Pacific Science Center


Pacific Science Center

200 Second Avenue N.

Est. 1962

​The Century 21 Exposition

(1962 Seattle World’s Fair)

In the mid-1950s, Seattle civic boosters, businessmen, politicians, and other community leaders began to rally around the idea of a world’s fair to bring worldwide attention to this growing port city. The idea quickly spread, and in 1955, the Washington State legislature passed a bill creating a World’s Fair Commission to develop a plan and a schedule, and to choose a site for the event.  Fair planners determined 70-75 acres were necessary for the Fair grounds. To create the site, approximately 50 acres of the existing residences and commercial buildings adjacent to the existing Civic Center site were condemned and several streets were vacated to unify the large area.  Several existing buildings were adapted to Fair uses, including the 1928 Civic Auditorium, the 1939 Armory, and the 1948 Memorial Stadium.  By 1957, state and city funding had been secured and planning was underway. Although the fair had tentatively been named “Festival of the West,” the launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957 emphasized the importance of educating the average American about science and the planning commission settled on the forward-sounding “Century 21 Exposition.”  The theme of the Century 21 Exposition would be life in the 21st century, and how science would play a role in it.

An initial Fair design commission included, among others, Paul Thiry, Minoru Yamasaki, Perry Johansen, and Lawrence Halprin. Chosen as architect for the entire project, Paul Thiry, oversaw the entire site and coordinated individual architects for specific buildings.

The fair was held from April 21 to October 21, 1962 and attracted nearly 10 million visitors. The event was a resounding success, and focused international attention for six months on Seattle – to the benefit of local businesses and tourism for decades following.

The Building

Pacific Science Center was originally built as the United States Science Pavilion for the Fair. The facility was designed to house the largest science exhibit ever assembled by the federal government and consisted originally of six rectangular, brilliant white, nearly windowless building masses of varying heights and sizes, clustered around an open courtyard with a minimalist water garden and five identical towers.

The buildings are constructed with a limited palette of narrow, precast, repeating concrete wall and roof elements. A pointed arch motif is found throughout the wall elements and in openings or decorative ribbing, which were frequently called “space gothic.” For each building, the walls are constructed of prestressed and precast ribbed wall panels, each being five feet wide, but varying between 32 and 50 feet in height depending on the building. Panels with decorative ribbing and arches are load-bearing, while panels with a vertical scalloped form are non-load-bearing infill walls (although they carry their own weight and function as shear walls).

The buildings were designed as warehouses for exhibition displays, each with a different theme, and windowless to provide maximum flexibility for possible exhibit arrangements inside. Exhibits or other installations, such as the theaters, are wooden or steel stud structures built inside the concrete box.

The general building layout was designed to move people through the space sequentially, so that visitors could experience the “storyline” that had been carefully composed for the series of exhibits. The buildings in 1962 were themed as follows:

Building 1 – The House of Science

Building 2 – The History of Science Building 3 – The Spacearium

Building R – The rest area upstairs, and Junior Lab of Science downstairs

Building 4 – The Methods of Science

Building 5 – The Horizons of Science

Upon entering the site wide stairs at the outside forecourt led visitors upwards and through the five entry towers and viewing platforms. The entrance was specifically elevated to keep the courtyard somewhat isolated from the rest of the fair.

At the center of the complex are five 100 foot tall precast concrete entry arches. Each tower is topped with precast concrete open-ribbed vaults. The towers support an identical custom light fixture on cable cross ties. The cables also resist the outward thrusts caused by the lattice roof structures.

On October 22, 1962, the day after the World’s Fair ended, the Science Pavilion was leased from the federal government for $1 a year by the newly created Pacific Science Center Foundation, and reopened as Pacific Science Center.

The Architect

Minoru Yamasaki began his career as a follower of International Style ideals embracing Modernist values such as expression of structure and simplicity of form. Later, as he sought to incorporate some ornament into building structures, he was sometimes called a “romantic” modernist.

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle in 1912, the son of Japanese parents who met and married in Seattle. In Minoru’s early childhood years, his family lived in a tenement on Yesler Hill and he recalled that “American ways remained foreign to [my parents] because of language difficulties and the strong racial prejudice that existed on the West Coast against Orientals at that time.”

Yamasaki enrolled in the University of Washington architecture school and graduated in 1934. The day after the US declared war on Japan in 1941, Yamasaki’s father was fired from his job, so Yamasaki invited his parents to live with him, his wife, and his brother, in their one-bedroom apartment, to avoid his parents being sent to one of the Japanese relocation centers.

After forming the partnership of Leinweber, Yamasaki, & Hellmuth, one of the first large projects Yamasaki headed was the Pruitt- Igoe public housing project (1950) for the city of St. Louis.  In 1951 the firm received the commission to design the Lambert-St. Louis Municipal Air Terminal, the first work for which Yamasaki received substantial critical acclaim. With several decades worth of Modernism in cities by the 1960s, Yamasaki began to see much of this architecture as bland, inadequate, and monotonous. Structure remained very important to express, but to function, economy, and order, Yamasaki said “My premise is that delight and reflection are ingredients which must be added. Yamasaki & Associates designed two more buildings in Seattle, with NBBJ as associate architects—the IBM Building (1962-64), and Rainier Bank tower (1972-77).

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