Pavilions from World Expos 1851-2021

Travel the globe to visit and explore the memorable architectural wonders of the World Expos over the last 180 years.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

What is the World Expo?

Expo is short for exposition - a global gathering of nations dedicated to demonstrating innovative ideas and highlighting economic, scientific, social and technological progress. Expos provide a unique platform from which to explore a universal theme through engaging exhibitions and immersive environments. They are a destination to discover and explore different nations as they come together presenting the best in architecture, engineering and design.

LIFE Photo Collection

The Great Exhibition - UK & Ireland, 1851

The first World Expo, the Great Exhibition, took place in Hyde Park in London in 1851.

Owen Jones, The Great Exhibition, a watercolour with pen and ink (1851/1851)British Museum

It was the vision of Prince Albert, president of the Royal Society of Arts and husband of Queen Victoria. His ambition was to display the wonders of industrial advancement from around the world, and to present the progress made by Britain in manufacturing and industry on an international stage. England was experiencing a manufacturing boom and the Great Exhibition was the opportunity to show off to a global audience.

Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London (1851) by Architect: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)Royal Institute of British Architects

The Crystal Palace,    designed by Sir Joseph Paxton was the main attraction and the largest exhibit of all. The giant glass and iron exhibition hall displayed the wonders of art and industry from around the world under one roof. The magnificent structure was a intricate network of prefabricated parts consisting of iron rods and panes of glass. 

Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London (1851) by Architect: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)Royal Institute of British Architects

The main body of the building was 563 metres long and 124 metres wide. The height of the central transept was 33 metres. The construction occupied 18 acres (seven hectares) on the ground, while its total floor area was 92,000 square metres. Over the five months it welcomed over six million visitors. Following the Great Exhibition the building was moved to south London where, on 30 November 1936, it was destroyed by fire.   

Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London (1851) by Architect: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)Royal Institute of British Architects

There were around 100,000 objects, displayed along more than 10 miles, from over 15,000 contributors in the Great Exhibition. Britain, as host, occupied half the display space inside, with 25 other countries also featuring. From stained glass, carpets, ceramics, tapestries, to paper as well as steam engines and all types of machines - from printing to agriculture to textiles. Queen Victoria aptly described the showcase as containing ‘every conceivable invention’.

Exposition universelle de 1889 / État d'avancement (November 23, 1888) by Louis-Émile DurandelleThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Exposition Universelle, Paris, France - 1889

The Eiffel Tower, the most recognisable symbol from the Expo of 1889, was conceived as part of preparations for the World Fair in Paris. Constructed from 18,038 metallic parts, it comprised of 7,300 tonnes of iron and was built to reach 300 metres high. It took two years, two months and five days to construct. While not everyone approved, it was widely acknowledged as a technical feat. 

Exh Foreign Paris 1889 "Eiffel Tower"LIFE Photo Collection

The event marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and signified the stability and strength of the republican government in France barely 20 years on from the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris. In addition to the Eiffel Tower, Expo 1889 Paris was a testbed for new forms of architecture, with the Palaces of Fine Arts and Liberal Arts, the Palace of Industry and the Gallery of Machines all being significant feats of engineering and remarkable attractions in themselves. 

The Expo took place over five months, played host to 35 other countries and welcomed more than 32 million visitors. It featured more than 61,000 exhibitors, split between the Champs de Mars, the Trocadero, and, for the first time, the Esplanade des Invalides.

Galerie des Machines, Exposition Universelle Internationale, Paris 1891 (1892) by Architect: Victor Contamin (1840-1893); Charles Louis Ferdinand Dutert (1845-1906)Royal Institute of British Architects

Taking place during the second industrial revolution, the 1889 Expo showcased the latest technological advancements both within its displays as well as the architectural constructions. From innovations in architecture to steam powered machinery, including the hydraulic and steam crane used to construct the Eiffel Tower and Gallery of Machines pictured here. 

Galerie des Machines, Exposition Universelle Internationale, Paris 1889 (1889) by Architect: Victor Contamin (1840-1893); Charles Louis Ferdinand Dutert (1845-1906)Royal Institute of British Architects

Then the largest metallic structure in Europe, the Gallery of Machines was created by Ferdinand Dutert with Victor Contamin. It covered eight hectares and featured the largest vaults in the world. With its immense self-supporting glass and metal nave, it needed a moving bridge, situated seven metres above the ground, to give visitors the chance to travel across the width of the building. Additionally a belvedere tower accessed via a lift offered views of the displays.

The German Pavilion, Barcelona (1976) by Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969); Lilly ReichRoyal Institute of British Architects

Barcelona, Spain - 1929

The International Exhibition of Barcelona 1929 was the second World Expo to be held in the city. A total of 29 nations participated under the theme of Industry, Art and Sport. It was successful not only for attracting almost 5.8 million visitors but for redeveloping and modernising many districts of the city. The site of the Expo, Monjuïc, a park overlooking the city’s harbour, was over 100 hectares in size. The centrepiece and the largest building constructed for the Expo was the Palau Nacional, designed in a Spanish Renaissance style by Eugeonia Cendoya and Enric Catà.

