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World stage: the grand international exhibition


World Expos and Venice Biennales are significant platforms for international dialogue, but are also an arena of soft power and political posturing

At the moment of writing, the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale, due to open on 23 May, has been postponed to the end of August. Until only a few weeks ago its title ‘How Will We Live Together’ could be understood as a straightforward question, but the current pandemic crisis has transformed it into a disquieting interrogative. In explaining its meaning, the curator Hashim Sarkis spoke of the need to create a new spatial contract that explores spaces where people can co-exist despite widening political divides and growing economic inequalities.

With the establishment of the Art Biennale in Venice in 1895, to ‘stimulate artistic activity and the art market’, the young Italian state decided to reaffirm the cultural unity of the country and assert the prestige of its artistic tradition. To this end it allocated, de facto privatising, a vast portion of public gardens to become a permanent venue of the event, inviting the participating countries to build their own pavilions. The result, the Giardini, reflects the political forces and relationships that shaped the 20th century: it has been observed that the placement of the German, British and French pavilions in close proximity to each other, and close to Russia’s pavilion, erected in 1914, is a three-dimensional map of the power dynamics on the verge of the First World War.



Source: Archives Nationales

Drawn by Albert Galeron, the Globe Céleste, or Cosmorama was built in Paris for the World Expo in 1900, next to the Eiffel Tower, itself built for the World Fair in 1889

Parallels between the Venice Biennale and World Expos or fairs, originally defined by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), as ‘global gatherings of nations dedicated to finding solutions to pressing challenges of the time’, can be traced in their historical trajectory and purpose, as well as structural framework. Currently grouping 170 countries, World Expos attempt to capture ‘a fleeting miniature world’, conceived as ‘platforms for international dialogue in favour of progress and cooperation’. From 1851’s first expo in London, to the next scheduled one in Dubai (the first in a Middle East country, it was due to take place this autumn but has now been postponed until 2021), the choice of location and theme of these world fairs are an indicator of the relationship between dominant powers in different historical moments, and their competition to strengthen their influence in the world. 

For example, of the 13 world exhibitions organised between 1850 and 1900, four took place in Paris, two in London, two in Belgium, two in the United States, and one each in Austria, Spain and Australia. Germany, who wanted to host the 1900 exhibition, had to concede to France’s request. Celebrating the successes of the Industrial Revolution, the words ‘industry’ and ‘modernity’ are always present in the titles, and a narrative of continued development and progress is shared by all participant nation states.



The expo highlighted the competition between the capitalist American and socialist Soviet positions. In 1934 Hitler met Mussolini and toured the Germany pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The swastikas and Nazi eagle have since been removed, the only significant changes to the structure since 1945

During the first half of the 20th century, following the Berlin Conference of 1884 and between two World Wars, the focus shifts to peace and, in a more or less explicit way, to the civilising role held by Europe, representing a period of new and intense colonialism. For the Brussels International Exposition in 1897, a mock-up of an African village was built in the gardens of Koloniënpaleis (Palace of Colonies), where 267 Congolese people were displayed in a sort of human zoo. Seven of them died from the low temperatures and were buried in a mass grave. In Ghent’s 1913 edition, titled ‘Peace, Industry and Art’, yet another replica of a Congolese village was built, this time to show that the horrors perpetrated by King Leopold II were over. And not even in 1958, when Congo was about to achieve independence, did Belgium overlook the opportunity to install a ‘Kongorama’ pavilion at the foot of the Atomium, where Congolese people were on display in ‘traditional’ dress. 

In recent editions of the Venice Art Biennale, on the other hand, the participation of a few African states was saluted as the beginning of an inversion in the trend of an event traditionally dominated by richer, often former colonial, nations. Zimbabwe has been a constant presence at every Art Biennale since 2011, the Golden Lion received by the Angolan pavilion in 2013, and indeed the entire 2015 ‘All the World’s Futures’ show curated by the late Okwui Enwezor with the main installation designed by David Adjaye. Conversely, the Architecture Biennale, which started officially in 1980, appears to be changing course, particularly disappointing after the 2014 and 2016 shows recorded an all-time high participation by five African countries. With the exception of Egypt, the 2020 event looks to be devoid of African nations, and the dominant and pervasive presence of the well-endowed and prestigious American universities, together with the usual well-known suspects, are not encouraging indications. Perhaps this also speaks to the contestations raised over the past decade against the choice of having national pavilions, considered not conducive to hosting meaningful conversations between ideas and cultural approaches, rather favouring the marketing of specific products. 



