For more than a century, there was no event that caused more pop-culture hysteria than the World’s Fair. Manufacturers, designers, salespeople, performers, and architects from all over the world battled for the attention (and money) of millions of visitors. It’s tough to imagine a present-day analog, except maybe the Internet, another one-stop shop for pursuing the world’s latest sensations. Though “the BuzzFeed of the 19th century” doesn’t sound quite right.
But after the crowds dissipated, host cities often struggled with crumbling buildings and massive derelict parks. Similarly to cities that have hosted the Olympics, some found a way to repurpose the sites, while others didn’t. Despite being designed by the world’s foremost architects, most buildings were constructed cheaply and at breakneck speeds. London’s massive Crystal Palace only took six months to build, and Chicago’s sprawling neoclassical campus was still unfinished when it opened (as documented in the bestselling The Devil in the White City).
It’s the tension between the optimism and decay of past fairgrounds that interests photographer Ives Maes. “The utopian visions of the future that were projected during these fairs are often in strong contrast with the heritage of poorly conserved architecture and neglected monuments,” explains the Belgian artist, who has spent the last year traveling the world, documenting the current state of fair sites. “It’s the fringe between utopia and dystopia.”
Maes’s photographs went on view in late June in a solo show called The Future of Yesterday: Photographs of Architectural Remains of World’s Fairs. Though the images focus mainly on pre-Vietnam era World’s Fairs, even newer buildings, like MVRDV’s 12-year-old Hanover Pavilion, have aged rapidly (Maes shows it covered in graffiti). Of course, it’s not all dystopic–Belgium’s famous atomic structure pavilion remains well-cared for.
The project was commissioned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in support of their sweeping exhibition on decorative arts at the World’s Fairs, Inventing the Modern World. Hanging in the lobby of the Kansas City museum, Maes’s The Future of Yesterday is a clever curatorial scheme: Visitors must first acknowledge one legacy of the fairs–decaying, forgotten, and wholly lonesome architecture–before exploring their other legacy, as the birthplace of modern pop culture.