Exposition Internationale Paris 1937

The two stereo slides presented here today, as “developed” digital images from the original glass plate negatives, give a window into the 1937 Paris Expo, as well as to the tensions which were coming to a boil in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The exposition was intended to be as grand as its full designation, the “Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne”. At its center was going to be a half-mile high building shaped like a lighthouse, with a road leading up and down in a spiral pattern, leading to a 500 car garage and 2,000 seat restaurant at its peak – it would be the largest building ever constructed. With an Art Deco feel and a futurist bent, it was going to be the greatest exposition ever held, attracting massive crowds from around the world. However, less than a decade after the Great Depression began, these plans were a little… grandiose. The towering temporary building would have cost $2.5 million – (Over $44 million in today’s dollars). People didn’t have the sort of travel money they might have a decade earlier. And the balance of power in Europe and Asia was fragile. The Expo was successful in its own right – but it is perhaps even more historically important for the posturing by several nations in the shadow of a looming war.

Most major nations wanted to participate, of course. Smaller nations participated as well. The majority of the major-nation pavilions were of roughly similar size and quality – that is to say, they were large and impressive for temporary buildings. Numerous “Colonial Pavilions” were set up on an island under the Pont de Passy. Anticipating that other nations would similarly restrict their spending and scope in light of the economic situation, most countries chose relatively modest structures. Here’s Czechoslovakia’s:

The Czechoslovakian Pavilion, flanked by a bar (seen at left of frame) and the Swedish Pavilion at left, and the American Pavilion at right (tower visible just to the right of the Czechoslovakian Pavilion). In the distance, on the River Seine, the Pont de Passy crosses the river, touching the Colonial Island. 6x13cm glass negative from unknown photographer.

While this building is by no means small – you could probably fit a hundred copies of the apartment I share with my wife in there – it was also not a monolith; it was simply a place where Czechoslovakia could show itself, and its vision of modernity and the future (the theme of the Exposition) off to curious passersby. The majority of countries had pavilions of about this magnitude; some, of course, more notable than others. The Spanish Pavilion was notable as it was constructed during the Spanish Civil War; Picasso’s Guernica was on display in the Pavilion at the time. Italy was trying to make more of a splash on the world stage, and probably had the third-most-impressive pavilion at the Exposition. Featuring classical architectural motifs, as well as themes of order and discipline which fit in with its fascist agenda, the Italian pavilion was an elegant building with a tall tower located in front of the Eiffel Tower. France, of course, wanted to cement its reputation as the cultural center of the world, and built the majority of the supporting buildings in Paris that would provide host services, as well as a number of its own pavilions.

But by far the two biggest and most impressive pavilions – almost locked in combat with each other already, visually – were those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union:

The Soviet Pavilion (left) and German Pavilion (right) were the gatekeepers of the Pont d’Iéna leading across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. In the foreground, a boat passes by, with the tourists onboard seemingly unimpressed by either. 6x13cm glass negative from unknown photographer.

The German pavilion almost didn’t get built; Adolf Hitler was already annoyed with France, and was disinclined to even participate in the exposition. However, he was persuaded by his close friend Albert Speer – an immensely talented architect, if a man of dubious morals – that participation would be necessary to cement Germany’s resurgence as a major military and political player in Europe. Speer had secretly obtained blueprints of the plans for the Soviet Pavilion, and it was indeed going to be an impressive sight – designed by Boris Iofan, and crowned with the statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, which still exists today, upon a replica of Iofan’s Pavilion rebuilt in 2009.

If Germany was to be seen as competitive, they would have to match or exceed the CCCP monolith – and so Hitler set Speer the task of building its rival. Speer built an equally bombastic monument to German, crowned by the German Eagle with a swastika, and in front of which stood a (more than mildly homoerotic) statue of two nude muscle-bound men clasping hands, directly facing the Soviet Pavilion with it’s statue showing a worker and peasant in comradeship. Tellingly, these two enormous structures were the only pavilions finished when the Exposition opened – it was a race which both nations effectively tied in, leaving behind the other nations with their smaller buildings.

These two pavilions were jointly awarded the Gold Medal for design at the Expo, seen by many as an attempt to portray neutrality during the tense times that were coming to Europe. These attempts did little, however, as war was to break out on the continent less than two years later.

In the near future, I will begin to more fully explore the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne through the Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein album Die Weltausstellung Paris 1937. This is the largest, and most comprehensive, set of 3D images of the Exposition Internationale that I have seen – but of course, its 100 German-published photos (taken by Heinrich Hoffmann) come with a propagandistic pro-Nazi bent that some might find distasteful even when placed in historic context. So for those that don’t wish to view Raumbild images, these at least give a sense of the scale of the Exposition, and hopefully a desire to learn more about it.


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