Dubai's bid to host Expo 2020 is definitely ambitious, writes Jonathan Gornall, but the rewards would include notable legacies, the opportunity to inspire future generations and the chance to conduct an extended international dialogue.
Dubai bid to host world's fair has universal appeal
About 50 years ago, as a seven-year-old pupil at a small boarding school in the south-east of England, I was given a magical gift by my headmaster, a retired officer from a cavalry regiment in the British army.
It wasn't the gift of Latin, though Major Bury and his fellow teachers did their best to beat that into me. Neither was it the love of boxing that they also tried, and failed, to instil, chiefly by pairing me in the ring with much older boys.
Rather, it was a magical sense of the continuity of history and human experience, conveyed to me not in the classroom but in the gift of a small cardboard box, containing a curious relic of another time.
I have no memory of why the headmaster gave me this and I no longer have it. Being only seven or so, I soon gave it away.
But the gift of the sense of history it bestowed stayed with me.
In the box was a small, misshapen blob of glass, which for a long time I was convinced was all that remained of the Crystal Palace, the extraordinary glass building constructed in Hyde Park, London, in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.
The Crystal Palace - a revolutionary concept in its modular design and rapid, production-line execution, which itself embodied the dynamism of the new Victorian industrial age - had been conceived as a temporary building. Such was its popularity, however, that when the exhibition closed after its allotted six months, it was taken down and reconstructed as the centrepiece of a new public park in an area of south London that bears its name to this day.
"Not the least wonderful part of the Exhibition will be the edifice within which the specimens of the industry of all nations are to be collected," The Timesreported shortly before the opening in 1851.
"Enchanted palaces that grow up in a night are confined to fairy-land, and in this material world of ours the labours of the bricklayer and the carpenter are notoriously never-ending … something very different from this was promised for the great edifice in Hyde Park. Not only was it to rise with extraordinary rapidity, but in every other respect is to be suggestive of 'Arabian Nights' remembrances."
Dismantled and transported afterwards to south London, the Crystal Palace served for more than 80 years in a variety of roles - chiefly as "an enormous cabinet of curiosities", in the words of American historian Peter H Hoffenberg, and a Sunday destination for promenading Londoners.
It met its end on the night of November 30, 1936, in a blaze that reduced its acres of glass - the production of which had once been a technological wonder of the world, beyond the capabilities of all but a single firm in Birmingham - to a molten lake.
Thousands flocked to the scene of the destruction, including Major Bury, who picked up a hardened piece of this industrial lava as a memento. But this relic was not, as the small boy to whom he gifted it many years later once thought, all that remained of the Crystal Palace, or the Great Exhibition.
In fact, the exhibition's legacy amounted to a great deal more than that, as the history of the movement to which it gave birth has shown, and as Dubai's energetic bid to stage its direct descendant, Expo 2020, is emphasising.
The Great Exhibition is widely recognised as the first world's fair, or international exposition, and the template for all that have followed. By the end of the 19th century, there had been 35, in cities including San Francisco, Stockholm, Madrid, Chicago, Glasgow, Barcelona, Antwerp and Paris.
Since then, there have been somewhere in the region of 75 expositions - despite a nine-year hiatus imposed by the Second World War and its aftermath - and through each of these shows has run a thread of global, communal co-operation, often at odds with the grim realities of the contemporary landscape of international relations, but only the more vital for that, on account of the continuity of optimism and faith in human innovation that has been handed from one city to the next.
In 1962, more than 9.5 million people went to Seattle's science-themed Century 21 Exposition, a financial success credited with regenerating the city's fortunes. Unusually, the expo site was designed to live on, as the Seattle Center arts complex, and gave the city its own Eiffel Tower, in the shape of the 184-metre-tall Space Needle.
Two years later, New York staged its third world's fair, inspired by its 1939 predecessor, also held at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and attracted more than 50 million people. New Orleans, however, was less successful with its 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, which suffered from poor attendance - seven million - and remains the only fair to have been forced into bankruptcy.
For Hoffenberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, who has researched and written extensively about world's fairs, there are marked similarities between the motives of the British in London in 1851 and those cities, such as Dubai, that seek to stage such expos today.
"The thread is very similar, though obviously the manifestations have changed," he says. "Just as England was seriously rethinking its relationship with the outside world - and this is one way not just to integrate with the outside world but to get your own people to think about their relationship with the outside world - it seems [from the bid for 2020] that this is very much the Emirate's coming-out party.
"And the party isn't just about what it can do with the rest of the world, but getting its citizens to think about itself as not just an island, and I think that's very important."
It was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, who, in the words of one contemporary account, conceived the idea of "gathering together into one place the best specimens of contemporary art and skill, and the natural productions of every soil and climate, instead of the mere local or national productions of France and England".
