John Sloan, a New York City artist, cynically observed: "The artistic taste of most persons in this country is formed by the illustrated calendars distributed by corner groceries." To overcome this charge of pedestrianism, the Fair's Board of Design created a comprehensive blueprint for "The World of Tomorrow."
For decades, communal architecture reflected the design of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Its orderly, classical, all-white look held a firm grasp on the American mind. The creators of the New York World's Fair determined to change the public's perceptions.
According to its members, the board intended to create a physical environment of buildings, landscape, murals, sculpture and exhibits that would appeal to the great mass of visitors, the so -called 'man in the street.'
The Board of Design intended "The World of Tomorrow" to look "modern." To that end, the board set a few unusual, but very specific restrictions on the construction of the fair buildings. All pavilions must frankly reflect their temporary character and not appear like permanent materials. And, excluding the pavilions in the Government Zone, no buildings could imitate any historic structures.
Following these instruction, to a large extent the architects designed single story buildings, thus forcing the fair to install many decorative pylons to break up the monotony of the low sky line The pavilions with multi-levels, however, included ramps, elevators and escalators to reduce visitor's fatigue to a minimum. Revolving platforms also helped maximize circulation through the pavilion.
The architects included an interesting feature in most of the pavilions – a lack of windows. This intentional design element allowed for more exhibition space, excluded the summer heat (twenty-five percent were air conditioned), and avoided interference with the exhibit's artificial lighting. Notable exceptions included the enticing entrance to the Borden exhibit and Westinghouse. Westinghouse had a real "hook": its two glass-fronted wings allowed fairgoers a view of a giant swinging pendulum and faintly hear Electro, its mechanical man.
Walter Dorwin Teague, one of the seven members of the Board of Design who created the Ford and U.S. Steel exhibits, proclaimed: "World's fair architecture is to be amusing." And for many buildings, it was just that.
A few architects created fanciful designs in the Architecture Parlante style buildings whose characteristics best reflected their function. Without having to refer to their guidebooks, visitors could conjecture the Maritime Building by its prow, like façade and the Aviation Building through the hangar-like appearance. Even Teague employed this style placing a huge cash register atop the NCR pavilion.
Regrettably the Board of Designs' intent to appear "modern" failed to impress most architectural critics. "The buildings sprawl, billow, leap, perambulate, following no order except the sweet will of the exhibitor and his architect." "Opium-dream architecture ranking in esthetic significance with the current fashions in women's hats will be visible on every hand."
Others complained: "Designs here run the whole gamut from surrealism to cockeyed." "The architecture of the future seems to envision us living and working in tubes, tunnels, triangles and practically everything except four walls and a roof."
And renowned architect Harvey Wiley Corbett predicted: "The Fair's architecture will not exert any more influence on design than would a band of musician on musical taste if each member were playing a different piece."
Perhaps the most influential and devastating reviews for the general public came from Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore.
Following a consultation with President Roosevelt in the White House about the memorial's progress, a friend persuaded the Borglum to visit the New York fair. To say the least, he was not impressed. "I don't like it. Fairs are all degenerating." He did, however, appreciate the lights, fountains and fireworks in the evening as they hid "that horrible mass of architecture" exposed in the daylight.
Borglum found the scientific exhibits "perfectly marvelous" and raved over the Soviet pavilion because it was not marred by "classicism." But his harshest words fell upon the examples of his own profession.
As a sculptor, Borglum said the Fair's statuary made him sick in his head, heart and stomach. He believed the massive representation of George Washington made the first president look like "a clodhopper." And he declared the Soviet's "Big Joe" "no more embodies the spirit which should be inherent" in the revolutionary ideal.
W. H. Collins had had enough of Borglum's rantings. In a letter to the Sun's editors, Collins wrote: "Considering that Mr. Borglum is deforming the face of nature and a beautiful mountain with his monstrosities, it ill becomes him to criticize the sculpture at the fair, after all, is only for temporary decoration."
In keeping with the Board of Design's overall intent to control the look of the Fair, Julian E. Garnsey, a color consultant, proposed the half-wheel design of the main exhibit area suggested a color plan roughly based on the progression of the spectrum.