China Rules the World at Expo 2010

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Click here for a slideshow of national pavilions at Expo 2010.

At precisely 9 AM on May Day, hundreds of new turnstiles will begin to spin along the banks of Shanghai's Huangpu River, giving way to more than half a million visitors as they inaugurate the opening of Expo 2010, the most expensive and well-attended World's Fair in history. To American ears, the concept of a World's Fair sounds archaic, and when applied to Shanghai, a contemporary symbol of all that is new, vibrant, and even threatening, it's disconcerting. But in Shanghai, where the future is an obsession, this reported $46 billion hat-tip to the past makes perfect sense: just as New York once announced its global pre-eminence via World's Fairs in 1939 and, again, in 1964, the organizers of Expo 2010 view the six month event as nothing less than Shanghai's coronation as the next great world city.

World's Fairs have their origins in medieval European trade fairs, with their modern incarnation coming in 1851, with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents , held in London. Organized by Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition's primary purpose was to display the fruits and achievements of high Victorian England and its empire. Its most famous display piece-- the steel and glass Crystal Palace designed and built to hold much of the Exhibition--was a technological and architectural wonder that was unequaled. London's status was enhanced and, soon after, cities in the United States and Europe, eager to emulate its success, held their own Expos, often featuring at least one dynamic new piece of architecture. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, for example, featured the Eifel Tower; Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 introduced Chicago's famous Midway; and, most recently, the Expo 67 in Montreal featured Buckminster Fuller's Montreal Biosphere, a twenty-story high geodesic dome.

By the early 20th century, World's Fairs had become such important and competitive events that a treaty was actually drafted and signed to prevent conflicts over them. Henceforth, World Expos, like Shanghai's, would be held every five years, for duration of six months; International Expos would be held between them, for three months, and on a smaller scale. The regulating agency, the Bureau de International Expositiones [BIE] is located in Paris. Regulation, however, didn't dampen enthusiasm for the events. They continued to grow, and become more elaborate. Yet, with the advent of modern communications and international travel, they also changed. No long were they glorified trade fairs at which countries displayed their new goods and technologies; instead, they evolved into elaborate nation branding events. So, during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union spent extravagant sums building national pavilions meant to represent their technological, political, and cultural superiority to each other--at Expos hosted in other countries. Meanwhile, Expos began to take on new meanings for host countries. For example, in Canada the 1967 Montreal Expo is still viewed as a critical moment and symbol of the former colony's emergence from Britain's shadow.

The American ardor for Expos began to wane in the 1970s. The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition went bankrupt in the midst of its run, and during the 1990s Congress severely restricted the US government's ability to fund the building of US pavilions. Even so, Expos continued to be held successfully; Expo 2000 in Hannover attracted 25 million; Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, attracted 22 million. Still, the Expo movement was in undeniable decline until December 3, 2002, when Shanghai was awarded Expo 2010 over four other cities. China's increasingly large stake in the global economy meant that countries--including the United States--that didn't participate in World Expos, anymore, could ill afford to miss the branding opportunity that Shanghai's offered. At the same time, an increasingly confident China intimated that a failure to attend would be duly noted. A lack of financial resources would not be an object, either: China has been clear from the beginning that it would subsidize if not outright finance the participation of poorer nations at Expo 2010. Whether it wanted to attend or not, the world was expected.

Today the Expo site covers 2.5 square miles of prime Shanghai riverbank. At the heart of it is the China pavilion--the "Oriental Crown"--a massive, two-hundred-foot-tall structure that incorporates traditional Chinese architectural and design elements into a massive structure that looms, coolly, over the entire site. It's not exactly the Crystal Palace, but the message is eminently clear. Surrounding it are roughly 170 additional, smaller (by the rules) pavilions grouped by continent and region, each--in its own way--attempting to project a national brand and place in the global order. The politics are sometimes comically obvious: the China pavilion practically hangs over the Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan pavilions; meanwhile, the U.S. and Japanese pavilions are exiled to the far ends of the Expo site, as far from the China pavilion as physically possible.

