Nov 30, 2008


Well the news is in: I have finally finished my second round for the Graham Foundation for Architectural Research. Now I must patiently wait while they review my images and statements and decide if my world's fair project is deserving of support---which I really hope it is!

This is the 1000 word proposal I submitted:

The sun had set and the sky was a strange electric blue; here was just an empty patch by the shores of Lake Michigan, a small pier, a grove of trees shuddering in the wind under a glaringly bright streetlight, and a nondescript park building. It was November, and as the Chicago wind picked up, it was a challenge to keep my fingers warm enough to work my wooden field camera. I set up the equipment on that cold shore, and made a long exposure, encapsulating the icy nothingness that represented the approximate location where the largest pavilions of the Columbian Exposition of 1893—the Agriculture Building and the Manufacture & Liberal Arts Building—had once stood.
This location is just one of the 15 world’s fair sites that I’ve photographed so far in Europe and the United States, and these locations are only the beginning of my project, Future Passed. Currently, there exist approximately 66 world's fair sites; my goal is to research and photograph all of them, planning 4-to-5 shoots annually. It’s a big project because it’s a big subject: World's fairs were unique, spectacular cultural events from which one can glean worldviews that came into and out of vogue, the rise of industrialism, the rise of modernism, architectural trends and progress, and the hopes and dreams of each era. After the fairs, the pavilions are immediately demolished, fall into disrepair, or ultimately are changed into a building with a different purpose. What remains on each site is indicative of specific aspects of the fair, though often misleading as to its original aspirations.
Before traveling to each site, I research what structures were proposed, examine original maps, and what major architects were involved in the design and construction of the fair. During the interim periods between shoots I contact museums and galleries, for purposes of research and exhibition. An ideal tour would be to exhibit the project in ex-world's fair buildings, some of which are now museums, providing the opportunity to place these sites into an immediate context in an old fair building whose function has changed. The project will also be presented as a book, with an introduction by a noted historian.
While many architectural photographers examine the complex ideas involved in the changing function of structures and sites---such as Robert Polidori, Richard Pare, and Joel Sternfeld---this will be the first time that the specific event of world's fairs is used to describe broader concepts of preservation, land use, and architectural progression. Thomas Ruff's photograph (1992) is an interpretive look at the Mies Van Der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona of the 1929 fair, but never has an individual attempted to assess the full scope of the fair sites in photographs. I see this project as existing in the lineage of archival, conceptual fine art projects such as the Bechers' collections of photographs of water towers, but also serving as a resource for architectural research; it will be subjective but at the same time definitive.
A subject of particular significance as I continue on this work is the differences in land use and attitude to historical preservation between different time periods, continents, and countries. The Eiffel tower of the 1889 Paris exposition, for instance, has been well maintained and has become a major tourist attraction. At time of construction, the tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world, although some critics considered the design of open metal trusses to be vulgar. While the Eiffel tower was originally intended as a temporary fair structure, the height provided invaluable radio communication and thus it was left standing. This bold feat of engineering became the iconic structure of Paris.
A contrasting example is the 1933-34 Chicago 'Century of Progress International Exposition,' which imagined a bright future far removed from the reality of the times. Because of the Great Depression, the public was perhaps more open to futuristic ideas in design and architecture. Model houses were the attraction at this fair, especially the Crystal House designed by George Frederick Keck, a dramatic, ethereal structure wrapped in glass and steel and fully encompassing the modern notion of 'form following function.'
Ironically, all that remains of the Century of Progress International Exposition is an ancient Roman column, awkwardly erect in a remote park on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was a gift from Italy to honor General Italo Balbo's transatlantic crossing to the fair in a jet plane. The idea of this column---an ancient column, brought over by boat to celebrate the technological wonder of crossing the ocean in a jet plane, and the only remaining structure of a 1930's world's fair best known for its celebration of modern architecture---is a perfect example of the contradictions inherent in both the idea of the world's fair and what remains.
But while the sites' present conditions may not live out their original optimism, more recent fairs have kept that hopefulness alive, foreseeing a bright future based, this time, in sustainable architecture and preservation of natural resources. For example, the 2005 Expo in Aichi Prefecture, Japan (one of the sites I hope to photograph with the help of this grant) had the theme of Nature's Wisdom, and reflecting this sentiment, the fair structures were composed of recycled wood composite or bottles. As a result, the dismantled pavilions will affect the earth in a much kinder way than the clunky building materials of older fair constructions.
Bringing in fair sites on new continents is extremely important to the growth of my project. It has only been since the 1960's that Japan---or any Asian country---has hosted a fair, and to examine these sites will illuminate the differences and similarities in eastern and western thoughts on preservation and urban land use. Preliminary research has provided me with maps from both the 1985 Tsukuba site and 1993 Taejon site. The opportunity to explore and photograph these sites is essential to the project, and I sincerely hope to win the support of the Graham Foundation.

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