architecture was omnipresent, but also that “the predominance of the glass-box-curtain-wall theme suggests that Brussels is not one of those exhibitions to which history will look back as the starting point of some new stylistic trend.”14

Also, British architect, designer and critic Misha Black saw little innovative approaches and found that “all… have adopted the present all-pervading international style of architectural and industrial design” and that Expo 1958 “is more a statement of the position attained than a signpost to the future.”15 In her short, largely depreciative article on Expo 1958, American critic Sibyl Moholy-Nagy gave air to irritation, reporting on “avenues of glass boxes on stilts, followed by more glass boxes on stilts, some of Miesian austerity, some adorned with spiky metal abstractions, of which one never wants to see another example.”16 While several important international voices mentioned the contemporary boredom with the glass box, for several architects this pavilion typology was still a valuable expression of their contemporary ideas on a modern, post-war pavilion. However, only few reached the level of technical refinement allowing to identify with a “Miesian” approach – a reference to the refined detailing of the work of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Karl Schwanzer, for instance, in his Austrian pavilion proposed a main exhibition building as a square, translucent box carried by four central columns, raised one storey above the ground. The building had a square plan and a structure in welded steel. This pavilion was shaped by a hollow square plan and its exhibition floor cantilevered outwards to leave a “floating” impression. At night, the translucent façades lit up from the inside, which, together with the light tubes in the ceiling of the ground floor, turned the pavilion into a giant lampion with an almost weightless outlook.

One of the most noted and commented glass box pavilions at the Expo was probably the pavilion of the Federal Republic of Germany by Egon Eiermann and Sep Ruf. The pavilion was not just one box, but a chain of eight interconnected glass boxes, each two or three storeys high. The buildings, located in a park site, were conceived following (combinations of) a standard module and were connected by covered walkways. The facades were marked by an extremely refined detailing, resulting in a kind of neutral, highly transparent volumes. Eiermann and Ruf had created a large, but intelligible edifice, arranged on a human scale, which not only dominated and structured the exhibition, but also the enclosed garden. The exhibition also, conceived by Hans Schwippert, was inspired by the concept of transparency and had the challenging task to bring the first post-war German representation to the international stage: showing promising progress, but not devoid of referencing to the aftermath of the Second World War either.

"Many of the comments discussing architectural refinement and engineering mastering were inspired by the apparent Cold War competition at the Expo"

The Soviet (USSR) pavilion was another noteworthy glass box, albeit one which was received very differently. It was the first commission for an international project following the new official party directives on architecture (1955), attacking the “formalism” or aesthetic formulae and insisting on far-reaching industrialisation and standardisation.17 Its brief stressed constructional logic and economy, demanding a project of which the “architectural image reflects the greatness and powerful capacity of the Soviet Union and demonstrates the capacities of the Soviet construction industry.” The pavilion had to be realised as a single, glazed and simple rectangular volume, which was forwarded as a fit reflection of the nation’s “powerfulness” and an expression of its “power and clarity of ideology.” The edifice’s construction type had to be “contemporary and progressive, for rapid erection and disassembly, with return for re-erection in Moscow.” The winning and built project was designed by the relatively young architects Alexander Boretskii, Iurii Abramov, Victor Dubov and Anatole Polianskii (engineers: Iuli Ratskevich, Xeni Vasil’eva).

