Designing the World’s Fair

Photo Courtesy of Charles Brooks

Not many people can say they have been involved in planning, designing and operating one of the world’s largest fairs.  More than 30 years later though, I can claim that and track the true start of my career as a fairgrounds architect to the 1982 World’s Fair.  The fair, located that year in Knoxville, Tenn., wasn’t my first project nor would it be the largest in my career, but it was a turning point that has led to specializing in fairgrounds design.

As an architect and Principal at MBCH Architects in the 1970’s, I was one of a small group responsible for evaluating sites, including Spokane and Toronto, and eventually part of the design team preparing the site plan and both permanent and temporary facilities for the 1982 World’s Fair.  While I was integrally involved with the design and overlay work, a few months prior to the opening of the fair, I went to work directly for the organization, serving as the Vice President of Development.  As is the case with most positions, I had my hand in a bit of everything. However, one of my primary duties once I joined on full-time, was to help oversee the design of the international pavilions including the collection and curation the exhibits, traveling across the world to do so. I traveled to Beijing to meet with the Minister of Foreign Antiquities and “lease” parts of the Great Wall of China to be on display. I traveled to Miami to meet with Peruvians and discuss the Gold artifacts and an actually mummy which they would eventually unwrap during the Fair causing quite a stir.  I even traveled to Antiqua in a trip that resulted in me enlisting a steel band and ample amounts of authentic rum for the fair.  When it was all said and done, we had recruited 27 countries to participate, more than 50 corporations and pulled the entire design off with only 12 architects.

Now, three decades later, my experience with that World Fair has led to a career of designing fairgrounds across the globe.  Immediately after finishing my work on the 1982 World’s Fair, I was contacted by individuals I’d met through the fair who were running their own fairgrounds and putting on their own large scale events.  They wanted to know how they could make their fairs and facilities on par with that of the World Fair and create an experience that was equally as memorable.  Those few phone calls I received after the end of the 1982 fair were truly the start of my specialization.  However, the experience also impacted my approach to design, leaving me with three lessons:

  • Understand the industry business
    Working directly for a fair, particularly of that magnitude, gave me a perspective that has been a tremendous asset. Understanding the inner workings of the fair industry, from operations to development, has been critical.
  • Goal setting
    Many clients after the World’s Fair came to an end mentioned to me that they wanted to emulate portions of the World’s Fair to create grander state or regional experiences.  It was clear that benchmarking and goal setting was a major motivator for executives of other fairs.  While recreating something from another state is not beneficial, understanding what works and doesn’t and setting clear goals from the outset for how you want your space to function and what kind of experience you want visitors to have can reinvigorate a fair.
  • Relationship building
    Finally, and perhaps most crucially, relationship building was key to the success of the 1982 World’s Fair. Many of the contacts I made are now friends- they’ve become clients and confidants as my career has progressed who have provided me with both advice and a better understanding of the industry throughout the years. Building relationships, both on the fairgrounds side and now, on the architecture side, relies heavily on listening. If you can listen to the goals of a client and create something that achieves those aspirations, you are succeeding.

The 1982 World’s Fair will always signify an important time in my life and an opportunity that changed the course of my career.  It was by all accounts a tremendous success, drawing more than 11 million visitors, making it one of the most popular fairs in US history; but it was also an experience that has motivated me and my colleagues to design experiences that are as memorable as that very first fair I was involved with.

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