On an overcast Saturday in June, I joined a few hundred other scattered Westerners with at least 550,000 Chinese on a visit to the Shanghai Expo. Like everything else in 21st-century Shanghai, the planet’s latest world’s fair invites any and every extreme comparison — it is the largest ever in area (2.04 square miles), in cost (estimated at $58 billion), and in global participation (with more than 200 countries and cities represented). Even Monaco can boast a pavilion, though the Expo site is more than twice the size of the Mediterranean principality. And despite the probable paucity of Monégasque pilgrims, the Expo seems likely to become the largest ever in attendance, with 70 million visitors expected before it closes on October 31, 2010.
Though I arrived at the “No. 1 Gate” on the Expo’s less-visited Puxi side a few minutes before the 9 a.m. opening — and already armed with a ticket — it still took me nearly an hour to traverse the security queue. The system functions with the efficiency of a well-run airport, but is simply overwhelmed by the volume of visitors. In contemporary China, which adds airline terminals and subway lines as rapidly as other countries open fast-food joints, such delays seem out of character. Chinese tolerance for queuing, however, rivals that of the British, my previous gold standard for such matters. I wondered whether the Chinese would be as patient when it came to waiting for entry to the massive pavilions of the Expo itself.
Access to these grand temples entails tortuous passage through the sort of densely fenced switchbacks that would give Temple Grandin nightmares. Fortunately, we human cattle remain docile, convinced that the hybrid shrines to national pride and Chinese friendship are worth the multi-hour wait. In fact, the Expo planners have installed a large stanchion with illuminated bilingual scrolling text that ranks comparative waiting times. Less usefully, it follows with a scold: “You are advised to make better visiting plans,” before concluding with a cheerful affirmation: “Wish you a pleasant tour!”
My tour was indeed pleasant, mostly because I declined to spend my 9-hour sojourn standing in lines, and instead focused on observing the life between the buildings, and on visiting the interiors of those with shorter queues. Reading the Expo between the lines, as it were, cannot yield the fullness of viewing that a month of queueing (or an all-encompassing VIP-pass) might offer, but it invites the opportunity to step back and consider the broader qualities of the Expo as an ephemeral place.
Expo 2010 Shanghai (as it is formally named) is indeed about all three parts of its name: it is the heir to a century-and-a-half of such world’s fairs; it is very much of its time; and it is certainly about the centrality of Shanghai. Like 1851 London — where the Great Exhibition celebrated imperial Britain’s industrial and military power — and 1893 Chicago — where the World’s Columbian Exposition affirmed growing American confidence — 2010 Shanghai bristles forth as the “shock city” of our age. As with its famous precursors, remembered for the Crystal Palace and the Court of Honor/Midway Plaisance, Shanghai’s Expo has invited the world but displayed it on its own terms. Shanghai’s global tableau lacks the kind of single, dominant and coherent set piece that characterized the London and Chicago fairs, but it succeeds in staking out yet another case for China’s restored global pre-eminence.
The Shanghai Expo brazenly displays this New World Order, symbolized by the red inverted pyramid of a rising China. This building alone occupies nearly double the site area of the old iron-and-glass Crystal Palace, which had been the setting for the entire 1851 London exhibition. Pavilions for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan dutifully appear as proximate small off-shore islands, flanking the China Pavilion along the Expo Axis.
This axis, perpendicular to the Huangpu River on the Pudong side of the fair, links several of the large structures that will remain, post-Expo. These include buildings that currently serve as the Expo Culture Center (with various stages capable of seating 18,000 people), the Expo Center (intended for conferences and celebrations), and the Theme Pavilion (including the Urbanian Pavilion, the Pavilion of City Being, and the Pavilion of Urban Planet). I remain unclear on the perhaps subtle differences between “city being” and an “urbanian” existence, since I did not brave the queue to enter, but I am certain about the meaning of life on an “urban planet,” since this comes across in every vista of the crowded Expo.
Although the Expo Axis is an all-Chinese domain (despite being centered on a drink dispensary advertising the Coca Cola Happiness Factory), it is the 2.17-mile-long cross axis that provides the fuller view of the Expo, both literally and figuratively. Conceived as an “elevated pedestrians’ walkway,” it offers a welcome (and partially shaded) express route above the queueing crowds winding whinelessly at the entrance levels of the pavilions. From this privileged perch, the global geo-political array of nation-states becomes especially apparent.
Asian (and Middle Eastern) nation-states have been awarded pride of place next to China in the multi-continental Pangaea of the Expo, but not all enjoy comparable proximity. Japan’s contribution occupies the furthest possible corner of the Asian archipelago, a position substantially mitigated by the audacity of its pinkish-mauve pavilion. Promoted as an example of “eco-breathing architecture,” it resembles nothing so much as an inverted three-legged porcine puffed pillow. Nepal gained a more central setting for a pavilion that awkwardly melds retro-Kathmandu and techno-stupa, as does the contribution from Sri Lanka (which apparently chose to decorate a standard-issue Expo structure, rather than design its own). India garnered a site only slightly less prominent, contributing a stupa-inspired pavilion with a remarkable dome constructed primarily of bamboo and spanning 115 feet. Saudi Arabia’s pavilion, the second largest after China’s, features a distinctive “moon boat” form designed, diplomatically, by a Chinese architect. Its rooftop date-palm “oasis” incongruously surrounds Bedouin tents, and the building itself houses a 17,200-square-feet “immersion screen” theater, touted as the world’s largest. This encampment is surely the most expensive of the Expo’s temporary foreign colonies, and the Saudis have investigated ways to keep their central site and landmark building after the Expo closes. Given that lines to enter the building have reportedly topped nine hours, this request is easily understandable.
