Architectural duel at the 1937 Paris Universal Exhibition

Architectural duel at the 1937 Paris Universal Exhibition

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Title: Soviet and German pavilions at the 1937 World's Fair

Author : BALDET Fernand (1885 - 1964)

Creation date : 1937

Date shown: 1937

Contact copyright: © Fernand Baldet Website

Soviet and German pavilions at the 1937 World's Fair

© Fernand Baldet

Publication date: April 2019

Historical context

War or peace?

Photographer Fernand Baldet (1885-1964) took at least 41 shots during his four visits (from September 19 to October 31) at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1937. Equipped with his state-of-the-art German Leica equipment, this specialist in images d'astronomie devotes its Agfacolor color film above all to buildings in French provinces and very little to foreign pavilions: no photos have been found of the third most famous pavilion, that of Republican Spain where Alexander's mercury fountain Calder and the Guernica by Pablo Picasso signify the commitment of artists against war.

The universal exhibitions took off with the industrial revolution of which they were to present the main achievements; following the premiere in London in 1851, Paris has already hosted them in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900. Unlike Spain, France remains a primarily ideological battlefield: if Nazism is not yet attractive, and that the powerlessness in the face of Hitler's daring worries, the leagues of fascist obedience multiply, to the point of threatening the government during the day of February 6, 1934. Everything is therefore in place for the exhibition to serve as a backdrop for this confrontation ideologies.

Image Analysis

Neoclassicism in force

This photo is a priori the first taken by Baldet when he arrived at the Exhibition site. It is taken from the left bank of the Seine, on the Quai de Grenelle located immediately west of the Eiffel Tower. The photographer is therefore located at the regional center and points the lens on the foreign sections placed on the Chaillot hill between the river and the Trocadéro. The composition balanced between a pale blue autumn sky, a deep blue with reflections of the water and the light stone of the buildings is enhanced by the bright color of the national banners. While the Nazi flag is easy to recognize, the Soviets were careful to add to their federal flag those of the republics also represented. We can also see on the left of the German flag that of Poland, on the right that of Portugal, both of more human size.

Baldet takes a more off-center point of view than usual representations, no doubt intending to capture buildings in a row in their entire length. Because it was not just about erecting towers gazing at the Nazi eagle and the realistic-socialist metal sculpture of Vera Moukinha The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman, here seen from the back. The Soviet pavilion designed by architect Boris Iofan is more than 150 meters long, is adorned with a frieze carved from a design by Iossif Tchaikov representing the 11 Soviet nationalities, and inside presents the economic successes of the diet. The German pavilion, designed by Hitler's chief architect Albert Speer, is also characterized by its massive character and classic style. The face-to-face layout makes it the grandiose gateway to the international part of the Exhibition.


History on the move

The face to face meeting was not premeditated by the organizers of the Exhibition, but the layout of the two buildings in this prominent place in the geography of Paris necessarily contributed to it. The symbol war almost never took place: in his Memoirs, Speer assures us that on learning of the situation of the pavilions, Hitler intended to boycott the demonstration to avoid such an unpleasant neighborhood. On the contrary, the architect would have convinced him of the interest and had the opposing site spied on in order to refine his own achievement. We must of course take into account the role that one of the very few senior Nazi officials who was not sentenced after the defeat of 1945 would like to take on. The fact remains that only the Soviet Union and Germany are ready in time for the inauguration on May 25, 1937. Workers have been sent specially from both countries to win the competition ... which ends in a draw, with both buildings jointly receiving the gold medal for architecture. The overwhelming number of winners of the Exhibition is, moreover, remarkably ecumenical, a sign of a desire for pacification well in the spirit of this kind of international event.

The cliché of the power confrontation obscures other such important signs. If foreigners were able to discover Nazi architecture during the Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936, it is now exported and denies the Bauhaus experiments of the 1920s. The Hitler regime claims to be the heir of ancient culture and of medieval Germany embodied by the city of Nuremberg. Likewise, the building signed by Iofan deliberately ignores the daring constructivism of the previous decade. It is engraved in large letters with the mention 1917-1937: this reminder of the October Revolution, joined to the frieze of nationalities, affirms to the Bolshevik that the real history of the country began 20 years earlier. The Soviets also played the game of the international exhibition perfectly, indulging in a wealth of detail on economic successes and social progress, with sometimes flashy luxury. This is where the essential message to the international working class, especially France, in the context of the Popular Front resonates.

  • Universal Exhibition of 1937
  • Universal exhibitions
  • Picasso (Pablo)
  • Calder (Alexander)
  • Popular Front
  • war in spain
  • Malraux (André)
  • Spain
  • February 6, 1934
  • Seine
  • Eiffel Tower
  • Russia
  • Germany
  • Nazism
  • Russian revolution
  • Moukinha (Vera)
  • Iofan (Boris)
  • Tchaikov (Iossif)
  • Speer (Albert)
  • working class


Sylvain Ageorges, In the footsteps of the Universal Exhibitions of Paris-1855-1937, Éditions Parigramme, 2006. François Gentili, "The sculptures of the USSR pavilion at the 1937 Exhibition", News from archeology [Online], 134 | 2013, posted on January 01, 2016 Robert H. Kargon et alii, World's Fairs on the Eve of War. Science, Technology, and Modernity, 1937-1942, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Architectural duel at the 1937 Paris Universal Exhibition"

Video: El Pabellón español, 1937. Contextos The Spanish Pavilion, 1937. Contexts