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The Unknown Story Behind New York’s Iconic Unisphere

One of the most visible landmarks in Queens, New York, is the towering Unisphere, the thematic centerpiece and grand remnant of the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair. As the public nostalgically celebrates the icon’s fiftieth birthday, it can be difficult to recall the widespread ridicule that shrouded the project prior to its realization. It is also challenging to uncover the exact origins of a structure that was chronicled primarily by the corporate sponsor and the fair organizers for promotional purposes. The role of Peter Muller-Munk Associates was almost lost to history because Muller-Munk shrewdly distanced his firm from the controversy surrounding the Unisphere’s design and, as result, from recognition of their work on it.

The Unisphere was developed at the behest of Robert Moses, the president of the Fair Corporation, which organized the event. The concept of an armillary sphere originated with Gilmore Clarke, partner of Clarke and Rapuano, one of Moses’s most trusted landscape architects from his longstanding post as New York City Parks Commissioner.[1] But according to several sources, Clarke was “simply the one to put down on paper what was in the mind of Mr. Moses.”[2] The design of the Unisphere was derided from the moment it was published, in February 1961, with a rendering by Hugh Ferriss (pictured below).[3] Of chief concern was the sheer lack of originality. Coming on the heels of the Atomium in Brussels (1958) and in anticipation of Seattle’s Space Needle (1962), the Unisphere was more literal (a gargantuan globe) and less inspired than creative professionals would have liked in representing their nation on the world’s stage. “Surely in 1964 we should come up with something that hasn’t been done a thousand times before,” wrote Walter Dorwin Teague.[4]

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This photograph originally appeared in the March 1964 edition of Industrial Design 2 with the following caption: “US Steel’s twelve-story stainless steel Unisphere, symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair, was designed by Peter Muller-Munk Associates.” (Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Libraries)

Design critic Ralph Caplan penned an editorial, “Fair Is (So Far) Foul,” that challenged designers and architects to oppose Moses and his larger plans for the fair, which he regarded as insufficiently visionary. The Unisphere itself, this “symbol of man’s achievements on a shrinking globe,” Caplan continued, “has been received with mingled horror and nausea by designers.”[5] Leon Gordon Miller, president of the Industrial Designers Institute, wrote a scathing open letter to Moses in defense of American designers’ international reputation.[6] Even the Design Committee of the fair (composed of Gordon Bunshaft, Henry Dreyfuss, and Edward Durell Stone) resigned in dismay when it became clear that Moses would budge on neither the fair’s footprint nor its symbol.[7]

This was the environment that ungraciously unfolded around PMMA and one of their most important clients, US Steel, which had agreed to sponsor, engineer, and fabricate the twelve-story landmark with PMMA as its consultants.[8] From the outset, Muller-Munk thus found himself in an unenviable position: his major client needed his firm’s expertise to resolve and execute a highly visible concept derided by his peers. His choice was to keep the client happy. Prior to PMMA’s and US Steel’s involvement, the Unisphere had undergone a variety of revisions, yet practical considerations were unresolved. Muller-Munk acknowledged the challenge of realizing a concept that had been made public prior to sorting out such details: “U.S. Steel … was given the task of designing a feasible Unisphere,” Industrial Design paraphrased Muller-Munk, “one that would really stand up when fabricated in steel to a height of 12 stories (and which would look, of course, as much like the already published design as possible).”[9]

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US Steel chairman Roger M. Blough (left) with fair president Robert Moses posed in front of Hugh Ferriss’s rendering to publically announce their partnership on the Unisphere, February 14, 1961. (© United States Steel Corporation. Used with permission)

In 1961 and 1962 PMMA and their partners in US Steel’s American Bridge Division tackled a host of design details and engineering decisions. The designers discarded the original idea of stainless steel mesh for the continents: it would have reduced wind loads (a great concern in Flushing Meadows), but the perforated material virtually disappeared when backlit, underscoring Muller-Munk’s observation that the Unisphere was “a piece of open sculpture … the most demanding of all art forms.”[10] Solid sheets of stainless steel were equally problematic: they went dark under floodlights, with only individual high points illuminated. PMMA’s solution was an irregularly textured sheet, which they custom designed.[11] Rigidizing the material with stamped texture also added critical strength and stability. Rather than stamping the landmasses in relief, as originally suggested, PMMA designed mountains as built-in topographical tiers of textured steel (pictured below). The firm also addressed problems of scale—altitude had to be magnified some forty-four times lest the Unisphere’s mountains stand just half an inch tall—and of geography, devising subtle shifts to support tiny islands that fell in between the parallels and meridians. The steel beams would taper to provide critical support at the bottom while minimizing visual clutter above. PMMA also designed a sculptural, three-point base out of weathering Cor-Ten steel. Industrial Design reported, in 1962, that after a year of work, “esthetically speaking,” Muller-Munk “thinks he has improved considerably on the original conception.”[12]

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Workers at US Steel’s American Bridge Division, in Harrisburg, PA, assemble the continent of Europe with rigidized stainless steel panels, pending shipment to the New York World’s Fair, where it would be attached to the Unisphere’s surface, March 1963. (© United States Steel Corporation. Used with permission)

