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Seattle 1962 World’s Fair Shows Olympic Cities How to Win

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Photographer: James S. Russell via Bloomberg

The 1962 Space Needle. Topped by a sky-scraping, rotating restaurant, the Needle was the iconic structure of the Seattle World's Fair and remains a memorable image of Seattle. It was designed by John Graham and Co. with Victor Steinbrueck.

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Photographer: James S. Russell via Bloomberg

The 1962 Space Needle. Topped by a sky-scraping, rotating restaurant, the Needle was the iconic structure of the Seattle World's Fair and remains a memorable image of Seattle. It was designed by John Graham and Co. with Victor Steinbrueck. Close

The 1962 Space Needle. Topped by a sky-scraping, rotating restaurant, the Needle was the iconic structure of the... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell via Bloomberg

A view of the Seattle Monorail emerging from the Experience Music Center at the Seattle Center. The Monorail was a futuristic form of transportation in 1962 when it was built for the Seattle World's Fair, and is still a useful way to travel to and from downtown, even though the technology was never widely used. The Experience Music project was built in 2000 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a museum of Rock music. It was designed by Frank Gehry. Close

A view of the Seattle Monorail emerging from the Experience Music Center at the Seattle Center. The Monorail was a... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Two-level walkways pass under the arches of the Pacific Science Center at Seattle Center, site of the city's Century 21 Worlds Fair of 1962. Seattle's site is one of few World's Fair or Olympics sites that have left a lasting legacy. Once the science pavilion, it was designed by Minoru Yamasaki. Close

Two-level walkways pass under the arches of the Pacific Science Center at Seattle Center, site of the city's Century... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell via Bloomberg

The Key Arena at the Seattle Center, a hockey and basketball venue built in 1962 as an exhibit space called the Coliseum. Though it long served major-league sports teams, it is threatened with replacement. Close

The Key Arena at the Seattle Center, a hockey and basketball venue built in 1962 as an exhibit space called the... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The International Fountain, at the Seattle Center, which was the site of the Seattle World's Fair. It was one of the centerpieces of the world's fair and is still a popular attraction with a 1995 renovation. Close

The International Fountain, at the Seattle Center, which was the site of the Seattle World's Fair. It was one of the... Read More

The exuberant London Olympics made me want to revisit the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, the city where I grew up.

The Space Needle, Monorail and Bubblelator of “Century 21” not only pointed to an exciting technology-driven future. The fair did what great urban spectacles like the Olympics are supposed to do: It put the city on the map, jump-starting a half-century of transformation.

The history of Olympic bids and World’s Fairs is littered with costly failures. Beijing’s Olympics site is dominated by the spectacular empty husk of the Birds Nest stadium. Athens’s stunning venues by Santiago Calatrava attract aficionados of ruin porn.

Hoping to avoid such fates, London focused its Olympics planning on revitalizing an ignored swath of its East End. The costs rose, however, to as much as 9.3 billion pounds ($14 billion) from 3.4 billion pounds.

Cities are reassessing Olympics bids. Recession-wracked Madrid, looking longingly on Barcelona’s 1992 success, promises a shoestring games if it’s selected for 2020.

I thought about what Seattle did right -- for about $500 million in today’s dollars -- as I walked the 74-acre fair site. The iconic Space Needle still dominates the city, with an athletic design that sums up the era’s faith in the futuristic with purposefully elegant engineering.

Science Pavilion

The fair’s centerpiece was the science pavilion, boxlike exhibition structures arranged around a sparkling pool from which elegant fretwork arches rise. It showed visitors the degree to which the city was evolving from hick timber town to engineering hub. (Boeing Co. (BA), which dominated Seattle’s economy in the 1960s the way cars dominated Detroit, had inaugurated its 707 -- the plane that ushered in today’s era of mass air transportation -- in 1958.)

The much-modernized Pacific Science Center remains one of the best designs of architect Minoru Yamasaki in his signature Modernist Gothic style. He would find global fame designing New York’s World Trade Center.

I walked past the Seattle Repertory Theater and the Seattle Opera, both founded the year after the fair’s success allowed Seattle to chase big-city cultural dreams.

A distinctive arena with angular columns holding up a handsome cable-suspended roof has served well for hockey and basketball, though San Francisco hedge-fund manager Christopher Hansen now seeks to replace it.

Talented Locals

The fair was charmingly modest, and lucky to get far better architecture from talented locals (Victor Steinbrueck, Paul Thiry) than New York City’s overblown extravaganza of 1964. It was said to have made money.

The site still hosts numerous festivals and celebrations. Frank Gehry designed the Experience Music Project for Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen. It showcases a strange amalgam of rock-music history and science-fiction memorabilia. This past spring a collection of Dale Chihuly glass art opened in a greenhouse-style pavilion erected at the base of the Space Needle.

Ten million people visited the fair in what was then an unpretentious middle-class city. A lot of them liked the mountains, picturesque bays and slow pace. There was a civic- builder class preparing the city for the future with regionalized planning and sewers that cleared up the crown jewel of Lake Washington.

Seattle also had a powerful engine of innovative growth in the form of Boeing, and a growing customer-focused retail chain called Nordstrom Inc. (JWN) So people came.

Fledgling Companies

Seattle looked like a write-off around 1970, though, when Boeing was forced to lay off two-thirds of a workforce of about 80,000. And yet those who stayed and worked had the skills to take on new challenges a decade later when fledgling companies like Microsoft, Starbucks Corp. (SBUX), and Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) were ready to grow fast.

Almost everyone who was around then recognizes the fair as a turning point. It was an expression of civic energy and an emerging urban identity. The fair didn’t invent that identity, it proclaimed it to a world that didn’t know.

Barcelona hosted the most successful recent Olympics, but it spent big on transformative infrastructure, as London did.

The lesson of Seattle’s budget World’s Fair is a subtle one. If a city doesn’t have an economy and amenities to draw people, neither the glitziest fair pavilions nor the most glamorous stadiums will make a difference.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net. http://web.me.com/jscanlonrussell

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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