German architecture historian and critic Jürgen Joedicke used a well-known touchstone to judge the USSR’s Expo 1958 participation: “the difference between the solution of 1937 on the World Expo in Paris is apparent: instead of massive walls and neoclassical decors, there’s a glass façade with a definite fully modernist looking portico. Yet the interior is an absolute disappointment; it is interchangeable with the one of 1937. Merely the envelop has changed, inside all sticks to the old.”18 Architect’s Journal wrote: “The engineering detail itself seems to have been conceived with little regard for the visual effect (...) A building like this – which is, after all, typical of what was being done in England in the ‘twenties’ – makes one realize what a long way we have in fact travelled in the direction of inter-professional understanding.”19 American Architectural Forum spoke of “the massive technological greenhouse of the USSR”,20 while Jane Fiske McCullogh in the American magazine Industrial Design concluded: “It tries to be monumental, but without artistic control of proportion, scale and elegance, it is just too big. It emulates a kind of western modernism that it doesn’t understand. (...) it reveals, quietly but directly, a government that has no use for human sensibilities.”21

Clearly, many of the comments discussing architectural refinement and engineering mastering were inspired by the Cold War competition which was most apparent at the World Expo site: the Organisers had allotted adjacent sites to both Cold War superpowers at the Square of Nations, the heart of the Foreign Section, hence setting up a situation of open comparison and possible competition. Again, modern architecture took up a complex and important role in this confrontation. A pavilion typology that was countered as a post-war modern cliché by specialists – the glass box pavilion – was still considered relevant for its functional and ideological transparency by important architects and commissioners, and remained a central reference in evaluations considering the political aftermath of the Second World War, post-war image building and rising Cold War tensions.

National identity as a motor to delicate experiments

The Organisers called for the expression of national identity in the post-war international pavilions and seemed to have received a broad response, echoed in divergent architectural idioms with national flavours. Some nations simply quoted a national or local architecture, as they might have done for 100 years already, like Thailand, Morocco and Tunisia, or Liechtenstein, to name only a few. Architects commissioned by other nations included the decorative or architectural traditions of their nations in the modern architecture of the pavilion, often with refreshing results. This is the case in the pavilions of Venezuela, Mexico or Turkey (itself a variation on the glass box), among others. In other cases, the expression of local (building) traditions, vernacular specificities or evocations of local conditions were deeply embedded in the architects’ post-war work, largely irrespective of the Organisers’ call. These pavilions demonstrated a critical integration of modern architecture and local specificity, not as much to respond to the context of the World Expo, but mainly as part of a personal quest for a new type of modern architecture, more adequate in its expression, and responding to contemporary needs.

Japan’s pavilion at Expo 1958 had to reflect a new, peaceful and democratic Japan or, as the catalogue declared: “a first-rank industrial country with no envies toward other countries in the world.”22 The Japanese Commissioner invited architect Kunio Maekawa to design the complete pavilion, both building and exhibition. The architect was by then recognised as one of the leading figures in the movement of modern Japanese architecture. The exhibition was constructed around the theme of “The Japanese Hand and the Machine”, a script which presented a recognisable focus to the visitors, through which the pavilion’s architecture, exhibits and presentation illustrated the relation between modernisation and heritage in post-war Japan. Maekawa designed an airy pavilion, conceived as a single space wrapped around a courtyard and erected with modern materials and techniques, but reminiscent of ancient Japanese proportion systems and spatial approaches. The latest exhibition techniques were complemented with subtle fragments of traditional buildings, united in an unpretentious, almost withdrawn presentation. The pavilion, in fact, consisted of little more than a shelter; “A shelter in the garden,” as Maekawa referred to it.23

The pavilions of Norway (architect Sverre Fehn) and Finland (architect Reima Pietilä) demonstrated a similar sensibility which aimed at evocating the local conditions of light and specific sense of place, through the use of local materials, wood mainly, in distinctly modern pavilions with clear architectural ambitions. By an integrated approach of architecture, structure and exhibition and through subtle experimentation with light and shadow, the young Fehn sought to create a suggestive space, aiming at evoking the “magic” of the place (Norway in Brussels) and the playing of the soft, shadowless Norwegian light to stimulate an intense sensory experience with the visitors. Nonetheless, Fehn was equally fully engaged with the technological aspects of his modular pavilion. In contrast to the transparent and light Norwegian pavilion, the young Reima Pietilä had designed the Finnish pavilion as an almost completely closed interior space, in order to explore the mysterious atmosphere of the Finnish forest. Seemingly in contrast to the poetic approach to the interior, the exterior volume was a permutation of 22 parallelepipeds or “slices” in wood with slightly varying sizes. Yet Pietilä used the image of mathematically controlled architecture to criticise the module logic in planning by opposing the interior and the exterior and by suggesting an alternative to the many rational, transparent samples of modern architecture by offering “a kind of lyrical background, an irrational aspiration to link up with something that could be felt genuine by the whole nation.”24 The result were two modest, but highly attractive pavilions, which were equally appreciated in the professional press. As one article in the Belgian popular press concluded on the pavilions of Finland and Norway: “They are not more beautiful, nor more important, nor more charmingly dressed, but they are different and everyone has seen them, everyone is a bit in love or a bit jealous.”25