Yet criticisms of the design lingered, and Muller-Munk was sensitive to the opinion of his colleagues. Rumor had it that he was particularly stung by criticism from Bunshaft, who reportedly likened the monument to a jungle gym for King Kong.[13] When, on the eve of the fair’s opening, Industrial Design published an article in which PMMA was given sole credit for the Unisphere, Muller-Munk resolved to distance the firm from the design.[14] In a letter to the editor published the following month, he wrote, “The statement is incorrect. Our office did not design the Unisphere.… What we did do at the request of our client, United States Steel Corporation, was to collaborate with their American Bridge Division in the solution of the many complicated structural and design details of the Unisphere.”[15] Muller-Munk’s calculated statement was meant to protect his firm’s reputation among its peers, but it had the unfortunate effect, until now, of almost entirely writing out of the historical record PMMA’s substantial role in the realization of the iconic landmark. [16]

This essay is excerpted from the book Silver to Steel, published by Carnegie Museum of Art, DelMonico, and Prestel. The exhibition Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk is on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art from November 21, 2015 to April 11, 2016. Silver to Steel is co-organized by Rachel Delphia, The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, and Jewel Stern, independent scholar and curator. To learn more about this period of sweeping change in the city’s history, visit the Pittsburgh Modern story archive.  

Footnotes

1. The author is indebted to Daniel Short, professor of environmental science, Robert Morris University, who graciously shared substantial primary research on the Unisphere, including findings gleaned from the following archives: New York World’s Fair 1964–1965 Corporation Records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library; Clarke and Rapuano Records, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library; Gilmore David Clarke Papers ca. 1920–1980, Columbia University Avery Library; and Queens Museum, Queens, New York. Short also generously shared his unpublished manuscripts on the subject: Daniel Short, “Unisphere: the Untold Story of the 1964 World’s Fair Theme Center,” 2015; and Daniel Short and Lori Walters, “Fifty Years of Unisphere” (working paper, School of Engineering Mathematics and Science, Robert Morris University, Moon Township, PA, and Institute for Simulation & Training, University of Central Florida, Orlando, 2014). See also William Robbins, “Doodle Grew into the Unisphere with Help from a Rubber Ball,” New York Times, August 16, 1964, R1.

2. Editorial, “Fair Is (So Far) Foul,” Industrial Design 8, no. 3 (March 1961): 27. Robbins, “Doodle Grew into Unisphere,” R1.

3. Joint US Steel/Fair Corporation press release, February 14, 1961, United States Steel Archives.

4. Walter Dorwin Teague to Robert Moses, September 23, 1960, New York World’s Fair 1964–1965 Corporation Records, 1959–1971, Folder: NYLP Armillary Sphere Q-Z, Theme: Construction, cited in Short and Walters, “Fifty Years of Unisphere.”

5. Editorial, “Fair Is (So Far) Foul,” 27. Moses’s plan, which involved reusing the infrastructure from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was indeed financially motivated. He hoped that with profits from the 1964 fair he could finally achieve the permanent park that had eluded him after the 1939 New York World’s Fair ended with a deficit; Robert A. Caro, The Powerbroker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 1086.

6. Leon Gordon Miller, open letter to Robert Moses, March 27, 1961, Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) Records, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, Box 26, Folder: World’s Fair 1964. Miller sent the letter to the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, TimeFortune, Wall Street Journal, and Architectural Forum, among others. Miller also sent copies directly to New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, to New York’s US senators, and to president John F. Kennedy.

7. “News: Designers Resign,” Industrial Design 8, no. 1 (January 1961): 18.

8. Peter Muller-Munk to Bay E. Estes Jr., February 8, 1961, Gilmore David Clarke Papers ca. 1920–1980, Columbia University Avery Library, Box 2: 1964 World’s Fair Correspondence 1960-61. Information provided by Daniel Short.

9. “News: How to Make a Unisphere,” Industrial Design 9, no. 6 (June 1962): 20, 22.

10. Muller-Munk as mentioned in Austin J. Paddock, “The Unisphere: The New York World’s Fair Symbol—Like a Beach Ball Balanced on a Golf Tee,” Typo Graphic, February 1964, 3.

11. The author is indebted to Daniel Short for sharing a remarkable schematic blueprint of the official Unisphere texture that he discovered at Rigidized Metals Corporation, Buffalo, NY, and that bears PMMA’s title block: Ernst Budke, PMMA, Drawing No. B-60-37-28, Full-Scale, “Unisphere Custom Rigidized Metal Pattern,” Client: American Bridge Division of US Steel Corporation, October 27, 1961. See also Dick Hirsch, A Lasting Impression:
Rigidized Metals and Its Enduring Idea (Buffalo, NY: Rigidized Metals Corporation and Stonecraft Publishing, 2014).

12. “News: How to Make a Unisphere,” 20, 22.

13. Paul R. Wiedmann to Rachel Delphia, December 11, 2013. Although Muller-Munk was compelled to distance his firm from the project, some designers, like Wiedmann, were proud of the work and lamented the lack of credit they and the firm received.

14. “All’s Fair … A World’s Fair Report Comparing ’39 and ’64,” Industrial Design 11, no. 3 (March
1964): 51.

15. Peter Muller-Munk, “Improper Credit,” Industrial Design 11, no.4 (April 1964): 12.

16. PMMA is not mentioned once in the National Historic Landmark Designation report from 1995. US Landmarks Preservation Commission, May 16, 1995, Designation List 263, LP-1925.