Representatives from Europe, Africa and the Americas have been assigned positions well removed from the central zone enjoyed by Asia and the Middle East. Among the least eccentrically located of the Europeans, the Scandinavian countries and parts of Eastern Europe, plus cork-clad Portugal, manage to achieve some secondary spatial presence, but Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Russia find themselves among the furthest from the China Pavilion’s ground zero, exceeded in marginality only by the Africans.
But the least advantageous site of all has gone to the United States, located about a mile-and-a-half from Expo’s symbolic red center-heart. Indeed, the U.S. pavilion is exiled into the most obscure corner possible, its bold USA label struggling for visibility behind the axis-fronting boxes housing a Licensed Products Store and a restaurant block with KFC, Pizza Hut and Da Niang Dumpling. American participation in world’s fairs is not supported by Congress (a 1994 law forbids the State Department to fund such participation) which in this case necessitated intense last-minute private fundraising at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and substantial reliance on corporate sponsorship. It’s hard to believe anyone could be happy with the results.
Urban Best Practices
Anchoring the Urban Best Practices Area is another “Theme Pavilion,” this one filled with images of the future, and located in a converted power plant, its towering smokestack converted into an instant-landmark neon digital thermostat. Passage through the pavilion culminates in a multistory atrium, “Harmony Square,” edged by glowing space-age sculptures and a back wall given over to projections of animated children’s fantasies about future cities. This giant “Window of the Future” screen shows images of “ecological cities,” “a city of wisdom,” “a city of water,” “a city in the space,” and “a city of energy,” each of which seems to keep the many visitors of all ages mesmerized. The bilingual exit sign from Harmony Square reads: “Future Dreams are Coming True.”
A surprisingly engaging feature of the Urban Best Practices Area turns out to be the World Food Court, a swirl of 18 ethnic food stations, ranging from “Hawaiian Favorites” to something translated as “Hong Kong Gimmick.” It’s a wild combination of western-style mall food court and Asian street market, with representatives of every vendor brandishing signs hawking the merits of each particular cuisine. Not a bad metaphor for the Expo itself.
I particularly liked the exhibition sponsored by Mecca, which highlighted the logistics of housing the Hajj hordes in the desert just outside the city. I learned, for instance, that the Tent City of Mina accommodates 3 million pilgrims each season, providing them with the world’s largest manmade reservoir (containing 1.3 million cubic yards of water) and the world’s largest slaughterhouse (capable of “processing” two million livestock in three days). It is easy to see why this display would have appealed to the Chinese selection team.
Just adjacent to Mecca, in Expo’s geography of Urban Best Practices, is Vancouver. Housed in an elegant structure of laminated beams, the display emphasizes the value of Canadian wood products more than the remarkable urbanism of the British Columbian metropolis, no doubt reflecting the economics of sponsorship. In a seemingly direct rebuke to the concretification of Shanghai, the exhibit warns that “concrete is heavy, brittle, and rigid,” and that “when subjected to seismic forces, can crack and crumble, endangering lives.” By contrast, Canada’s “sustainably managed forests” offer a renewable alternative. Unfortunately, as if to underscore the futility of the enterprise, the display is juxtaposed with a view of neighboring concrete tower blocks. Which actually serves as a reminder that the whole Expo landscape, seemingly vast as it is, is dwarfed by the massive sprawl of Shanghai itself, where literally thousands of towers have sprouted in just the last two decades, transforming the rice paddies of Pudong into the world’s most dramatic skyscraper landscape.
The Expo’s Chief Planner, Wu Zhiqiang, former dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University, told me that he was especially proud of one particular Expo legacy: the reclamation of wetlands and riverfront parks. I didn’t ask him about what and who had been cleared away to permit such development. In July 2007, however, Yang Xiong, a vice mayor of Shanghai, acknowledged at a press conference that the city had relocated 18,000 families and 272 factories to make way for the Expo. He then reassured a Xinhua News Agency reporter that 99 percent of the relocated families and businesses had supported this displacement. ?
According to a report published on PBS’s Mediashift and elsewhere, Chinese authorities have been taking special care to suppress criticism of the Expo, issuing a directive just before the opening: “As regards the activities of the central authorities during the Shanghai Expo, all the media must use the reports of the Xinhua central news agency or other central media outlets. The other media must not publish their own reports and must not ask national leaders questions during their visits to Shanghai.” It continues: “As regards the inaugural ceremony, you must respect the already established rules. It is forbidden to express reservations and if any incident suddenly takes place, it is forbidden to report it without permission or to publish any comment.” Such restrictions have prompted Reporters Without Borders to add its own Shanghai Expo pavilion: a virtual “Garden of Freedoms” intended “to offer the public information about free speech restrictions in China.”
It is hard to guess what this piece of the city will be like, post-Expo, but it has undoubtedly cleared the way for a well-situated district of high-end apartments and businesses, with riverfront views, abundant parkland and ample Metro connections. As queues give way to avenues, and questions give way to answers, tens of millions of Chinese will have learned more about urbanization from the Expo. At the very least, I can only hope that the cities of the future will have shorter queues.