"The reference to the vernacular in Italy's pavilion was an explicit critique to the 'formalistic structuralism' the architects expected to find at Expo 1958"

Like the pavilions of Japan and Finland, Italy’s pavilion also took up references to local, vernacular architecture to build a modern pavilion to demonstrate the post-war prosperity of this former Axis power. However, the intellectual position taken by the architects’ team behind the Italian proposal – a heterogenous group of the BBPR studio (Lodovico Barbiano di Belgioioso, Enrico Peresutti and Ernesto N. Rogers), Ignazio Gardella, Amedeo Luccichenti and Vincenzo Monaco, Giuseppe Perugini and Ludovico Quaroni, all architects known and praised in the architectural press for their modern work – was decisively different. Their reference to the vernacular was an explicit critique to what they referred to as the “formalistic structuralism” they expected to find at Expo 1958. In contrast, they proposed a sort of Italian, Mediterranean village: a cittadina, complete with white stuccoed houses, cobblestone alleyways and a castello, a sort of quiet architectural presence, which, ironically, became the centre of a heated discussion on style and progress in architecture.

While most foreign visitors appreciated the pavilion as a lively holiday memory in Italy, others, Italians mainly, including the commissioners of the pavilion, were at a loss by this seemingly non-modern pavilion, considering it as an “elegy for a regressing and reactionary Italy, barely fleeing from a nervous breakdown for it has been too preoccupied with tuberculosis and famine.”26 Additionally, most of the international architectural press did not appreciate this neo-liberty approach27 in architecture and referred to it in the most negative of terms. Persitz judged it “incomprehensible,” one of the monsters “which discourages all criticism and provokes a sentiment of perplexity in front of all those expensive and sterile efforts.”28 Richards spoke of “One of the puzzles of the exhibition.”29 Afterwards too, the discussion continued: British architecture historian and critic Reyner Banham considered it part of “the Italian retreat from modern architecture” and accused the Italians of “infantile regression vis-à-vis the modern movement.”30 Ironically, mainly because of these quarrels in the aftermath of the Expo, the pavilion was finally rehabilitated as it was recognised as an important moment of convergence and of criticism vis-à-vis the mainstream trends within the post-war Modern Movement, and as such probably one of the most “progressive” pavilions of Expo 1958. Nonetheless, the context of the Expo obviously had blurred the architects’ message, and their revision and surpassing of the modernist idiom was often wrongfully interpreted as reactionary or, reversely, naïve.

A laboratory for structural experiments?

Almost as a counterpart to the universalist glass box, many of the foreign pavilions featured attempts of conveying a modern identity by using recent, often spectacular engineering techniques allowing new formal and spatial vocabularies. These pavilions also featured among the most appreciated as this approach turned the exhibition building into an exhibit, sometimes even coherent with the exhibition concept. French architect René Sarger, who himself realised two remarkable pavilions at Expo 1958 in collaboration with others (the Marie Thumas pavilion and the pavilion of France) saw that “the ‘national pavilion’ became in itself, in its architecture and its interior arrangements, an exhibition object.”31

