March 23, 2012

Putting our best foot forward

Remember the Shanghai Expo?  The biggest one ever?
Well, I don’t either.

The 'Seed Cathedral,' Britain's Shanghai Pavilion

It ended on October 31, 2010, which was only 17 months ago, but maybe because the Olympics in Beijing had sucked all the air out of the room a year and a half before, the Expo didn’t get the attention it deserved. The mainstream media mentioned it in passing, but they were probably all tuckered out from the Olympics.

Or maybe they didn’t want to call our attention to what we had paid for.  Or to the fact that we don’t know what we paid for because it’s all a big secret.

Anyway, I’m watching a lot of TED talks (now on Netflix, thank you so much) about architecture and these guys – mostly guys, btw, but that’s a topic for another time – are talking about the Shanghai Expo.  The Danish guy is describing the use of pure water inside the Danish pavilion and how it’s from the newly clean harbor in Copenhagen and everyone will be invited to take a dip right there in the pavilion and so on. (They also brought The Little Mermaid to Shanghai – which took a lot of doing – and left a video of her on the rock back home.)

And then this Brit is talking about the British pavilion for which there was almost no budget so he kept it simple – 66,000 acrylic tubes attach to a central block, each 22 feet long with fiber optics to conduct light and – trapped at the end – seeds donated by the Kew Gardens seed bank.  (See it and much more of Thomas Heatherwick’s work here. )

Very impressive stuff.  Just out of curiosity, I tracked down a photo of how my own country was represented:

Really? Seriously? A fugitive from a New Jersey tank farm?  This is what we paid for?
Apparently no one liked it, although the Chinese were very polite and said nice things and didn’t seem at all bothered by the interior decor which consisted mostly of corporate logos.

Yeosu consists of a peninsula plus more than 300 tiny islands - the expo theme this year is the oceans.

An enterprising blogger from Shanghai named Adam Minter did a great series on the pavilion – here’s the link – and from him I get the impression that that sad excuse for a building cost about $61 million.  (He points out that the expo people have refused to make any info available to the public.) A former Disney executive who specializes in expo pavilions seems to have been responsible for the design and program, which was mainly a 15-minute movie. Tsk, tsk – not much imagineering there . .

All of this is the fault of our State Department, which subcontracts expo stuff and which obviously has no interest  in innovation or even good p.r.  This year, they have given the task of putting our best foot forward to a former Universal exec who now does expo stuff and who is – wait for it – making a little movie to show visitors.

What a policy shift, eh?  We continue to think of these things as amusement parks, while other countries use them as exemplars of innovation and cutting edge design.

But get your tickets now for the Yeosu World Expo in Korea which opens in May – the rest of the world may have some really interesting stuff to show us.

(US pavilion photo  by Micah Sittig.)



  1. What a sorry state of affairs! Remember when the US was home to spectacular World Fairs with innovative symbols : the Seattle Space Needle, San Antonio’s Hemisfair Tower.


    Comment by Celia Carroll — March 24, 2012 @ 7:33 am | Reply

  2. Scary stuff and of course in a few years it will fall into neglect and disrepair. But how much would a fancy building have cost?


    Comment by avery zia — March 25, 2012 @ 8:31 am | Reply

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