The Chinese Pavillion queue was the longest I encountered all day. For obvious reasons, the national pavilion is the top draw at Shanghai’s Expo. That said, the queues outside the other pavilions nearby were also monstrous. Most were 15 to 20 minute affairs, some required closer to an hour. I passed on Hong Kong, Macao and also on Oman.
I decided to head to the Lebanon Pavillion. If I was going to queue for one pavilion that day, my adopted home country’s pavillion was to be the one.
The queue outside the Lebanese Pavillion was small. The building, a simple cube covered in printed fabric, was mostly red for some reason.
When I think of colours to associate with Lebanon, blue, green, sandstone yellow and snow white come to mind, but never red. And it was stuck next to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Peoples’ Republic of North Korea. In fact, as I queued to get in, the view was dominated by images of President Ahmadinajad kissing a small, veiled child and Iran’s Supreme Leader kissing the President.
The Lebanese Pavillion was an enormous disappointment. The touch-screens were frozen on ugly vistas of some of the country’s principal cities and the rest of the exhibit seemed to consist of peeling photos of beautiful objects from the Beirut National Museum and a tatty polystyrene copy of King Ahiram’s Sarcophagus , one of the museum’s treasures. There was no music, no photos of the beautiful mountains, the coast, no sense of the joy with which the Lebanese live life. There was nothing to buy (and the Lebanese have a 5,000 year history of trading with the world, mind), nothing to eat (sacrilege!), no pictures of its people and no mention of the country’s beauty, rich cultural heritage or diversity.
It looked like it had been put together in five minutes with a budget based on a lunch hour office whip-round. I left in under a minute. So did most of the other visitors, most of whom were only there to get their Expo ‘passports’ stamped.
I can honestly say that if that pavillion had been my first impression of Lebanon, I’d never have given the country a second thought.
Eschewing Iran (I couldn’t get past the photos of Ahmadinajad), I headed for North Korea. Surprisingly, there were no images of the Dear Leader, which was a bit saddening. There was some classical music, some charming filmed footage of ‘average’ North Koreans at work and play, a huge backdrop photo of Pyongyang, which looked so magnificent, I wished there and then I could visit.
(I (heart) Pyongyang But This As Close As I’m Likely to Get….)
And then just before the exit, a rather odd white plaster fountain composed of naked babies.
(What’s with the coloured lights?)
North Korea 1, Lebanon 0.
In quick succession, I visited Timor Leste (great film of the country), Kazakhstan (nice rugs), Turkmenistan (nice model city) and Bangladesh (great spicy potato chops).
Then I hit the first of the other architecturally-impressive pavilion. Korea.
Covered in Korean characters, and constructed in the form of two characters ‘symbol’ and ‘space’, it’s the work of Seoul-based studio, Mass Studies.
From here, I could catch tantalising glimpses of the vast UFO-like Expo Culture Centre over the miniature bamboo forest along the river and made that my next destination.
Here, I discovered outrage #2. The ‘culture’ on offer was consumer; souvenir shops and fast-food outlets and a cinema on the top floor but that was after I’d queued for 20 minute to find out. Most mystifying of all, the vast, echoing interior was essentially empty. Most of the many entrances (and exits!) were closed or locked and visitors were required, through the placing of barriers policed by smiling but implacable guards, to follow the same single route through the building.
(And Don’t Think Of Going Any Other Way, Mind)
Up, up and then out along the rooftop ‘promenade, where from behind a metal grill, we could see the Expo, the river and the city beneath.
Then it was down, down, down and out…..onto Celebration Square. The celebration apparently being over no longer being forced to file sheep-like in a line behind thousands of fellow visitors.
Expo 1, Warren 0
The wind picked up and it began to drizzle, so I headed past the gigantic queues outside the Nepalese and Taiwanese pavilions towards the huge building housing the Pavillion of City Being – Shanghai 2010 being a meditation on the future of the city.
This turned out to be the highlight of the day. The luridly-lit interior – all deep purples and bright oranges – was an explosion of colour and ideas about city life, city problems and what we can all do to make life in the urban world –now that most of us are urbanites – better in the future. There were a couple of great film shows, some interactive displays and lots of opportunities to revel in global diversity – exactly what Expo is all about.
Expo 2, Warren 1
Now flagging – the fairgrounds are gigantic – I made my way towards Europe and discovered in quick succession the lovely pavilions of Australia (ok, so ‘Europe’ is broadly defined), Spain (an essay in sustainability by Benedetta Tagliabue, partner to Enric Miralles, Finland’s ‘Giant’s Kettle’ by architecture studio JKMM, Denmark’s cycle-track-cum-building designed by Bjarke Ingels Group
and home, for a while to this lovely lady before ending up in front of Germany’s massive pavilion (Vorsprung Durch Teknik writ large)
and England’s spiky meditation, Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral, which I like to call House of the Exploding Chopsticks.
In the end, I realised that like a fun fair, the joy of Expo is really in being there. It’s a giant melting pot of people and ideas, a place where some nations take themselves too seriously (Iran and the ‘city of benevolence’) and others, not quite seriously enough (New Zealand and the world’s largest artificial tree). The exhibits themselves were mostly afterthoughts or too simplistically developed to do more than titillate. But they did stimulate, provoke and otherwise give great pause to consider.
Since we passed the 50% mark on May 23rd, 2007, we have become an urban species in our majority. More people live in cities than in the countryside for the first time in history.
The city, though artificial, is now our ‘natural’ habitat. The fact that our natural habitat is artificial gives us an advantage no other species on earth has ever had – we get to build it the way want it. That’s a profound thought. What kind of habitat do we want? What we want our lives to become? How do we want to live in the future? Will our cities, as they exist today, allow us to become all we can become? Food, indeed, for thought.
Expo 1, World 1, Warren 1.
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