Expo Shanghai

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“China, meet World.  World, meet China.”

It’s statement is pretty clear.

World Fairs and Expositions are a chance for the nations of the world to trade ideas and peddle their cultural and industrial wares.  This year’s show, held in an emergent and increasingly confident Shanghai, seems to be less for the benefit of the global community, and rather a chance for the people of China to experience the world they are set to inherit.

If the future is reflected between the pavilions and edifices, it is one full of Chinese people.  Over 52 million people have visited the fair thus far, and even though I chose a quiet Tuesday evening to attend, queues stretched around the (futurist) block.  After seeing the line-up for the British pavilion stretch past the two-hour marker, and similarly long lines for the other ‘blue chip’ countries, I decided not to enter any pavilions at all.  Nope – if someone asks me which countries I visited, I am not about to say ‘Belgium and The Philippines’; I would simply prefer to spend more time walking around and taking it all in.

So, starting roughly in the middle with Europe (America is comically marginalised at the absolute extreme far end of the site), I began my international stroll.  The British pavilion, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, was a triumph; and possibly even more dramatic than the huge, Blade Runner-esque Chinese building.  People gawped (me included) at the explosion of rods, seemly frozen in time and hanging in mid-air, as if smoke.  Rounding it a couple of times, it was interesting to compare it to some of the adjacent sites which were lighter on drama and heavier on content.  Italy and Spain both seemed to be far more full of actual things to look at and do, and others were at least packed with restaurants; most of the Norway site was filled with its Salmon restaurant, and Belgium even featured a chip van parked out the front (I do admit to stopping their for a refuel).

Rule Britannia … one thing I like about the design, is that it seems to accidentally mimic the Union flag.  What can I say – I guess it felt good to see the flag flying in front.

Amorphous shape.

On the fence.

What must they think?

Subtle commercial activities.

Other blatant political messages dotted the site.  The aforementioned Taiwanese pavilion, themed like a sky lantern, was placed within arms reach of China, only slightly further away than Macao and Hong Kong.  And much like America, Japan was placed at the absolute far end of the site, keeping Kazakhstan and Vietnam company.  Meanwhile, Koreas North and South were separated by the major walkway linking the site together.  Laying out the plots must have been akin to organising a wedding banquet.

Click to see who is on China’s Christmas card list this year.

Plenty of eco-ness pervaded the event, but you can’t help but wonder about the amount of energy used to transform the site, and ferry the legions of people in.  While pavilions such as New Zealand made proud boasts about the amount of energy they were using, others (notably Taiwan) seemed to take it upon themselves to fuel those solar panels through the night with an wanton display of LED-showmanship.  2010 is clearly the coming-out party for the humble LED as an architectural element.

And just as my feet were beginning to get tired, it suddenly struck me what the whole thing felt like.  It was like visiting a showroom for domestic and international airports, all clustered together in one site.  Without the airplanes, of course, but still with the faint feeling that you were just about to pick up your luggage.

I actually attended the Hanover Expo, ten years previously, and I think I was left with the same impression; numbness.  Disney without the rides.  Airports without planes.  Experience, but without the understanding.

Yep – even the UN gets their own pavilion.

Spain’s was huge, and covered in door mats.

People really enjoyed the fashion show outside Germany’s building.

The Greek pavilion.

Some areas of the world made more effort than others.

The show, of course, was not really for international visitors; it was for the legions of Chinese, coming in from other cities and towns; it was amazing to see the variety of faces, and equally humbling to think about the reactions that they would be having to some of the more ‘challenging’ pavilions (like the UK), when they probably would have been perfectly happy with a fake castle.

A light show from Taiwan… looking up to big brother on the other side of the walkway.

Let’s hope your next project isn’t, well, Taiwan.

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