The royal motive was a noble one - this was to be a celebration of commerce as a force for good and progress. The prince and his commissioners, commented Lord Carlisle, a contemporary British politician, were "giving a new impulse to civilisation … supplying a fresh guarantee to the amity of nations. Yes, the nations were stirring at their call, but not as the trumpet sounds to battle; they were summoning them to the peaceful field of a nobler competition … to embellish, improve, and elevate their common humanity".
And it was a tremendous success. Open between May and October 1851, the Great Exhibition featured contributions from 15,000 exhibitors from 44 countries, "comprising almost the whole of the civilised nations of the globe", and attracted more than six million visitors to view the 100,000 objects on display - everything "from hairpins to steam hammers", in the words of the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the legacy institutions that blossomed out of the fertile soil left behind by the exhibition.
The great show also made a great profit. Afterwards, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition, charged with "increasing the means of industrial education and extending the influence of science and art upon productive industry", invested the money in an 86-acre plot of land in South Kensington, the so-called "Albertopolis", upon which was built three great museums, including the Victoria and Albert, and the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College and the Royal Colleges of Art and Music - all of which thrive to this day.
Cities rushed to imitate London - Paris alone staged five Expositions Universelle before the turn of the century. In 1854, New York staged its own Exhibition of the Industry of AAl Nations, complete with a copycat Crystal Palace - which, taking imitation a little too far, was also lost to a fire, four years later. Philadelphia (1876), Sydney (1879), Amsterdam, Boston and Calcutta (all in 1883) and dozens of other cities followed suit.With each iteration, the fairs grew larger and more complex - entire mini-cities, made chiefly of wood and plaster, sprang up overnight, only to vanish again when the fair had ended.
Each one, though, left something behind - in the imagination, certainly, and the bonds of shared experience, but also in the material and cultural fabric of the societies in which they had been staged.
Philadelphia's centennial International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine in 1876 drew 10 million people to an extraordinary yet temporary neoclassical building in which one of the star attractions was the colossal hand and torch from the yet-to-be-completed Statue of Liberty.
The prefabricated building was pulled down, as planned, in 1881, but two buildings from the exhibition remain. One is the Beaux-Arts style Art Gallery, now Memorial Hall, home of the Please Touch Museum. The other is the Ohio House, made from 21 different Ohio sandstones and which now serves as the Centennial Cafe in West Fairmount Park.
In 1893, Chicago staged the World's Columbian Exposition, to mark (albeit a year late) the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the new world. It has left its physical mark in the Palace of Fine Arts, now home to the city's Museum of Science and Industry, in the third of the four red stars on the city flag, and in the concept of the Ferris wheel, designed for the show by George Washington Ferris.
But Chicago also spoke directly to the occasionally dark nature of modern life.
The Devil in the White City, a film adaptation of Erik Larson's book, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and due for release next year, will tell the story of two men inextricably linked to the 1893 world's fair. One was Daniel Burnham, the architect who built the fair's temporary White City at great speed, against even greater logistical odds. The other was HH Holmes, one of America's first serial killers, who preyed upon visitors to the fair and is believed to have murdered between 26 and 200 people.
In a perverse twist of the principle of progress through ingenuity, as envisaged by Prince Albert in 1851, the deaths were not only industrial in number but also in execution, with Holmes building a hotel to serve as his killing house, a veritable factory of death equipped with a secret body chute, soundproofed, air-tight bedrooms doubling as gas chambers and a torture chamber.
By and large, however, the sensation generated by world's fairs has been more benign in nature, though not always uncontroversial.
The world flocked to Paris for the Exposition Universelle in 1889, at which visitors were greeted by the extraordinary sight of Gustave Eiffel's new tower which, at a little over 300 metres, would remain the tallest man-made structure in the world until 1930.
Not everyone was a fan. From the outset the design was greeted with horror by an influential group of "writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris", whose petition against the building was published in the newspaper Le Temps.
To allow Eiffel to recoup the costs of construction, the city had granted him a 20-year lease, and the artists protested "with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste … for 20 years we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal".
How wrong they were. The tower, which helped to draw 30 million people to Paris for the six months of the exposition in 1889, remains in place, France's most loved and most powerful symbol, visited annually by about seven million people.
Expositions - ephemeral yet remembered in perpetuity - weave their magic, on individuals, countries and history, in a way that no other mass gatherings of nations can. A platform upon which progress is writ large and made tangible, they focus attention on the latest and greatest of human innovations and inventions, providing a forum for art and culture, creating a neutral space in which cultures may meet and mingle, and, in their scope and diversity, overshadowing even the Olympics as a spectacular and well-intentioned gathering of humanity.
As the English writer Charles Dickens noted in 1851, the Great Exhibition, and its celebration of art and beauty and ingenuity in agriculture, engineering and manufacturing, appeared to have offered the world an alternative to war.
