World's fairs are still happening. This year, a small port city in Korea attempts to do what Seattle did in 1962.
While Seattle celebrates the 50th anniversary of Century 21, there's another small, provincial port city on the other side of the world trying to replicate our success. Yeosu is on South Korea's southern coast on the Korea Strait, which connects the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea; the city is a three-hour fast-train trip from Seoul. Like a half-century-ago Seattle, it is a small coastal town (pop. 300,000) with big ambitions in a beautiful setting. Hundreds of tree-covered islands dot the coastline and the city is nestled among green mountains near national parks. The people here have been working for years to get a fair to help put them, as the Seattle fair organizers once said, "on the map." A goal is to turn the working port of Yeosu into a major tourism hub, or as they say, to make it a "beautiful gateway to the world."
Seattle considered numerous sites for its fair to show off its setting, including on-the-water locations at Duwamish Head, Union Bay, and Sand Point. Planners also considered linking the final fair grounds to the waterfront. That plan would have featured a cruise ship dock right around what is now Olympic Sculpture Park. In Yeosu, fair organizers located the fair right on the waterfront of the city's harbor (or New Port Area) — their main industrial port is located on the other side of town. So, the $2 billion fair has driven a waterfront makeover. Expo 2012 has a scenic setting with the town and mountains behind and a protected bay in front. Walkways link to pavilions built over the water. A jetty connects the town to an offshore island, Odongdo, a beautiful park. It's a wonderful site for an expo.
A cruise ship terminal was constructed. Docked in the harbor now is the vessel Club Harmony, which will eventually bring in tourists (the main markets are China and Japan), but it's currently doubling as a hotel for fairgoers. Seattle did the same thing during C21 when the old Dominion Monarch was docked at Pier 51 as a "boatel" and run by Western Hotels. (Century 21 organizers had also tried hard to land the famous liner Liberte to fill the same role.)
The theme of this fair isn't the Space Age, but rather "The Living Ocean and Coast." That helped justify the construction of a huge aquarium, the biggest in Korea, which has proved to be the star attraction. Lines are long, waits up to three and four hours. People want to see the three beguiling Beluga whales donated by the Russians — they are a first in Korea. The aquarium also features a huge sea tank with a transparent domed viewing platform in the middle. You can stand outside the tank looking in through a giant, two-story glass wall at fish and sharks, or you can get a Nemo-eye view from inside the tank while standing in the dome. It's very cool, but also cleverly makes the fair-goers part of the exhibit.
Walking to the dome through a transparent tunnel with fish swimming over head, I was reminded of sketches in the Paul Thiry papers at the University of Washington that show such an arrangement proposed for the Seattle fair, but never built. Long forgotten is the fact that early planners for our science exposition focused on demonstrating humanity's connections with the sea. One was a lagoon under a pavilion that would represent our emergence from a primordial sea. Another was the idea for an aquarium at Seattle Center with transparent underwater passageways.
If not Space Age, however, many of the Yeosu fair's exhibits reinforce the importance of exploration as well as new sustainable technologies, all in service of the big blue planet. Many of the pavilions feature computer animated films that suggest that the undersea world is a kind of outer space with alien creatures and strange crafts exploring dark worlds.
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