Editor’s note: Arrol Gellner is currently on an extended stay near Shanghai. Following is one of a series of columns comparing the built environments of America and China.
I couldn’t be in China during the summer of 2010 and not have every single person I met ask me, "Have you been to the Shanghai Expo?" The short answer is yes. The long answer follows.
Shanghai World Exposition 2010 is a huge and hugely promoted event surpassing every previous World’s Fair in size, with more than 190 nations represented. A reported 53 million people, most of them Chinese nationals, have already attended. Judging by the endless queues, it seemed like most of them were still there the day I visited.
Alas, like many things Chinese, this Expo seems a bit hastily assembled — it’s a jumble of pavilions with no central theme or even a clear physical focal point. The site, though enclosed, is carved up by a number of standard Chinese "megaboulevards," complete with traffic signals. To my astonishment, these roads actually carried appreciable bus and shuttle traffic right through the heart of the fair, depriving visitors of even this rare potential respite from Shanghai’s pedestrian-hostile streets.
Between the resulting patchwork of pavilions are acres of sweltering blacktop that make Shanghai’s biting sun even fiercer. Rows of beleaguered saplings and occasional dabs of potted plants are the sole greenery — which makes you wonder whether the Expo’s motto, "Better City, Better Life," isn’t so much a nod toward green thinking as a paean to Shanghai’s acquisitive deluge of laptops, cars and flat-screen TVs.
The design of the various national pavilions is indisputably expo-like. As architecture critic Charles Jencks noted many years ago, architects are remarkably inept at judging how non-architects will perceive their work. Hence, the architects of the Japanese pavilion surely didn’t intend visitors to equate their design with a deflated bagpipe or an inverted udder, or Spain’s with a mountain of discarded straw mattresses.
In keeping with Expos past, the pavilion interiors, too, contained assorted oddities — a giant shoe for Italy, a huge robotic baby for Spain, and so on — though most just resembled overgrown trade-show booths.
There were also nations who hoped to make a serious statement but ended up looking silly: Great Britain’s dandelion seed-pod pavilion, for example, tried to put on organic airs by sprouting thousands upon thousands of swaying, fiber-like tubes — each, it turns out, made of petroleum-based PVC plastic.
For that matter, though, the whole business of exposition building — expending vast amounts of energy and material and, six months later, carting it all off to the rubbish heap — is in itself fundamentally un-green.
Maybe it was just my longing for a sea breeze amid the Expo’s desert of asphalt, but to my eyes, the greenest spot of all was the sparsely attended pavilion representing Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and a host of other tiny Pacific Island nations. It was housed in a huge, low-budget box of a building whose exterior consisted of alternating light and dark-blue prefab panels, with a few tropical fish stenciled on one corner.
Inside, however, was an oasis-like respite from all the posturing, marketing hype and superficial "greenification": There were lovely crafts, from shoes to canoes, made by human hands from honest-to-God natural materials. Nothing in sight, other than the water bottles carried by fairgoers, had been born in a blow-molding machine. There were no ranks of giant-screen displays, no endlessly looped talking heads jabbering away, and no one trying to prove how green they were after having decimated their corner of the planet. There was no call for it.