I am currently writing an article which tries to answer the question what is an Expo for? following my recent trip to to Milan. And I’m realising, it is very hard to talk about the Expo from a completely objective position. I feel like I need to declare a couple of positions. The first is this: as a child I loved international events particularly of a sporting nature and I realise now that wasn’t simply a love of sport but also a way to appreciate the whole world in a single event. Olympics, World Cups, Expos; they’re all a coming together of different countries but in a manner that allows each nation a universal means of differentiating itself. Some people see this as a problem. I don’t. Everyone has a flag, but every flag is different. You only needed a set of 10 felt-tip pens and you could draw a symbol which represented any country in the world.
I am reminded of this easy reduction of the world into legible kinds of difference. A collective agreement to play a game of representation at the Milan Expo. I’m still trying to uncover what those who organise expos think their purposes are, but as a spectator – and much of the event has clearly been organised for spectators – it is an architectural game with some very clear rules: a series of identical plots have been created down a 1km long bit of tarmac outside a station at the end of a metro line to the north west of Milan. The nations of the world, or a large number of them anyway, then build a pavilion which variously tries to express a certain quality of that nation in a manner which may or may not address the overall theme of the Expo. There is some landscaping.
But I have to admit I did love the spectacle of the Expo along these internationalist parameters. We are incredibly dour and moralistic about our architecture. It must have its noble purpose writ in huge letters for us so that we can enjoy it without feeling guilty about our position or our role in society. The Expo presents architecture as a game, “a beauty parade” as one of the pavilion commissioners put it to me. Of course, you can go too far the other way and Expo architecture often presents an almost Eurovision like race to the bottom. You begin to find yourself disengaging with tasteful compositions in timber and cheering on the Czech Pavilion’s utterly astonishing bird/car hybrid sculpture simply because it breaks with the unspoken aesthetic boundaries which tend to go along with the shared rules relating to size and construction. But finding ones position between the common and the unique is the very stuff of how we relate to different countries.
I must also declare another position of a more recent nature. I like beer. And if you like beer the Expo is a very good place to be. Why? Because the nations who have contributed to the Expo don’t seem to have a very clear idea of what their pavilions are for. Sure, the Brazilian pavilion is effectively a huge suspended landscaped trampoline over some exotic pot plants and the Turkmenistan pavilion is just a block with a huge LCD screen of a slowly billowing carpet on it, but there isn’t always much of an idea what to do with the building inside. (I can’t believe that this was always the case and I’m looking into this for my article.) If the current fashion for architectural creation is to understand what people want from a building in a very literal way before you create its shape, the Expo is a massive anomaly. The purpose of the building primarily is to symbolically represent something, what happens within it, is well, people meet in it possible and learn something about a country and its relationship with the theme of the Expo… but well, to be honest… the jury is out on this one…
What do people do in pavilions particularly under an expo with the loose theme of Food added to it? Well they eat and also they drink. The Belgian pavilion is a series of extravagant roof forms which shows, I think that the Belgians are particularly good at working with wood. There are ur-house shaped wood structures on the way in. which create a portico A diagrid structure of steel filled in with glass and, yes, wooden panelling creates the central space. Very good with wood the Belgians are. But what is beneath? A circular bench system with about 20 screens with some headphones which tell you a story apparently about Belgian food. Although I admit I did not pay attention to closely because I had been looking at these things for two days solid by the time I’d arrived in the Belgian pavilion and my eyes just slipped over the surface. It would have to have been the next Star Wars film for me to be shocked out of my PR-induced torpor. The Expo in part seems to be an event designed to keep the promotional film industry going.
Instead I went to the bar and ordered a Timmerman’s and then after a bit a Le Barbe Nori, which is a quite fantastic dark Belgian beer. Perhaps unfortunately this break gave me enough time to consider what Belgium is trying to say about itself with the chipped plywood floor of its pavilion and why they’ve painted the timber panelling of the four structures that burst up through the dome to look as if they are cor-ten steel. Not very much I would say. It also gave me a chance to consider that there are a lot of wooden structures all over the site. The massive UN pavilion is faced entirely in wooden panelling. Inside it we learn at a huge scale very little other than the economics of food are complex, that we waste a lot of food, that some people lose out but ultimately don’t worry the UN is helping out the people with very little food but not in a way that stops them looking charmingly ethnic on videos that play out on 5 massive TV screens. Indeed whilst wood has a certain ubiquity as a material – it is of course, cheap and easy to use – each pavilion is differentiated partly by loopy architectural forms made with it and the particular scent of the timber and adhesive used in its all-to-recent build. And, of course, the beer served in its bar.
Because the over 100 pavilions of this expo are all buildings in search of a purpose. And many of them – and here we must sadly exclude the pavilions of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and others – have understood that the purpose is a bar. Even more than a restaurant, which would be appropriate givne the theme. The Expo is a series of bars at the back of funny-shaped buildings with a bit of an exhibition about which particular cereal is produced in that particular country. The Dutch pavilion includes a charming mini Ferris wheel in which one can sit and read a panel which explains the circular economy – about recycling plastic essentially – but it is, and I’m sure you are sensing a theme here – a bar. It may because of the unique strength of Le Barbe Noir but it seemed to me for a second as if the world – apart from the Muslim nations – is evolving slowly into one massive bar.
Indeed given the theme of food, which shifts the emphasis away from production to consumption – the concession stands take on a strange new dimension. Housed as they are in pavilion like structures, one begins to wonder as you queue in the EATaly (can you see see what they did there?) building, for your different regional pasta or pizza that you need to deal with Le Barbe Noir, you being to wonder: Are you in a pavilion? Is one actually in a place designed for consumption or in an exhibition about the nature of consumption? Part of what I am looking at in my research now is when did this shift in the Expo movement between what is produced as was the case at its origins and what is consumed.
To defend this shallow interpretation, I would finally add that I am looking into this in more depth, but that I also think that there has to be a certain shallowness to an event of this kind, as a means of creating the rules of engagement from a global community. However that should be a beginning, and if I enjoyed the shallows of the event, that doesn’t mean I also crave some depth.