Bibliographic Metadata

Author: Huxtable, Ada Louise
Title: The Washington, D.C. bid for the 1964 World's Fair
Date: 5/00/1960
Archive: Special Collections, Gelman Library, George Washington University
Collection name: the Greater Washington Board
Document location: Box 233, Folder 7, "The World's Fair"
Publication location: New York City, New York
Publisher: American Heritage Publishing Company

Document Full-Text


Victor Gruen proposes a plan for a 1964 Fair that could be converted into a permanent community- a full-scale demonstration of what the city

One of the most memorable inventions of the nineteenth century–a period noted for innovations in every field of human endeavor–was the International World’s Fair, more generally known by the properly pompous Victorian title of International Exposition of Art, Science, Industry, and Manufacture. it was a unique form of cross–world communication, celebrating equally the industrial revolution’s advances in technology and the smug Victorian conviction that theirs was the best of all possible worlds. It provided an unparalleled record of man’s progress and achievements and of the tastes of an adventurous age.
    Today, however, the World’s Fair is a tired institution. In spite of its brilliant past, it is a long time since it has startled the world with its products or offered stimulating or controversial ideas. No longer an instrument of genuine intellectual exchange, it has been reduced to an expeditious economic shot in the arm and an instrument of routine national propaganda. The projected New York World’s Fair for 1964 promises to be more of the same. However, out of the nebulous dreams and politicians’ proposals that have marked its birth has come one notable new idea, which, paradoxically, may never be realized at the Fair at all.
    The project, which was first proposed last year for a Washington site by the architect and planner Victor Gruen and his associates, was rejected when Washington lost the Fair to New York. It is a design that includes every facet of a Fair’s organization and construction, from its outlying approaches to its focal exhibits. But its most remarkable feature is that it is in effect a re-usable plan. For the Gruen plan would convert the fairgrounds and installations into a whole new satellite city after the Fair is over.
    Not since Daniel H. Burnham laid out his “White City”

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for the Chicago Fair of 1893 has a scheme of comparable magnitude been proposed. Unlike Burnham’s grandiose white plaster paean to the classic past, however, Gruen’s design looks ahead. And while Burnham hoped to set an example with his monumental vistas and orderly avenues and arcades–later repeated in his master plan for Chicago–the Gruen proposal does even more: it blueprints a city for the future.     Nor is this proposal just a drawing–board dream. It is a diagram based on Gruen’s practical experience ranging over twenty-five years in the fields of architecture, planning, and urban design. Probably no man in America today has a more intimate acquaintance with the ills of cities and their possible cures than he. Viennese by birth, Gruen came to this country in 1938 and has progressed from a one-man practice to his current position as head of a staff of two hundred, with principal offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. A small man with bold ideas, he combines solemnity, shrewdness, and a notoriously sharp wit. He is capable of leveling his opposition–for there is always opposition to the professional planner–with a few pertinent, devastating observations, delivered in a bland Viennese accent with traditional Viennese charm. Gruen’s office has produced some of the largest integrated architectural schemes in the country: the vast prototype shopping centers of Northland and Eastland in Detroit and Southdale near Minneapolis. He is a specialist in the problems of the deteriorating and dying downtown centers of our older cities and the author of urban redevelopment projects for Fort Worth, Texas; Rochester, New York: Kalamazoo, Michigan; St. Paul, Minnesota; Fresno, California; and Paterson, New Jersey.
    At the time when the proposal to hold a World’s Fair in 1964 became serious, Gruen was called in by a group of Washington businessmen representing the District’s Board of Trade to prepare a study of an Exposition for the nation’s capital. Los Angeles and New York were soon competing for the Fair with New York pushing Washington hard. New York already had its old 1939 Fair site at Flushing Meadow, with some remaining facilities. The competing presentations were made to a three-man President’s Commission charged with determining whether the United States should have a World’s Fair in 1964 and, if so where. Washington’s ace was Gruen’s plan, which he recommended for an area of open, rural land approximately ten miles east of the heart of the city, near Largo, Maryland. An architectural observer of the Washington scene, Frederick Gutheim, reported in the professional journal Progressive Architecture: “…while governors mayors, ambassadors, and other talking dignitaries fell over themselves, each claiming the most for their proposition, it was architect Victor Gruen who carried off the palm. Other presentations raveled at the edges where promotional claims met the hard realities of land, time, or money: Gruen’s neatly hemstitched article provided clear if admittedly preliminary answers. Unfortunately, the decision was not made on the basis of who was ready to produce what.” The committee, subjected to rival pressure groups, was more impressed by New York’s financial potential than by Gruen’s plan. Although the decision put the Washington proposal into the realm of an unrealized dream, the Gruen scheme presents New York with a major challenge; for his plan offers a contribution of permanent value. It is a concept that promises comfort, convenience, and calculated visual pleasure instead of the customary catch-as-catch-can arrangement of commercial and national exhibits; and at the same time it provides the

