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The Amazing Architectural Legacy of World Fairs

Major international events such as World Cups and Olympic Games provide nations with opportunities for urban renewal and diplomacy. World Fairs achieve similar objectives but are more laser-focused on innovation and technology—they're built to astound and have been doing so since at least 1851, when the Great Exhibition was held in London. Global expos have seen the unveiling of multiple inventions and speak to ideas of social cohesion. When host cities get it right, the design legacy becomes a point of pride and a money-spinning attraction for decades, and perhaps even centuries.

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01Eiffel Tower, Paris

The Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel for the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, Paris, France, late 1880s. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

One of the western world's most famous landmarks, the Eiffel Tower was the centerpiece of the 1889 World Exhibition or Universal Expo. The French Republic wanted to demonstrate that architectural feats did not end with the monarchy's demise. The Eiffel Tower was erected to celebrate a century since the French Revolution and cement the country's place among leading powers. Parisians initially opposed the idea, thinking it would be an eyesore, but came around once the fair was in full swing. Today, the Tour Eiffel is among the most visited tourist attractions in the world.

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02Japanese Tea House and Garden, San Francisco

Temple and trees in the Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California, 1978. Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

Treasure Island is a well-known byproduct of the 1939 Golden Gate International Expo. But almost half a century before, the city received another long-lasting gift. A Golden Gate Park highlight, the Japanese Tea Garden is a remnant of the 1894 California Midwinter Expo. It's the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S. and features an arched drum bridge, pagodas, koi ponds, and, in spring, enough cherry blossoms to gladden your soul. The park was a labor of love for landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara. His family lived within the sanctuary until 1942 when they were tragically sent to internment camps due to Japan's involvement in WW2.

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03Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, Barcelona

The Magic Fountain on Montjuïc hill is a magnet for travelers. Local performing artists wow crowds of people sitting on the steps leading to the grand Palau Nacional museum, and the lit fountain leaps in the background. This festive atmosphere in a now-iconic setting is thanks to the 1929 International Expo. The expo profoundly changed this Catalonian city's urban landscape in the post-Gaudí era with a cable car, Grec theatre, and a stadium, to name a few attractions.

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04The Atomium, Brussels

17th April 1958: Mounted soldiers make a royal escort for King Baudouin of the Belgians at the opening of the Brussels Exhibition. The Atomium is in the background. Ron Case / Getty Images

The atomium is the Belgian capital's futuristic pièce de résistance. It's loomed over the Heysel Plateau like an alien spaceship since the 1958 World Fair. Built to resemble an iron crystal comprising nine atoms, the Atomium, like many other World Fair constructions, was supposed to be temporary. But it still stands today—an architectural ode to science, technology, and international synergy at the heart of the European Union.

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05Space Needle, Seattle

The Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World's Fair) in Seattle, Washington State, USA, with the Space Needle to the left, circa 1962. View from a helicopter. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Do most people know the Space Needle from a little show called Grey's Anatomy? Sure. But this 605-foot-tall spire has become synonymous with Rain City since the 1962 World's Fair. A whopping 2.65 million visitors came to see the structure, including Elvis Presley, the Shah and Empress of Iran, Prince Philip of Great Britain, Bobby Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Lyndon Johnson, and Walt Disney. A NASA-inspired structure and a bunch of stars—sounds about right. The World Fair also resulted in the Seattle monorail.

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06The Biosphere, Montreal

No, this isn't Epcot at Disney World. It's Montreal's Biosphere, an upshot of the 1967 World Expo in this Canadian city. The geodesic dome was designer Bucky Fuller's trademark, and he made it onto the cover of Time magazine for his aesthetic obsession. A 1976 fire led to the abandonment of the monument. Then, in the 1990s, the Canadian government turned the airy seven-story space into a popular environmental museum.

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07The Sunsphere, Knoxville

General view of the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, May 10, 1982. Visible structures include the Sunsphere (the tower at top left) and the American Pavillion (far right). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The 1982 World's Fair needed a symbol. The fair's theme was energy, and local architectural firm Community Tectonics saw no better inspiration for their design than the sun—the shimmery sphere at the top of a 266-foot-tall structure weighs over 600 tons. The attraction had a restaurant and observation deck, and the latter was reopened to the public in early 2022. It offers excellent views over downtown, the University of Tennessee, and the Smoky Mountains. The Sunsphere is now a national landmark and integral to the city's logo and identity.

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08Nepalese Peace Pagoda, Brisbane

Nepalese Peace Pagoda ambimages / Shutterstock

A relic of the 1988 World Expo, the Nepalese Peace Pagoda is now part of the South Bank's proverbial furniture. The Kingdom of Nepal's presentation at the fair took two years for artisans to handcraft it from 80 tons of Nepalese timber. The carvings are intricate, the rainforest setting tranquil. Beautiful during the day and night, this gift to Australia is worth a visit.

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09China Pavilion, Shanghai

China Pavilion Stayang / Shutterstock

The red Chinese Pavilion, AKA the Oriental Crown, is the 2010 Expo's legacy symbolizing China's ascent. It has a roof reminiscent of the Chinese bracket construction style, and skilled stonemasons carved patterns into the pavilion's steps using an almost-extinct technique. The architect He Jingtang combined ideas from hundreds of proposed plans, and the finished product is now home to the China Art Museum.

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10UAE Pavilion, Dubai

United Arab Emirates pavilion Ayman Noureldin / Shutterstock

The world's best architectural firms competed to create the focal point of Dubai's 2021 Expo. With a design inspired by the graceful yet strong falcon, Spanish architect Dr. Santiago Calatrava sought to meld the region's past and future and create a building that embodied innovation and sustainability. Construction took four years. The roof can harvest solar energy and protect against sandstorms.

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