Architecture in the Century of ProgressThe 1933 Worlds Fair was characterized by a sweeping modernity, a willingness to take risks and embark on new paths in a constant quest for improvement. This fair displayed a new manifestation of the pioneering American spirit in its celebration of the frontier of possibilities. Perhaps nowhere is this better seen than in the architectural styles used throughout the Century of Progress Exposition.
Designed by a commission of
Beaux-Arts trained architects from the East Coast and chaired by Harvey Wiley Corbett, the
Century of Progress fair attempted to create a fantastic city of the future, patterned on
the concepts of light, lift, and color. These three elements permeated every structure of
the fair, from the buildings, which housed the exhibitions, to the various amusements of
the Midway. Instead of relying on traditional architectural motifs or hearkening back to
the Classical style exemplified by the Columbian Exposition, the object here was to create
something entirely new, reiterating the idea that this was not simply an imitation of
These buildings were of a streamlined, high-tech modern style, with
a special emphasis on clarity of form. Instead of using traditional decorative techniques
like narrative reliefs or friezes to decorate the exterior of the buildings, the sole
means of ornamentation was primarily the use of multiple bright colors on the fašade of
the buildings. In addition, the architecture of the Century of Progress was much more
severe and angular, lacking the curves and graceful lines which gave the Columbian
Exposition much of its sentimental air. This exemplified the idea of a celebration of the
future, of the imagination, as opposed to a glorification of the past. The commission
defined progress as aspiration and movement, and this definition was reflected in each of
fact, if there is one unifying characteristic in the vast array of forms that appeared, it
was the tendency toward lightness and motion emphasized by design. Each of the buildings
demonstrated this upward, open line, reaching toward the heavens. Here, modernity ruled,
and one gets the sense that progress was the new religion. Where cathedrals used to be the
tallest and grandest structures in a city, here they were replaced by temples of progress,
dedicated not to God, but to science, industry, and the arts. Everything about the fair
emphasized the idea of elevation, of ascending to new heights. It can be seen in the
approach to and through the exposition, the Court and Avenue of Flags, where one is
captivated by the motion of the flags rippling in the wind and their assertive reach
skyward. The Sky Ride, a central means of transportation in the fair (as well as a source
of entertainment) mimicked the feeling of flying. And, of course, the buildings
themselves, with their interesting shapes and tall spindly forms, seemed to constantly
grow ever higher and higher, reflecting the belief that there was no end to the
possibilities of growth for America, at least not on the technological frontier.
The buildings were not important solely for their exterior design,
however. In fact, they were described in the Chicago Tribune as encompassing two
spectacles: "one to be gazed at from without a city of glass and metal and
walls of light, towers and domes of angular color, soaring above wigams and log huts in
The second is what lays within those walls arts of the past
and the present." While the juxtaposition of the structures of skyscrapers and
wigwams, or even log cabins, demonstrated Americas progress in the realm of external
architecture, perhaps even more important were the changes found within such structures.
To many planners of the exposition, it was more important to feature the process of
progress than its products. It is not surprising, then, that many of the exhibitions
showed how things were done, instead of merely celebrating the finished object.
This was especially true of
buildings supported by corporate sponsors. The General Motors Building, for example,
featured an entire Chevrolet production line. In effect, many of these exhibits could be
compared to glorified factories, not all that removed from the lives of many working class
visitors to the fair. Seeing the assembly line in this setting, however, glorified it,
showing its central place in the Century of Progress. As a result, many of these same
visitors experienced a sense of pride derived from being a part of the assembly line, for
in so doing, they too were contributing to Americas advancement, at least in light
of such exhibitions.
Corporate Sponsorship was big business in the Chicago World's Fair of 1933, which frequently utilized corporate financing for the express purpose of endorsing certain products which exemplified the advancement of America. Indeed, the postcard of the Time and Fortune Building helps relate an important part of the story. Postcards such as this were commonly printed up as a means of publicizing the fair. At the same time, they served as advertisements for the companies whose buildings they depicted. Often there was just a brief caption stating the name of the structure. More importantly each included the picture of the structure with the companys name displayed prominently. By distributing images like this, companies were able to identify themselves with the idea of progress symbolized by this architecture of modernity.
This black and white photo
of the Time and Fortune Magazines Building demonstrates that the fair was not simply a
glorification of the past, as symbolized through the ancient Oriental art on the Time
cover, but rather a look ahead to progress in the modern era, the Fortune cover.
This idea is emphasized by the names of the magazines themselves.
Even the interior design of buildings reflected the new moderized and streamlined style of progress. The T&F building was used primarily as a reading room for visitors, with a plethora of important magazines on hand. The official guide book to the fair notes: "This building is of particular interest to college women. The opportunity if offered them to make this a meeting place for afternoon tea. It also offers parents an information service concerning schools for their daughters. The Women's College Board maintains its headquarters in the building. Among the women's colleges represented on the board are Smith, Barnard, Wellesley, Randolph-Macon, Radcliffe, Vassar, Bryn-Mawr, Wells, Lake Erie, Goucher, Mount Holyoke, Connecticut, Milwaukee-Downer, Mills, Trinity, Wheaton, Elmyra, and Sweetbriar." The fact that this building housed such an organization is itself a sign of the modernization of attitudes.
This illustration of the Chrysler Building was just the type that would appear on promotional materials, like post cards. In such images, the most important elements were usually a strong and varied use of color, an exaggeration of form, and, of course, a prominent display of the corporate sponsor's name.
Another angle of the same building, shown in this photograph, emphasizes the importance of light and the sense of motion inherent in the architecture of the Century of Progress. Such a structure would most certainly fill the visitor with a sense of awe. It was placed directly across the drive from the model of an ancient Maya temple to accentuate its modern qualities. Across the circular terrace the latest models of Chryslers were displayed, and demonstrations of tests for heat, cold, and water resistance of motors were conducted, a prime example of the exhibits showing not just the products of production, but the actual process.