The German Pavilion, Barcelona (1929) by Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969); Lilly ReichRoyal Institute of British Architects

Another important architectural development at the Expo was the German Pavilion, designed by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Lilly Reich. Emblematic of the Modernist movement, the pavilion has an iconic status and has been studied by generations of architects.

German Pavilion, Barcelona (1994) by Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)Royal Institute of British Architects

The Pavilion was conceived to accommodate the official reception presided over by King Alfonso XIII of Spain along with the German authorities. 

At the end of the Expo, the Pavilion was disassembled. However due to its reputation and significance, it became a key point of reference in 20th century architecture and was reconstructed in 1983–1986 in tribute to its status. 

The German Pavilion, Barcelona (2015) by Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969); Lilly ReichRoyal Institute of British Architects

It was constructed using glass, steel and four different kinds of stone, including Roman travertine, green Alpine marble, ancient green marble from Greece and golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains.

The German Pavilion, Barcelona (2015) by Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969); Lilly ReichRoyal Institute of British Architects

Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich designed the Barcelona chair especially for the Pavilion, consisting of a leather upholstered metallic profile which, over the years has become an icon of modern design. It is still manufactured today. 

N.Y. World's Fair (1939-03) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

New York, United States of America - 1939

Following a successful Expo in Chicago in 1933, New York played host in 1939 to mark the 150th anniversary of the government of George Washington and the new American Constitution. The Expo itself was all about the future, with the theme The World of Tomorrow; it showcased the potential of a world of capitalism, consumerism and democracy and explored the positive impact that scientific progress and new technologies could offer.

1939 World Fair, Queens, New York (1939) by Architect: Harrison & FouilhouxRoyal Institute of British Architects

The architectural monuments of the Expo included the 212 metre high triangular tower, the Trylon designed by Wallace K Harrison and the Perisphere designed by Jacques Foulihoux, which had a diameter of 65 metres. Inside the Perisphere, visitors could discover 'Democracity' a diorama of a cityscape in the year 2039, designed by Henry Dreyfuss.

Perisphere, exhibition of the City of the Future, 1939 World Fair, Queens, New York (1940) by Architect: Harrison & Fouilhoux; Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958)Royal Institute of British Architects

The site of the Expo was Flushing Meadows - Corona Park in Queens, New York. Other key attractions included the exhibit 'Futurama', a utopian urban vision in General Motor's Highways and Horizons Pavilion designed by Norman Bel Geddes. These compelling ideas became synonymous with the concept of the 'American Dream'.

Despite its millions of visitors, Expo 1939 experienced significant financial losses and so the Expo decided to reopen the event in 1940. However with the Second World War well underway and the impact of the Great Depression lingering on, it still failed to make a profit. 

1958 World's Fair, Brussels: the main avenue with the French Pavilions on the left (1958) by Architect: Guillaume Gillet (1912-1987)Royal Institute of British Architects

Brussels, Belgium - 1958

As the effects of the Second World War were beginning to disappear and the European Economic Community had just formed, there was an air of optimism and a sense of peace, prosperity and progress at the time of planning the 1958 Expo. 

The theme for Brussels was A World View: A New Humanism. Dedicated to progress and humankind, there was a shift from solely showcasing national prestige and colonial possessions. It questioned the notion of progress by placing humanity at the heart of the Expo rather than just technology.

Hungarian Pavilion, 1958 World Fair, Brussels (1958) by Architect: Lajos Gadoros (1910-1991)Royal Institute of British Architects

Nevertheless it was still regarded as a highly innovative Expo, with new emerging technologies being showcased including the Sputnik satellite, nuclear power plant mock-ups and the use of new and synthetic materials and automated machines and computers.  

Atomium, 1958 World's Fair, Brussels (1958) by Architect: A.& J. Polak; Andre WaterkeynRoyal Institute of British Architects

The architecture was also innovative, with the use of pre-stressed reinforced concrete featured in the Philips Pavilion by Le Corbusier. The main pavilion and visual icon of Expo 1958 was the Atomium. 

André Waterkeyn, who designed the structure, wanted to represent the idea that the infinitely small could be infinitely powerful; that everything is composed of atoms and that within each atom, there is an incredible amount of power.

Atomium, 1958 World's Fair, Brussels (1958) by Architect: A.& J. Polak; Andre WaterkeynRoyal Institute of British Architects

Standing 102 metres high, and with nine spheres interconnected by 20 tubes, the Atomium was designed to represent an elementary iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times. 
The unique structure was not intended to survive beyond the Expo but its popularity soon made it a landmark, a key part of the Brussels cityscape and an internationally-recognised symbol.

United States Pavilion, Ile Sainte Helene, Expo '67, Montreal (1967) by Architect: Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983); Fuller & SadaoRoyal Institute of British Architects

Montreal, Canada - 1967

Originally intended to be held in Moscow, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, the USSR withdrew its application in 1962, and Montreal was elected to host the World Expo of 1967. The year coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation and 325 years since the founding of Montreal.