But politics plays only a small part in this. Indeed, the expected 70 million visitors will quickly note that there are buildings of genuine grace and beauty scattered throughout the grounds. During the crowded, week-long soft-opening that concluded on Monday, it was these buildings that were among the most popular with the hundreds of thousands of Shanghainese who braved rain, heavy-handed security, and chaos to see what has taken eight years to prepare. Ironically, six months from now, at the end of the Expo, the BIE's rules require that all of the pavilions be demolished or moved. And so, if there's an Eifel Tower, a Crystal Palace, or a Montreal Biosphere among them, there's only until October 31 to know it in its natural habitat, the fabulously expensive and elaborate Shanghai Expo 2010.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Architecture gets most of the attention at Expo, but most nations focus at least much attention and money on the exhibits and programming inside of the pavilions. Here, visitors stream into the multimedia maelstrom of the Colombian pavilion, designed by Ralph Miller & Associates of San Francisco.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Politics is downplayed at Expo 2010, but there’s no missing the political message embodied in the diminutive Hong Kong and Macau pavilions, both jammed against the stairs that lead up to the two-hundred foot high China pavilion. The Macau pavilion measures a mere 19.99 meters (referencing the year of its return from Portugal to the mainland), or sixty-five feet. The transparent middle level of the three-level Hong Kong entry is intended to symbolize the city’s openness.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
The Dutch pavilion, named "Happy Street," is a series of houses built around a figure-eight shaped avenue. The unusual, whimsical structure is officially intended as an argument that the Expo's "better city, better life" theme is best met at the most local level. However, some in Shanghai have interpreted artist and architect John Körmeling's design as a repudiation of the host city's helter-skelter development pattern.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Nobody knows who among the Shanghai Expo Bureau decided to make two inaugural members of George W. Bush's “Axis of Evil” into neighbors, but the placement—intentional or otherwise—has been the cause of early buzz among Expo participants. Expo 2010 is North Korea's first Expo, and its entry—complete with Korean War footage and a scale model of Pyongyang's Juche monument—was overseen by a Shanghai designer and producer assigned by the local government.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Historically, the czars and then the Soviets were responsible for some of the most expensive and elaborate Expo pavilions in the history of the event. The exquisite 2010 pavilion, designed by the Moscow firm Paper Team, is explicitly intended to evoke these past Expo glories. Twelve irregularly-shaped towers, decorated with patterns copied from traditional textiles, surround a "hovering cloud," and evoke an ancient Ural town. Visitors will be guided through scenes from the fairy tales of Nikolay Nosov.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
To ensure the participation of African nations in Expo 2010, the Expo Bureau commissioned the "Gift Box," its largest pavilion, for booths and exhibition spaces representing forty-three mostly poor nations. The Expo Bureau has reportedly emarked US$100 million to pay for the entire exhibition. At the entrance to the Gift Box, visitors are greeted by a massive fake rock wall carved with “images of typical African people.”


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Rather than build an expensive stand-alone pavilion, many countries choose instead to customize rented pre-built structures provided by the Expo Bureau. Of these, the most stunning is Angola's terrific entry, modeled on the bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis, the national flower, found only in the Namibian desert.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Cuba’s customization of its rented pavilion doesn’t go far beyond fresh coats of paint and a silk-screened image of Cuban cities. The Expo Bureau claims that the pavilion’s programming will include Havana Club Bar, where visitors can sample cocktails, and a “Havana Cigar House.”


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
India's pavilion rejects technology and architectural modernism in favor of a traditional design modeled after the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Here, workers place finishing touches on the grillwork that hangs over the pavilion's gate. India's entry is also notable for its modest, $9 million cost. In contrast, the neighboring Saudi Arabian pavilion cost in excess of US$146 million.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Located in the not-so-distant shadow of the looming China pavilion, Israel and Pakistan are two of the Expo's most unlikely neighbors. The Israeli entry, its first-ever at an Expo, was designed by Haim Dotan and features trees which whisper in English and Chinese as visitors pass them. The centerpiece of the Israeli entry is an interactive audio-visual presentation on Israeli achievements and hopes. The Pakistani pavilion is modeled on the Lahore Fort, and housed carpet and polished rock salesmen during the Expo's soft opening.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
The understated, elegant Polish pavilion is an early favorite among other pavilions and visitors to the soft opening. The structure is intended as a quiet respite from the often over-the-top architectural excesses of other pavilions. During Expo it will host daily Chopin piano recitals.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Visitors on the spiral walkway that winds through the center of the US$146 million Saudi Arabian pavilion. Nicknamed "the moon boat," the bowl-shaped entry features a 1600 square meter IMAX screen that its designers claim is the largest on Earth, and 150 date palms on its roof—one for every million spent on the structure, Expo insiders and critics have joked, recently.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
The Swiss pavilion's innovative curtain façade is an aluminum mesh covered in solar accumulators that store and emit energy as bursts of light. Designed by Buchner Bründler AG, the pavilion is threaded by a chairlift that takes visitors on a ten minute ride, from an urban exhibition on the pavilion's lower level, to an undulating rooftop mountain meadow.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
The complicated United Arab Emirates pavilion, designed by the UK's Foster + Partners, was still under construction during the Expo's soft opening. Intended to evoke desert sand dunes, the pavilion has become the subject of off-color jokes (based upon the building's arguable resemblance to female anatomy) on the Chinese internet, and—reportedly—frustration on the part of the Expo Bureau.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
The runaway favorite of the Chinese public and other Expo participants, the UK pavilion—also known as the “Seed Cathedral”—features 60,000 twenty-five foot transparent rods that wave freely in the wind. At the end of each rod is a seed from the Kew Millenium Seed Bank—the largest such bank in the world. Designer Thomas Heatherwick placed the Seed Cathedral in an abstract landscape meant to represent the paper that the object arrived wrapped in. The seeds will be given to China after the Expo.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Due to laws restricting the State Department's ability to fund Expo pavilions, the US was forced to rely upon the private sector to finance its participation in Expo 2010. The resulting structure—designed by Canadian Clive Grout—is intended to represent an eagle's spread wings. The State Department has refused repeated requests to reveal the process by which it was selected.


China Rules the World at Expo 2010 by Adam Minter.

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Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the Bloomberg World View blog. He is writing a book about the globalization of the scrap recycling industry for Bloomsbury Press.

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