Nonetheless, the tendency to focus on architectural representation through technological bravura, especially when combined with the ambition to demonstrate national identity, gave also rise to criticism again, mainly with respect to the larger pavilions in all sections. In Architektur und Wohnform,32 Joedicke did not appreciate the gigantic size of the pavilions, nor the quantity and nature of the exhibits, which resulted, according to him, in a “fair of national vanities.” The main effect of this “carnival of forms,” Joedicke argued, was nothing else than a general numbness with the visitors. Roman architect, critic and theoretician Bruno Zevi even considered this as a sign of crisis in architecture, as the situation demonstrated that in “coping with the free subject of an exhibition pavilion, it seems as if architectural imagination no longer bears fruit.”33 The problem of modern architecture at Expo 1958 Brussels, Zevi suggested, was the fact that the pavilions were used as “building metaphors,” (over)loaded with symbolism. Yet “symbolism cannot create convincing interior spaces. In order to create true human space, architecture (and the architects) must be freed from the function of adulation.”34 Especially the ostentatious use of new engineering features was not appreciated. Italian architect and critic Ernesto N. Rogers, for instance, one of the architects of Italy’s contested pavilion, concluded after one of his visits that “art is to be sought in the depth of content, not in a meaningless hypertrophy of form.”35 Structural specialists like German architect and engineer Otto Frei also deplored that the many lightweight structures had turned into “manifestations of power”, while “Lightweight construction has developed in opposition to monumental construction.”36

These critical readings do not exclude, however, that several projects remain interesting and innovative from the point of view of engineering. Moreover, it may be assumed that the formal effects of this approach – Richards “outlandish forms” - were among the reasons why the Expo’s architecture made a lasting impression on the public at large and created the image that all was modern and new and that everything was possible. Already at the time of the Expo, British specialists Renate Hobin and Richard Price delivered an instructive account on the many hanging roofs on site. They thought that while the collection was noteworthy, if not unique, few elements of true innovation in hanging roofs were to be found at the exhibition and the main problems seemed to lay in finding a fit material for the tension membrane and in its detailing. They also considered these hanging roofs, by 1958, were “theoretically completely evolved”37 and the Expo was a demonstration of this situation. In retrospect, no other World Expo seems to have that much references in the history of engineering then Expo 1958.38 The exhibition and catalogue L’Art de L’Ingénieur (1997)39, for instance, included no less than six Expo 1958 structures: the Atomium, the pavilions of France, Marie Thumas, Pan American Airlines, Philips and the signal to the Gate of Nations.

The pavilions of France (architect: Guillaume Gillet, engineer roof: René Sarger, engineer façade: Jean Prouvé) and Marie Thumas (architects: Lucien-Jacques Baucher, Jean-Pierre Blondel and Odette Filippone, engineers: René Sarger and Jean-Pierre Batellier) are early cablenet structures, each of them with a specific accomplishment. The roof and walls of the Marie Thumas pavilion, 53 metres by 37 metres across and 12 metres high, were composed of hypars (or saddle shapes) and conoids, shaping a tent with six tops. The tent was dressed in Texaglass, a kind of supple plastic of which the translucent variety was used in the main short façade. Its load bearing structure consisted of four pairs of lattice steel posts, pre-stressed cables and light joists. The complex shape and structure of the Marie Thumas pavilion was a challenge to contemporary calculation, as it was inaccessible to analytical methods. Moreover, the hypothesis formulated by the engineer Batellier of Sarger’s CETAC office was rejected by the Belgian technical control bureau SECO, who stipulated that wind tunnel tests were compulsory. Yet because of shortages in time and budget, these tests were never performed. As a consequence, the structure was adapted. Additionally, the work on the building site proved to be difficult and the contractor went bankrupt. While this pavilion can be considered as one of the most groundbreaking at the building site, it also illustrates the difficulties of building innovative structures under the conditions of the World Expo.

