Since their beginnings, World Fairs have been incubators of innovation and visionary architecture. A reflection of their time and technology, these places of cultural exchange offer an opportunity for imagination to fly free and a testing ground for new architecture and urban paradigms. Sites for popular entertainment, dreaming and inspiration, they are also a collection of wonders, inventions and a space for insinuation of future potentials. Based on specific themes of cultural significance they became future oriented and utopian in scope. These dreamlands, even though they have a short material lifespan, can have a long lasting influence.
The Pavilion as an architecture typology lends its self to maximum flexibility and experimentation. The program is loose and the architecture is meant to be temporal. Millions of dollars are spent in these structures that will become a national brand for about six months. Are they still relevant and creative architecture experiments? What are we doing today and what does this reflect on our culture, ideas and architecture?
For the first World Fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, Joseph Paxton used his experience in greenhouses to create the revolutionary Crystal Palace. At the time called by Pugin "a glass monster", with its pioneering use of cast-iron structure and pre-fabricated units, its proto-modern architecture was later widely imitated and became the precursor of modern architecture. Inside it hosted a concentration of wonders and inventions that ranged from the decorative arts, engineering, and raw materials to scientific instruments and electrical applications -their potential yet to be fully understood.
That was just the beginning. The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, symbolizes the second Iron Age, it became an icon of Paris, and its ethereal iron lattice structure prefigured much of what was to come. Mies' German Pavilion for the Barcelona Exposition 1929, Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion for the 1914 exhibition, Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis' Phillips Pavilion, for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, and Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome for the US Pavilion at Montreal Expo'67, are but a few examples of some radical expo designs that became architectural milestones.
Not so long ago, Diller and Scofidio surprised us all with their Blur building. Designed for the Swiss Expo in 2002, its lightweight tensegrity structure suspended the platform and metal construction over the Lake Neuchatel, while 31400 high-pressure jets created a perpetual artificial cloud. The fog was controlled by a smart weather system that monitored and responded to climatic conditions including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. Visitors also became part of an interactive media project as they wore technologically enhanced responsive raincoats. An architecture of atmosphere, as the architects describe it, where visual and acoustic references were erased in a cloud that left only a visual "white-out" and "white noise". Diller and Scofidio refer to it as an anti-spectacle. Where did the collections of inventions and wonders go? Where was the building? It could be argued that it was all gone and all we were left here was a cloud, millions of tiny drops that concealed the ephemeral structure. However, this artificial cloud not but make us aware of the technology attained to enable the materialization of such an idea. It could not but make us reflect upon and question the role of architecture today and the materials available for creation.
The largest Universal Exposition, Shanghai's Expo 2010, closed with much talk and criticism, especially in regards to politics and organization. Its architecture received mixed reviews, but it certainly exhibited an array of shapes and formal experiments. On an exhibition where the central theme was "Better Life, Better City" it is questionable whether the architecture really succeed on making us think on the role of nature, architecture and cities, and how they could be use to solve social, economic and environmental challenges we face today.
The British Pavilion retained most of the attention. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the cube-like volume had 60,000 long radiating acrylic rods that gently swayed with the wind, lit the interior during the day and at night glowed to the outside. At the end of each rod were encased tens of thousands of seeds representing a plentiful seed bank embedded with the potential of life and conservation. Now that the Expo has ended, the seeds will be donated to China. Some might have been disappointed by the lack of content on the actual interior, some even thought the pavilion was too self-referential, however, there is no question that this giant hairy cube was bold, creative and unique, even quite beautiful as an idea, and it challenged our understanding of what is and what defines a building and architecture.
There were some pavilions more successful than others. It was certainly a spectacle of novel forms, colors and claddings, all with an underlining theme of sustsinability, but it could be argued that overall there were few radical, innovative and sophisticated concepts and designs. We cannot but wonder where exactly are our wild dreams and desires for a better future.
Coming up is Yeosu Exhibition in Korea, 2012. A smaller "recognized" exposition, lasting only three months, before Milan Expo 2015. At Yeosu the theme will be "Living Ocean and the Coast: Diversity of Resources and Sustainable Activities", focusing on sustainability issues faced by mankind, and the technology and resources to face them. Some designs have been proposed already, including MVRDV Water Cube, designed to express the power and beauty of the oceans inside of the aquarium-like cube.
SOMA won the competition for the Thematic pavilion, with the concept "One Ocean". Their design exposes the ocean perceived as an endless surface as well as depth when immersed. The pavilion's surfaces twist from vertical to horizontal and create spaces of contrasting qualities. Second place went to Lee Sang-Lim's "Ocean Arch", and third place was for the metamorphic design of "The Great Blue Whale" by Studio Nicoletti Associati.
Fluid and organic forms seem to be the paradigm for most of Yeosu's Expo designs. Whether some consider these poetic or others think the buildings look as if they escaped from a science-fiction nightmare, the proposals, so far, are definitely novel and attempt to rethink the relation with water and aquatic ecosystems, as well as what it means to be fluid, interactive and adaptable. Hopefully the designs and ideas will continue to evolve and will not be reduced to a gimmicky spectacle of forms.
Quite different seems to be the approach for Milan's Expo 2015. Whereas the Eiffel Tower and the World's Fairs from the great industrial age replaced the agricultural and merchant fairs of an earlier era, Milan's Expo might be bringing back agriculture to the spotlight. The theme for the Expo is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life", which will focus on tradition and innovation in the business of food.
Innovative in this Expo is the shift of emphasis, as the built architecture and show are to be subdued in favor of an emphasis on nature and a more important program of production. The conceptual master plan was conceived as a planetary botanical garden, organized as an Ancient Roman plan around two main axes and a central forum. It focuses on reclamation and redevelopment of public and municipal farmsteads, with a network of canals that extend through the countryside beyond its immediate boundaries. The exhibition areas for each country are identical strips transversally located to the main boulevards, and where each will recreate their nation's typical food cycle.
A different Expo to those of recent years, Milan's could be an opportunity to question these testing grounds and the pavilion -their role, architecture, temporality and relationship to the landscape. Less about novel, iconic and grandiose images, in this new dreamscape the organization and systems of the landscapes can be brought forward, with emphasis on technology, differentiation, specificity, and performance.
Patricia Brizzio graduated from Cornell University with a B.Arch. and a double concentration in Theory and Technology. She taught architecture at Cornell and has been an invited critic for architecture and urban design at Cornell, Parsons, Pratt and Columbia University. She worked at Skidmore Owings and Merrill in New York, firm for which she is still a Design and Strategic Consultant.