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caption:This diagrammatic cross section shows a small part of the Gruen plan for a Fair. One of the raised platforms stretches across the center, while the end of another platform appears at left. Visitors arrive by train on the ground level and take escalators to the Fair buildings. Not shown in the cross section are footbridges connecting the platforms.
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This is a diagrammatic visualization of the Gruen plan, designed to show the location, but not the shape of areas and buildings. The shape of the Fair would be governed by the topography of the actual site and the shapes of the buildings by their uses. All shades of green designate open areas. Large circles like (2) are the raised platforms carrying the Fair structures. Gray sections like (6) are parking areas for 100,000 cars. Heavy black lines like (7) are major arterial roads. Small circles like (8) are clusters of gas stations, motels, trailer parks, camping grounds, temporary housing, and other facilities. Broken black lines within the Fair area indicate intra-Fair passenger transit; red lines indicate intra-Fair freight and service transit. Others: (1) lagoon; (3) bus and taxi terminal; (4) rail and rapid transit terminal; (5) freight terminal; (9) heliport.

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This is a diagrammatic visualization of the city of 100,000 population which would be built on the Fair site. All shades of green indicate open areas. All heavy black lines indicate roads and transportation. (1) lagoon; (2) permanent trade center (converted); areas like (3) municipal and administrative offices (converted or retained) ; (4) amusement park (retained); (5) retail area (converted); (6) offices; areas like (7) high density residential; (8) medium density residential; (9) rail (10) bus (111), freight terminals: areas like (12) parking; areas like (13) medium density residential; (14) playground; (15) institutional and educational; (16) heliport; (17) industrial; (18) golf course; (19) playground; all complexes like (20) indicate residential areas including medium and low density housing, shopping centers, schools, churches, police, and fire departments, motels, and hotels. This is to provide a

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caption:Victor Gruen and associates

foundation for well-designed community throughout the post-Fair employment of its existing layout, services, facilities, and even some of its buildings. Such a scheme supplies a proving ground for new approaches and ideas applicable to the solution of today’s problems of rapid and scattered population expansion and the overwhelming specter of urban chaos and blight. As a practicing planner, Gruen welcomed the opportunity to put the latest and best theories into action. He realized immediately that the facilities needed to organize a modern Fair are equal to those required for a good-sized town; it was an obvious and logical step to plan an Exposition that could he effectively converted into a permanent community after the Fair had provided its six months of festivity and fun. The situation provided an unparalleled opportunity to avoid the familiar traps, pitfalls, and frustrations of uncontrolled, haphazard growth. “The new city will be a living expression of the plans and hopes of those deeply concerned with the disturbing manifestation

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caption:This sketch of the Gruen plan during the Fair shows in left foreground a cutaway section of a raised platform, with service area beneath it. At center, a walkway leads from an internal transit stop to exhibition buildings and a terrace restaurant. In left background are the, plastic-domed international shopping bazaar and footbridges connecting platforms. Right foreground contains a lagoon and a wooded picnic area.