Expo 1970 in Osaka, which featured the Mitsubishi Future Pavilion, had the theme of ‘progress and harmony for mankind’

The only new pavilion erected inside the Biennale’s precinct in recent years is the one by Rolex, indeed not a nation state, even though its turnover is bigger than, say, Greece’s GDP. The luxurious structure is a confirmation of the growing weight sponsors and self-described patrons have in influencing the choices for events largely paid for with taxpayers’ money. While multinational corporations can buy their right to exhibit with a status similar to that of nation states, other national communities which tirelessly struggle to claim their right to be internationally recognised are allowed to take part only under the patronage of architects from powerful Western countries – the Sahrawi tent erected in 2016 by Manuel Herz to represent Western Sahara is a case in point. 

The appearance of the term ‘man’, as in ‘man in space’ or ‘man in the world’, within the title of some expos in the second half of the 20th century, is a signal of the belief in, the ability and right of, human beings to modify the world. This is a paradigm which appears, at least in words, to mutate in the 21st century’s Anthropocene, where the key word becomes either ‘nature’ or ‘environment’. This is reflected in recent editions of the Venice Architecture Biennale, in the way that curators have connected the idea of human agency with a sequence of titles evoking high principles and aspirations. David Chipperfield’s ‘Common Ground’ of 2012, for example, or how ‘People Meet in Architecture’, invented by Kazuyo Sejima for the 2010 edition to declare her intention of achieving ‘a meeting place between citizens and architecture and not a showcase of archistars’.



Source: Iwan Baan

Manuel Herz’s 2016 Sahrawi tent, the Western Sahara pavilion, was the first time a nation in exile was represented at the Venice Biennale



Source: Rolex / Reto Albertalli

In 2018 the multinational company Rolex found no obstacles in securing a pavilion

Like all great events, expos are indeed meant to facilitate the physical and social transformation of cities and territories to the advantage of investors who profit both during the show, and after. It is not coincidental that numbers of expos and biennales have multiplied, in parallel with the neoliberal paradigm according to which the city, and the communities who make up its living network, must fight to demonstrate who is more business-friendly. And it is not accidental that the metric to measure the success of expos is the number of paying visitors, the direct and indirect economic impact of the event, and the long-lasting effects on host cities. 

The consequences of this quantitative approach are particularly nefarious in Venice where on the one hand the Biennale disseminates ideology, and on the other it uses the city in which it takes place as a display case, accelerating both its gentrification and transformation into a commercial theme park. Paolo Baratta’s leadership as president of the Biennale between 2008 and 2020 has been celebrated for its capacity to boost visitor numbers. Having previously served in different cabinets as minister for both foreign trade, industry and commerce, privatisation and public works, he has not missed the opportunity to celebrate how ‘Venice makes the Biennale fly, the Biennale makes Venice fly’.



Source: Hélène Binet

The first completed structure of Expo 2020 Dubai, this mashrabiya portal was designed by British architect Asif Khan. The expo, which has been postponed until autumn 2021, has been the subject of much controversy, including allegations of poor working conditions for labourers and the excessive costs of pavilions, including Ireland’s contribution, projected to cost €4 million

Asking architects to produce spatial inventions to live (or rather survive?) together as the planet faces an unprecedented crisis, appears to be part of a larger vision of the role of the profession as one capable of mitigating the problematic effects of the use of the ground and common resources so many architects are complicit in. The explanation that it’s the capital which dictates the rules does little to help. The 2016 edition of the Architecture Biennale ‘Reporting From the Front’ was aptly described by the Financial Times as the ‘post-Piketty Biennale’. The war-like metaphor, besides being appropriate to the world’s conditions, suggests the idea that architects are on the front and fight for the ‘good cause’, without necessarily having to declare who’s the enemy and who are the allies.

It is not yet clear if the 2020 Venice Biennale will actually take place, but there are invitations to use the time during which the pavilions are not physically accessible to organise virtual visits, debates and moments of cultural confrontation, opening the ground to challenge mainstream expo themes, such as urbanisation, smart cities, humanitarian architecture, and the myth that market and technology will grant all a better life (as all expos indeed promise). The German pavilion’s approach is perhaps the most intriguing and hopeful, situating us in a Germany of the future: ‘Germany 2038 – we mastered the great crises. It was close, but we made it. The global economic and ecological disasters of the 2020s brought people, states, institutions and companies together. They committed themselves to fundamental rights and jointly created self-sustaining systems on a universal basis.’

Lead image: Enormous globes, evoking the scale of the planetary, have been a recurring feature at expos, including Buckminster Fuller’s glass geodesic dome for Expo 67 Montreal. Courtesy of Everett Collection Historical / Alamy

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today