UK Pavilion

Our fearless leader (soon-to-be-replaced), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger returned recently  from a trip to Asia,  declaring himself so impressed by Shanghai’s vast 2010 Expo that he would like to see California host a World Fair in 2020.

Not everybody likes Expos, however, as Rowan Moore opined in the Guardian: “They are vast, extravagant pretexts for national and commercial posturing. They are miserable to visit, entailing foot-aching tramps and long queues to visit pavilions that are essentially 3-D powerpoint presentations. . . With stunning hypocrisy they give themselves environmental themes: “Humankind – Nature – Technology”, for example. . . There are few things less sustainable than building several billions worth of structures that will last a few months, and inviting millions to fly to see them.”

Although US representatives did not express it that way, Congress considered the Expo so unimportant that they were prepared to snub China by not participating at all (as discussed on this To The Point). They finally came through with this less than stellar pavilion, shown below.

USA Pavilion

But over 70,000,000 million people did think the Expo was worth it (myself included), making the visit to Shanghai this summer and enduring “foot-aching tramps,” insanely hot and humid weather, and long lines, lasting up to 9 hours, for access to pavilions!

Many countries also took the task of expressing national identity through design quite seriously, most surprisingly the UK (which has itself been tepid towards Expos in the past). Their “Seed Cathedral,” (in photo, top, by Bennett Stein), has just been awarded the Pavilion Design Award at the close of the Expo (by a jury that included Qingyun Ma, the Dean of USC Architecture School).

This pavilion was designed by Thomas Heatherwick and made of 60680 acrylic rods, each containing a seed, that will now be dismantled and sent to Chinese schools in a symbolic gesture of friendship and commitment to the Expo’s theme of “Better City, Better Life.”

UK Pavilion with public area in frontKnown affectionately as the “hedgehog” or the “dandelion,” it was one of the few pavilions to break away from fairly literal, stage-set-like depictions of national identity, aiming instead for a concept that would convey an image of the UK and its creativity today, not some illusory past. One of its attractions, I can attest, was a public sitting area surrounding the “hedgehog,” which provided welcome rest for the weary Expo-goers.

Given that World Expos have been a venue for some memorable, even highly influential design experimentation (most famously, the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris World Fair in 1889), I am intrigued by them, even though globalization has diminished their significance as a venue for marketing participating countries’ cultures and products.

So it is with great interest that I await the completion of a film being made by architect and USC Professor Mina Chow, with a team including architecture writer/broadcaster Edward Lifson, Norman Hollyn of USC School of Cinematic Arts, and Alessandra Pasquino. The film, a joint production of  USC Architecture and USC  School of Cinema, is called FACE of a Nation, and examines the concept of “face” in Chinese culture and the kinds of “face” presented by different pavilions  at the Expo this summer. See a trailer for FACE of a Nation here, and watch this space for updates about release of the movie.

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  • http://carrenjao.blogspot.com Carren

    Thanks for this. I love the thought behind "Seed Cathedral" and I also second the dean of MIT's Architecture School's sentiments. If you're not going to do something wholeheartedly, better not to do it at all.

  • Frances Anderton

    Thanks for the comment, Carren. I agree wholeheartedly.

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