Area 110 / Expo 2010 Shanghai

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Expo 2010 Shanghai “Better City, Better Life”

If we cannot but wonder why it should be necessary to organize, participate or even simply visit a World Exposition when the web – from Google Maps to YouTube – and all the means of communication available seem to have eliminated and covered any distance and satisfied every curiosity, then the only solution is to spend some days strolling around the immense area of the Shanghai Expo, to realize the efficacy of an event which, in spite of its age – it was as we know first held in London in 1851 – offers the public an extraordinary opportunity to reflect, rather than obtain knowledge, on issues which, while known, reveal the full value of their glaring topicality when seen from up close and side by side. The viewpoint of a magazine entirely dedicated to the event obviously tends to focus on the analysis of the proposals which influence and involve the specific disciplinary field of architecture and design; but it is not possible, at least on an introductory level, to only dwell on the themes associated with the innovative aspects of the pavilions as buildings, or underscore the technological aspects and novelties of the countless proposals, because in three days any visitor, even if possessing the necessary physical resistance, can only manage to examine a part of the exhibition. I will therefore, in order to briefly outline the ten most important aspects which in my opinion emerge from this incredible epic deed of representation, also base my analysis on the numerous journeys and experiences I have made in the last two years as an architect – in order to design and build the B3-2 pavilion in the Urban Best Practice Area – in addition to the impressions accumulated after the first year of life of the Chinese edition of the Area magazine, and the confrontation with the editorial staff of the magazine which is based in Beijing.

1. A powerful demonstration of efficiency. Even if China certainly had no need, after the Olympic Games of 2008, to give the world further proof of its ability to organize an event of universal importance perfectly, Shanghai 2010 sets a record in terms of management and strategy that is the result of a project that while temporary, is anything but ephemeral, because it is backed, as is only proper and indispensable, by an extraordinary and new infrastructural network which connects and supports the whole event. On the first day half a million persons entered the Expo area without any difficulty, moving through river tunnels, a new subway and footpath network, electric cars and buses, cooled paths, bridges, road bridges, landing stages, platforms, frame canopies, well-distributed and unusually large gates and entrances. An incredible, exceptional program if compared to the time of realization.

2. The aptness and importance of the theme: a planetary emergency. “Better City, Better Life” is not just a slogan but the narrative structure of the whole event. However, the question does not centre on the various participating nations’ ability to more or less consciously expound on a theme which some have culpably ignored, but rather on the fact that the hosting nation has made the world aware of the priority of an environmental emergency  which rings as a decisive question for the survival of the planet. Moreover, the argument has not been presented by leveraging on fear or catastrophism, but rather on the need to focus on the quality of life which in 2050, as Peter Greenaway writes in the introduction to his exhibition in the Italian pavilion, will be concentrated, as far as two thirds of the world’s population, in the cities and thus on the overall quality of the latter.

3. The interior and intrinsic value of knowledge. To most Chinese, who have never travelled outside their country – we are thinking of the enormous number of people who live in the countryside or in small towns – the Expo, and thus a trip to Shanghai, may represent a possibility to open a window on the world and obtain the knowledge which represents the main nourishment of a nation which has made its growth, economic and cultural development the red thread of every strategic action. On the contrary, many foreign visitors will be struck when visiting the enormous area below the Chinese pavilion dedicated to the single provinces, where one may familiarize with an unknown and diversified China.

4. Identity and difference. The salient character of the Expo consists of the immediate and direct comparison of the physically perceptible differences of the consistency or, more simply, the architectural value of the pavilions, which reflect the cultural differences between peoples, traditions, knowledge and technologies. The pride in and presentation of technical, productive and cultural achievements immediately bears witness to a natural history which almost everyone evokes as an essential element of a future dominated by a stronger feeling of belongingness, something which is evident both in the developed countries and in those contexts where poverty leaves little room for other values than subsistence.

5. Inequality and distribution of the resources. A visit to the Expo reveals familiar and uncomfortable truths which we tend not to heed, until we are forced to make a more conscious analysis of the differences, in terms of economy and resources, characterizing the different geographic areas of the world. While the European countries all have their own pavilion, and Spain a building just for the city of Madrid and an enormous installation for Barcelona – in addition to its own amazing and spacious national pavilion designed by Benedetta Tagliabue – almost all the African countries are housed by a large structure where the single countries are often represented by stands and installations that are touching due to the poverty of the means available. A homogeneous distribution of the world’s resources, clearly and sadly, remains an unattained utopia on the eve of the third millennium.

6. The architectural record of Europe. The most interesting pavilions in terms of construction and architecture are certainly, with the exception of the marvellous “Korea” tunnel, the European ones. Above all, those of Great Britain and Spain. In fact, both pavilions are characterized by the great fascination of buildings which actually consist of extraordinary shells that mutate and change, vibrating and indefinite, and while the former is a triumph of sophistication and technology, the latter conveys its expressive force in a diametrically opposite direction. The Happy Street presented by the Dutch is amusing and ironic, and so is the band, which the visitors may climb, which embraces and defines the Danish pavilion.

7. The triumph of surfaces. Also due to the provisory and temporary character of many of the constructions which will certainly be demolished at the end of the Expo, the architecture of the Pavilions represent the triumph of surfaces and facing materials, to the point that container and content are often confused or united. Sometimes the tactile quality or immateriality of the facing materials are confused with the lights and charm of technology, in other cases limited budgets and investments only allow for a resort to purely decorative and graphic effects.

8. The end of languages. Expo 2010 demonstrates that, at least on a level of languages and artistic expression, there are no dominant trends or winning calligraphies and, with the exception of some countries as Egypt whose pavilion is covered by an incongruous “painting” adapted to a fluid design by Zaha Hadid, what generally prevails is a research for an expressive identity which predominates on stylism. Thus the Italian pavilion, despite the cuts inspired by deconstructivism, is certainly monumental and massive, and the Chinese one, in spite of the cyclopean dimensions, clearly an object of autochthonous derivation.

9. Virtual extremes. Shanghai moreover endorses the prevalence of the virtual on the real, of digital and electronic elements on mechanical ones, of lights and video on traditional materials. Every pavilion, every exhibition, every installation features an ample use of luminescent LED panels, projections, films, multimedia and interactive instruments, all invite visitors to wear an electronic bracelet which allows them to interact with the images presented by gigantic LED monitors. But what if there is a blackout?

10. Absence of Milan. The absence of a pavilion dedicated to Milan is incredible and unjustified in an exposition which centres on urban themes and the city. The city is only present in a triangular room on the ground floor of the Italian pavilion where, notwithstanding the choice of a wonderful and intriguing theme for 2015, i.e. “Nourishing the Planet, Energy for Life”, the salient exhibits are the familiar three renderings which have appeared in the Internet and newspapers for months. The gaffe of the Lombard city in its relations with the host country is clear, and the inapt understatement is a media suicide, as Milan will be the next city to host the Expo in 2015. Other incomprehensible absences as far as Italy is concerned are those of Turin, Florence and Rome, which will celebrate its presence as capital city for the 150th anniversary of the Unity of Italy next year; however, Bologna and Venice are present with own dedicated stands.

Marco Casamonti