In Europe, he wrote in the July 1851 edition of Household Words, "The period of revolutionary excitement has in a great measure subsided into an industrial excitement. It looks as though England had said to the continental nations - 'Pause awhile to take breath after your barricades, and the putting to flight of your kings, and consider whether a good round of industrious work will not show us all whereabouts we are; whether it will not give time to reflect upon the best means of gaining greater strength by means of the knowledge of things, and of each other, than can possibly be acquired by the sword'."
It's a message with a curious resonance for an Arab world undergoing its own "period of revolutionary excitement", and one that lends strength to Dubai's bid to host a world's fair in 2020. The bid is up against competition from cities in Brazil, Russia, Thailand and Turkey - Izmir narrowly lost out to Milan in 2015 and this, says Urso Chappell, the founder and curator of the online Expo Museum, a veteran of many world's fairs and a specialist design and branding consultant for expo projects, makes it a strong contender for 2020.
On the other hand, he says, "Dubai is definitely one of the serious candidates". If it were successful, Dubai would be the first Islamic city, and the first in the Arab world, to host an expo and that, in our currently troubled times, might be seen as a winning factor.
The UAE has certainly paid its dues, constructing pavilions at several world's fairs, including Hanover, Zaragoza in Spain, in 2008, Shanghai in 2010 and Yeosu in South Korea, the latest world's fair, which, having hosted 104 nations and eight million visitors, closed on August 12.
Having to win the right to stage an expo is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about by the foundation in France in 1928 of the Bureau International des Expositions. As the success and number of London's successor fairs grew, says the BIE, "so did the problems, the uncertainties and the potential for conflicts".
Ironically, the first attempt to propose an international framework within which the increasingly large and complex events could be staged and co-ordinated was made by Germany, in 1912 - an attempt disrupted by the First World War. Germany would not stage her first recognised expo until 2000, in Hanover.
In 1928, the representatives of 31 countries gathered in France to sign the Convention of Paris, which governs all international expos - and the BIE was created to manage it. Today, 161 countries are member states of the BIE, including the UAE and all the nations of the Arabian Gulf, with the exception of Iraq.
Chappell believes in the power of expos to bring about positive change. "I wouldn't claim that they will eventually be responsible for world peace," he says, "but I do think that they do change people's perceptions of what the rest of the world is like and what other people are like.
"As an American, going into an Iranian pavilion gives you a completely different perspective. You might still not be a fan of that country's government, but suddenly you are confronted by them as a people and you see them very differently."
The same, he says, is also true for the people in the host country.
He spent two weeks in Shanghai in 2010, one of 73 million visitors to China's first world fair, which proved to be the biggest in history in terms of size, attendance and the number of countries represented - 192. Somewhere in China, he says, "are many generations of people for whom suddenly the rest of the world is not quite the scary place it used to be.
"And I've seen this at many expos; not only can it change their perspective on the rest of the world, but it can also change their perspective on what they themselves can accomplish and be. It really does, especially for younger people, broaden horizons."
Dubai's bid to host Expo 2020 comes at a time when the world, as the emirate's bid document freely acknowledges, faces "unprecedented challenges … be it the global financial crisis, food security, transnational threats, fighting poverty, unemployment or social upheavals".
Such a moment in world history, it might seem at first glance, might not be a particularly propitious time to seek to celebrate the achievements and potential of mankind.
But the optimism and energy driving forward Dubai's bid lies precisely in its message that "a collaborative and connected approach to addressing such challenges remains key".
And so it is that Dubai's bid not only reflects the view of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that "connected thinking is the best hope for progress and for successful and peaceful existence in the generations to come", but also echoes the ideals behind the original Great Exhibition.
In Hyde Park, nothing material remains of the original site of the Great Exhibition, now a bare stretch of grass bordered by two rows of mature trees.
In another park, 12 kilometres away in south London, a weatherworn bust of Joseph Paxton, the man who designed the Crystal Palace, gazes out sightlessly over the remains of the great terraced gardens that were built as a grand setting for his long-lost creation.
These remains, however, are no more the legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851 than a small lump of flame-fused glass, given away thoughtlessly by a small boy in the 1960s.
What lives on is the inspiring spirit of the inquiring Victorian mind, "part of that 19th-century liberalism", says Hoffenberg, "which was about collecting as much information as possible, because that's always better than ignorance".
The theme of Dubai's bid, as Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimi, Minister of State, said at the emirate's presentation in Paris in June, "is 'Connecting Minds, Creating the Future', which reflects our belief in building a better tomorrow though connectivity and partnerships".
Another age, another vernacular. But Prince Albert couldn't have put it better himself.
Jonathan Gornall is a former features writer for The National.