Expo '67, Montreal: the minirail over Swan Lake with a number of pavilions behind (1967) by Architect: Werner Gantenbein; Karl Schwanzer (1918-1975); Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983); Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold & SiseRoyal Institute of British Architects

The theme was Man and his World and followed the lead of Brussels in 1958, exploring man's social and environmental responsibility, rather than solely celebrating scientific, technological and industrial progress.  

Hugely successful, the Expo attracted over 50 million visitors and showcased the latest in architectural trends. This included a residential complex called Habitat-67 - a box consisting of 158 standard reinforced concrete apartment blocks. They combined the advantages of individual houses with dense urban development.

Portrait Richard Buckminster Fuller (1968) by Architect: Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)Royal Institute of British Architects

Another landmark was the geodesic dome, created by the American inventor, theorist, and author, Richard Buckminster Fuller who was also known for creating innovative architectural structures. The spherical structure featured a patented omni-triangulated surface which gave it super strength. 

The dome was a collaboration and developed together with the architect Shoji Sadao. The focus was ‘doing more with less’. A spherical structure was created from triangles, giving it unparalleled strength, and creating large-volumed structure, enabling heating and cooling to occur naturally. This was then constructed on a large scale for the US Pavilion at the 1967 World Fair. Today it is a science museum called the Montreal Biosphère.

Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (2010) by Architect: Thomas Heatherwick (1970- ); Adams Kara TaylorRoyal Institute of British Architects

Shanghai, China - 2010

The first World Expo in China, transformed the run down banks of the Huangpu River. The Expo site was part of a redevelopment of the area between the Nanpu and Lupu bridges in the centre of Shanghai. Spanning 523 hectares, it was the largest Expo site ever created, and it boasted more international participants than any other expo. 

Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (2010) by Architect: Thomas Heatherwick (1970- ); Adams Kara TaylorRoyal Institute of British Architects

The theme was Better City, Better Life. Thomas Heatherwick Studio won the competition to design the UK Pavilion. Their response celebrated the importance of green sites within urban landscapes. Taking inspiration from Kew Gardens, the world’s first major botanical institution, it drew from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, created to preserve the seeds of 25% of the world’s wild plant species.

Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (2010) by Architect: Thomas Heatherwick (1970- ); Adams Kara TaylorRoyal Institute of British Architects

The pavilion became a cathedral to 250,000 seeds, creating a 15 metre wide and 10 metre high cubed structure that connected with its content via 60,000 protruding rods. These hairs, each a 7.5 metre acrylic rod. stemmed from every surface, extending from its exterior and interior.

Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (2010) by Architect: Thomas Heatherwick (1970- ); Adams Kara TaylorRoyal Institute of British Architects

With more than one in two people living in a city, the Expo raised questions over social mixing, sustainability, security, hygiene and mobility. Shanghai at the time had an urban population of 23 million and seemed an ideal location to address these challenges.


Seventy-three million visitors passed through the gates of the Expo, breaking the previous record held by Expo 1970 Osaka and its 64 million visitors. The highest ever daily attendance of an Expo was recorded on 16 October, when 1.03 million visitors flocked to the site.

The Entry Portal, Dubai Expo 2020 (2021) by Architect: Asif KhanRoyal Institute of British Architects

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - 2020

The first Expo to take place in the  MEASA (Middle East, Africa and South Asia) region, it runs from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022. With 200 participants, the theme is Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, its three subthemes – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability  – focus on the commitment to create a more equitable world and explore collaborative solutions to global challenges.

Asif Khan, British architect designed three Expo Entry Portals which are located on top of bridges spanning roads around the site. The gateways are woven from carbon fibre to create 21-metre-high mashrabiya-style lattices. Other notable pavilions within the Expo include the Sustainability Pavilion by UK studio Grimshaw, designed to generate its own water and energy. The UK Pavilion, a cone-shaped cross-laminated timber pavilion by Es Devlin and the Mobility Pavilion by Foster + Partners.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here. 
All images are from RIBA Collections unless listed.  

German Pavilion (Photo no 1), Barcelona. Rights: John Donat / RIBA Collections
German Pavilion (Photo no 2), Barcelona. Rights: Robert Elwall / RIBA Collections
German Pavilion (Photo no 3&4), Barcelona. Rights: Anna Dziubinska / RIBA Collections
1958 World's Fair, Brussels: the main avenue. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
Hungarian Pavilion, 1958 World Fair, Brussels. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
Atomium, 1958 World's Fair, Brussels. Rights: John Maltby / RIBA Collections
United States Pavilion, Ile Sainte Helene, Expo '67, Montreal. Rights: Monica Pidgeon / RIBA Collections
Expo '67, Montreal: the minirail over Swan Lake with pavilions behind. Rights: Monica Pidgeon / RIBA Collections
Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010. Rights: Cloud 9 Leeds / RIBA Collections
Entry Portal, Dubai Expo 2020. Rights: Jason O’Rear Courtesy of Asif Khan Architects.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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