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RMU Professor’s Book Tells the Untold Story Behind the “Unisphere”

Monday, October 12, 2015

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Pittsburgh, Oct. 12, 2015 – A book by Robert Morris University professor Daniel Short restores credit to a pioneering Pittsburgh industrial designer for building the Unisphere, the architectural centerpiece of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Short, an associate professor of environmental science, wrote Unisphere: Symbol of the 1964-1965 New York’s World Fair after discovering that relatively little has been written about the iconic structure, often featured as a New York City landmark in movies and TV.

"You see it in Men in Black being blown up. You see in King of Queens and countless other shows. But without going to see it in person, you have no idea how immense it is. You stand underneath this thing and it's gigantic. It is the biggest representation of the Earth on Earth, and a marvel of industrial design," said Short.

Much of what has been documented about the structure’s origins deny credit to the man who ultimately designed it, Peter Muller-Munk (1904-1967), a German immigrant who moved to Pittsburgh after working for several years in New York City. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh will feature the works of Muller-Munk at an exhibition opening Nov. 21, Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk.

Muller-Munk’s eponymous design firm partnered with American Bridge, then a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, to build the 140-foot tall, 900,000-pound stainless steel Unisphere, a sculpture of the planet Earth with orbiting satellites. New York City landscape architect Gilmore Clark drew up the original plans for the structure, and he often gets credit for the final product. 

Short is quick to note in his book that it was Muller-Munk himself who sought to minimize his involvement with the project after the Unisphere was savaged by architectural critics and even fellow designers. The head of the design committee for the World’s Fair likened it to “King Kong’s cage.” Muller-Munk feared that antipathy to the Unisphere would damage his firm’s reputation. 

“Privately, Clarke gave credit to the Muller-Munk team, and to the team of engineers at U.S. Steel who manufactured Unisphere,” Short writes in the introduction of Unisphere.

Short’s book goes behind the scenes of the World’s Fair, which became famous for, among other exhibits, Walt Disney’s “It’s A Small World,” and gave many visitors their first glimpse of a computer. Presiding over the World’s Fair was Robert Moses, the legendary but controversial urban planner who built hundreds of parks, bridges, and highways that forever changed the face of New York City.

Moses had also helped to plan the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, for which the city had converted an ash dump in Queens into the Flushing Meadows Park. Short writes that Moses was dissatisfied with the progress the city had made on the park by the time the 1939 exposition had ended, and taking control of the 1964 World’s Fair was his way to finally fulfill his vision for Flushing Meadows.

Short explains in his book that Moses and Clarke were good friends and had collaborated on many other projects. It was Clarke who conceived of the fair’s centerpiece as an armillary sphere, a tool of ancient astronomers used to both observe celestial phenomena and to demonstrate astronomical principles. But designing the structure was beyond the capabilities of Clarke’s firm. U.S. Steel, who sponsored the construction of Unisphere, recommended Muller-Munk to Clarke.

The Unisphere was intended to symbolize the nascent space age and be a structure on par with the great “theme centers” of previous world’s fairs, such as the Eiffel Tower, London’s Crystal Palace, and Chicago’s White City. Short provides an account of the Unisphere’s construction that features original conceptual drawings and correspondence among the major players, as well as bios of Muller-Munk, Moses, Clarke, and other figures central to pulling off the World’s Fair. 

Several of Muller-Munk’s colleagues assisted Short with his research. Short was also able to publish the photographic collection of the late Tom Russell, Unisphere's chief electrical engineer and a native of Beaver Falls, Pa. Short became enamored of the sculpture during a 2013 visit to the nearby New York Hall of Science while researching the role that science museums play in science education.

Fifty-one million visitors attended the 1964 World’s Fair, short of the 70 million required for it to be profitable, and that was one of several factors in the decline of Moses’s power during the 1960s. It was the last world’s exposition to have any kind of lasting cultural significance, and the Unisphere is one of the few relics from the fair remaining in what is now called the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Click here to purchase a copy of Unisphere: Symbol of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.

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Photo of Unisphere during the 1964-1965 World's Fair by Bill Cotter
Photo of Peter Muller-Munk Courtesy of Paul Wiedmann