Back To The Future

Back To The Future

Plan for the Air Pavilion on Canada Island.
Courtesy Olson Kundig

For six months in 1974, the City of Spokane, Washington, held the first environmentally themed world’s exposition on a 100-acre site along the Spokane River. The motto was “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.”

To prepare for the fair, Spokane––the smallest city to ever hold a world’s fair (the population at the time was only 170,000)––received federal, private, and state funds to help create a new park, clean up the river, and transform the blighted downtown. On the first day, 1,974 fish were released into river. Ten countries participated, including the Australian Pavilion that housed a model of the just-completed Sydney Opera House. At the close of the fair, 5.6 million people had passed through its gates.


But four decades later, the fair grounds have become worn. Many buildings have been lost, but some still remain. Among them are the U.S. Federal Pavilion and the Washington State Pavilion. Now, at the 40th anniversary of the fair, state officials hope to redevelop the site. The mayor of Spokane organized a 20-person advisory committee, which hired Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects to create conceptual designs for the fairgrounds.

Their proposal reworks the park, renovating existing buildings and introducing new ones. “The inspiration was really the site itself. Hopefully it reflects the park, the river, and the city. The structures are meant to take a back seat to the landscape and to support and reflect the true four season conditions that are found in Spokane,” explained firm principal Tom Kundig.


In the design, new pavilions named after the five elements are dispersed throughout the park, such as the Air Pavilion, the Earth Pavilion, and the Water Pavilion. They house multi-purpose event spaces, while nodding to the original fair theme of environmentalism. “The intention is that they will be able to be open or closed to the landscape based on the seasonal requirements, while maintaining a visual connection to place regardless of the conditions,” said Kundig.


There are plans to repair the former U.S. Federal Pavilion—which once had a canvas skin but now consists of only a wire structure—as a meeting place for city residents and visitors. “Our goal is to embrace what is already there and build upon that legacy,” said Kundig.

Olson Kundig’s proposal also includes a 1.5 acre playground, an ice rink, plazas, and pedestrian pathways.

This June and July the park board and city council approved the master plan. In November Spokane residents will vote on a $60 million bond measure that, if passed, will fund the first phase of the $100 million project. If funded the plan is slated for completion in 2018.

“The challenges have been those that you’d expect with any large-scale project,” said Kundig. “The foundational elements are already there, and there’s a lot of positive energy around the project, so it is really just a matter of bringing everything together.”