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of our urban crisis,” said Gruen optimistically. His presentation to the President’s Commission. “It constitute a model city from which important lessons for planning and government can be derived.” If the proposal failed to carry, the lessons are still there.
    All of the familiar bugaboos of International Expositions have been anticipated and dealt with in this farsighted project. The question of traffic–the choking congestion that accompanies an influx of some 50,000,000 visitors to an urban or near urban attraction–is solved by selecting a site sufficiently removed from the city and yet easily accessible by special roads that circumvent the city and its main arteries.
    The usual temporary housing–stopgap measures that are taken to meet the jamming of facilities during Fairs, such as the jerry-built motor slums thrown up at the outskirts of Brussels in 1959–would be greatly reduced. Accommodations would be preplanned in part as permanent motels, hotels, and future housing for the new community that will have an estimated population of 100,000.
    The tragic and wasteful destruction that follows a Fair–in which good and bad architecture is torn down with equal, indiscriminating ruthlessness–would be avoided because the major structures would be retained for future civic use. In addition, the town arising from the Washington Fair was to include a government-sponsored, permanent International Trade and Development Center, utilizing some exhibition buildings, and a National Recreation and Amusement Center that was to be derived from the entertainment sector of the Fair.
    The schematic diagram on the previous page of the model Fair shows a cluster of buildings on platforms, in a park. This is surrounded by parking and transportation facilities, ringed, in turn, by an outer area of open land. (The diagram uses symbolic circles; actually the elements would take on irregular shapes to conform to the site and topographical conditions.) The total area covered by the plan is 6,000 acres,

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caption: After the Fair the raised platforms remain, with service areas beneath them. The escalator and covered, air-conditioned walkway now lead to an apartment building in foreground, surrounded by new landscaping. Offices on platform in right background replace exhibition buildings. The domed international bazaar at left becomes the main shopping center. The lagoon for water sports remains the center for recreation.

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based on 600 acres of exhibition ground, 900 acres of transportation facilities, and a surrounding, 4,500 acres or “controlled environment.”
    Such a surrounding environment has never been part of a Fair plan before. The purpose of such an all-inclusive plan, according to Gruen, is to distribute traffic flow efficiently and to provide an attractive, planned approach. He declares that “We want to avoid the slumlike, shanty-town developments which have been typical of past Fairs and which consisted of an unattractive and typical mixture of gas stations, private parking lots, temporary eating facilities, emergency housing, and posters and billboards.” The visitor would approach the Fair through what Gruen calls “a well-organized environment.” In the diagram, this outer area is represented by a green ring of 4.500 fringe acres, with major roads passing through. Between these roads are clusters of buildings and facilities–service stations, trailer parks, car rental establishments, private airfields, motels, camping grounds, and temporary housing–arranged for orderly distribution and easy accessibility by feeder roads. Then comes the narrow inner ring of the transportation area, which encloses the exhibition area at the center, with its pattern of connected platforms.
    The feature that strikes the viewer most forcibly as he studies the plan, and one that would be even more remarkable in reality, is the orderly separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic instead of the usual mélange of people and cars. This is an immediate demonstration of one of the most revolutionary tenets of modern planning philosophy: the need for complete division of various modes of traffic from one another and for separation of pedestrians from them all. It is the planner’s belief that the automobile is a mixed blessing that causes as much distress as delight. Its conveniences are sharply offset by the problems of urban paralysis that it creates. To Gruen and other professionals, the life, liberty, and salvation of the city depend on its rigid control.
    Assuming that the visitor were to approach by automobile through the countryside, he would leave his car in one of the parking lots in the transportation ring at the edge of the Fair. If he came by bus, train, taxi, or public transport, he would arrive in the same area. There is even a heliport to act as a “branch line” from the nearest airfield. A freight terminal, also located within the rink, would handle all trucking operations and freight service. From this point, an internal transportation system would take over with separate lines for people and goods. Quickly and easily, the visitor would be whisked from parking lots or terminals to the exhibition area.
    Completely free of vehicular traffic, the Fair itself consists of a series of raised platforms in a landscaped setting, as indicated by the connected circles on the diagram. On these platforms are pavilions and exhibition buildings grouped according to purpose or theme. The visitor would ascend to these buildings by escalator from the lower level of the platforms. The lower levels themselves would accommodate all internal traffic and working functions, such as heating and air conditioning plants, storage and workshops–utilities and services that would take up at least 200 more acres in a less compact plan. The exhibition platforms themselves would be a pedestrian preserve; no wheeled vehicles are necessary, for all is designed within easy walking distance. Connected by footbridges, the platforms are placed in a green park containing benches, sculpture, fountains, and a central lagoon that is also a setting for water shows and marine exhibits. The platforms and pavilions would be treated in varying ways with changes in color, lighting, and landscaping for design variety.
    Most interesting of all in the plan, however, is the subsequent metamorphosis of Fair into city, a neatly calculated trick of planning legerdemain. At first glance, “after” in the diagram on the previous page does not look much different from “before.” But closer scrutiny shows the important transformation; although the basic elements remain, certain significant changes have been made. The fairgrounds are now the downtown area of the new city. The raised platforms, the inner circulation system, all utilities, air conditioning and heating systems, parks, lagoons, sculpture, and fountains stay on to serve and beautify the new city core. Structures like the Fair’s administration and reception buildings would become the new city hail and convention center. The theaters, amusement park, concert hall, and hospital all remain. The Fair’s international bazaar becomes a downtown retail area.