"When the Expo opened, the hypar roof of the French pavilion was the largest steel saddle roof ever built"

The construction of the French pavilion is also revelatory of the context of the Expo and the state of art of cable construction. The pavilion had to represent post-reconstruction France as a technologically advanced nation and hint to the longstanding French tradition of mastership in engineering. The structural details on the pavilion were widely published. When the Expo opened, the hypar roof of the French pavilion was the largest steel saddle roof ever built. The pavilion was an all-steel building with a rhomboid plan measuring 140 metres by 70 metres. The roof consisted of two hypars, each with two cable nets with a diagonal span up to 102 metres and sharing one side in the middle. All cables in the roof were permanently pre-tensioned. The result was a light, lofty interior space with ample exhibition space for French products. Equally, the butterfly-like silhouette of the pavilion was a strong presence on the Square of Nations, even if its position next to the footbridge was rather cramped.

Also on the Square of Nations was the pavilion of the United States by architect Edward Durell Stone. While often discussed as a clever Cold War propaganda tool, the same building is often overlooked in terms of engineering. Nonetheless, it ranks among one of the newest structural typologies and is an advanced and successful application of it. The roof of the American exhibition hall was a “bicycle wheel” roof. Although its geometry differs from other types of hanging roofs, the technology (pre-tensioning of the cables) and materials, as well as the challenge in the design of these roofs, are similar and contemporary. The drum of the column-free exhibition hall had a diameter of 104 metres and was covered by the bicycle wheel roof of which the metal ‘rim’ was supported by a double row of slender steel columns. The engineer was W. Cornelius of the German construction firm Köln-Wesselinger Eisenbau. The roof itself consisted of two series of steel cables, attached radially between ‘hub’ and rim and covered with translucent plastic sheets. Price and Hobin remarked: “The US pavilion is rather difficult to assess, because the dominantly formal approach left few problems to be solved in primarily technical terms.” This subtle presentation of advanced technology fits the general exhibition concept of the pavilion and is in line with the Cold War representations of the United States staged by USIA, the United States Information Agency. The exhibition committee had decided not to stress the latest findings and products of American science and industry, in favour of its accomplishment in the cultural fields, including popular culture. It was understood that European visitors already knew that the United States was an economic, industrial and scientific superpower. Innovation, according to this pretence, was self-evident in the United States.

Rapprochement, application or experiment?

Even if many reactions and positions on the architecture of Expo 1958 can be brought back directly to the protected environment of the World Expo, the diversity of modern architectures at this Expo and the contradictions in the reception of these architectures together reveal the complexity of architectural culture at the end of the 1950s. The sheer quantity of noteworthy buildings, the wide and intense attention devoted to architecture and engineering in both professional and general press, but also the richness in topics assessed through the discussions of the Expo’s buildings all are demonstrative of the general primacy of architecture at the event.

This architecture was distinctly modern, for many reasons and in many ways. It is unclear, however, if the reach and influence of the Expo in the field of architecture was decisive. Expo 1958 probably facilitated the acceptance of existing tendencies in post-war modern architecture with the public at large, thus functioning as a testing ground for the merging of modern architecture with post-war popular culture, and vice versa. However, with respect to the discipline of architecture, Expo 1958 proved to be more a site of application than a site of experiment. Many important contemporary architects and engineers participated in Expo 1958 and realised crucial buildings in their oeuvre in this context. The juxtaposition of their work turned the exhibition site into an extraordinary sample of the post-war architecture and engineering, and of the merging of both disciplines, rendering visible not only the many nuances and contradictions within the Modern Movement, but also an increasing technological mastering and involvement with contemporary societal or political issues: not in the least the Cold War tensions, but also societal challenges like housing, diversity, individual freedom and (national or local) identity. The diversity of architectures represented the post-war world as a liberated field of debate and divergent positions with the Modern Movement as a widely shared reference.

This article was first published in the 2021-22 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled "World Expos: Architectural Labs"


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