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caption: Burnham’s “White City” for the 1893 Chicago Fair was laid out in wide avenues on a grand scale, but unlike Gruen’s proposal, the architecture was classic and rooted in the past.

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Within the downtown sector some locations would be converted to commercial uses or high density apartments. Public transport, freight, and parking facilities within the transportation ring would be retained to serve the city, with some of the former parking area redeveloped for medium density housing. The outer fringe area, already the site of motels, services, and some housing, would provide open land for additional low and medium density housing, schools, shopping centers, and civic services. It would also accommodate light industry, research plants, and laboratories. Provisions are indicated for golf courses, playgrounds, and regional parks.
    The development of the new city, of course, would be spread over a considerable length of time, but all of the Fair planning would be directed toward the dual-purpose land usage that would make it a practical reality. All told, permanence would be achieved on three counts: the establishment of the new satellite city itself, the retention of an amusement park, and the facilities for a continuing exposition center.
    Since World’s Fairs are known to be deficit operations, permanence would also greatly aid Fair finances. The total estimated cost of a World’s Fair today, arrived at in Gruen’s study on the basis of previous experience with large shopping centers and urban planning, is approximately $529,000,000. About $390,000,000 of this would be carried by exhibitors and concessionaires, with the remaining $139,000,000 borne by the Fair corporation. But with the conversion to permanent use of existing services and facilities such as roads, utilities, public transportation, and some buildings, some $588,000,000 of the cost would represent recoverable assets. This, according to Gruen’s figures, would leave a greatly reduced deficit of just over $50,000,000.
    Although Gruen’s plan was mapped specifically for Washington, its unusual features are proving of wide interest. It is a scheme that would be applicable for any city where sufficient open land is available, and its expert attack on modern planning problems is a challenge to municipal governments everywhere and to New York in particular. Only by producing a scheme as good as Gruen’s can New York hope to live up to the record of earlier Fairs. It is a formidable tradition, for the achievements of the nineteenth-century International Expositions were unique. In art, architecture, industry, and culture, they were the common exchange ground of all that was interesting and new. Intensely competitive, each successive exhibition attempted to cap its predecessors in the daring of its progressive constructions and the magnificence of its artistic displays. As industry leaped forward, its advances were proudly advertised, and the world came to see and learn. If industry frequently outran art, the Fairs still were the showcase of all the important technical and aesthetic experiments of the age. Today, the mementos of their prestige are collectors’ curios, but the most important souvenir of the World’s Fair was ideas.
    In recent years we have done less well. The traditional exchange of ideas has been replaced by ideological competitions and salesmen’s superconventions. The Gruen plan by offering a significant advance in Fair design, casts serious doubts on recent Fair practices. It raises particular issues as to the serviceability of New York’s Flushing Meadow location, site of the Exposition in 1939, when far fewer people and automobiles were involved than would be today. There are, however, other locations in the New York area to which the plan might be adapted. Although it leaves certain important questions unanswered such as how to deal with the many unpredictable factors of future community development, it provides a loose master framework that would make it possible to handle these factors with maximum efficiency and logic, as they arose. If New York’s 1964 Fair is to bring pleasure as well as profit, we might remember Daniel H. Burnham’s words for Chicago. “Let us make no little plans.” For the desirability of a well-designed total environment is not to be underestimated. New Yorkers, who are becoming increasingly victimized by their urban problems, anticipate plans for their 1964 Fair with understandable trepidation. If this is to be the best of all possible Fairs, in the best of all possible worlds (to borrow a bit of Victorian optimism), the ideas of Gruen’s plan might well be applied.

Ada Louise Huxtable, a contributing, editor of Progressive Architecture and author of the study Pier Luigi Nervi, wrote about “Street Furniture” in the November, 1959, Horizon.

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caption: The first World’s Fair took place in London in 1851. The Crystal Palace (above), which housed its exhibits, was a revolutionary building of glass and iron in prefabricated sections.