All the word’s stage: countries show off at the Shanghai Expo keep to catch China’s eye
The 2008 Beijing Olympics was widely understood to be China’s ‘coming-out party’: an explosive self-announcement of a new presence on the global superstage. With that position now firmly cemented, the 2010 Shanghai Expo is more like China’s ‘coming-in party’ - one in which the world scrambles for the attention of China.
Certainly the Shanghai Expo displays the kind of brute extravagance we have come to expect: a 5.3km² Expo Park, 18,000 families relocated, US$58 billion spent. More telling is the effort and money expended by other participating nations.
In the teeth of a global recession, and having done comparatively little for the last few World Fairs, almost 200 countries are now keen to show their faces, almost 100 of which are springing (Iceland and Greece included) for their own pavilion in what is in essence a Chinese show.
The secret of this Expo is that it’s important because it’s a Chinese show. George Osborne, the UK’s new chancellor, who visited the Expo in June, has made explicit what a lot of other chancellors are well aware of: that for rich nations with big deficits, growth in China is the most promising lifeline to hand. Within this context, a presence in Shanghai has the salient purpose of national brand-building.
The Expo is best understood as a grandiose Olympics of commerce, with competition going on for Chinese business, investment, tourism, students, and the favour of the all-new yet curiously elusive Chinese consumer.
Around 100 million Chinese people are expected to visit the Expo, and if you can convince each of them to buy just one British export… The architectural rhetoric is unequivocal in confirming this politico-economic structure. Towering over the Expo Park is the China Pavilion, explicitly designed to resemble an ancient Chinese crown. This posits China’s imperial heft looking out over an emperor’s court of mendicant supplicants, each desperate to display their cloth.
Yet while the staging is old, the modern age of global media has given these acts of display a distinctly modern twist. In 2010 nobody is really interested in using a World Fair to peddle their latest inventions. After all, it is a peculiarly Victorian-era conceit. Thanks to the internet, the content of the pavilions has been mostly stripped of significance; instead it is the pavilions themselves that come to the fore.
Country by country, and pavilion by pavilion, the Expo Park is the purest form of architecture as the branding of nations. It is in this field that Brand Britain, with its ‘seed cathedral’, has scored a palpable hit. The Thomas Heatherwick-designed British Pavilion (AR May 2010) is easily the most talked about building in the Expo, and the most beautiful too.
Best of all, it is pointedly empty. From the outside, the viewer sees a cube pierced by 60,000 optic filaments, in each of which a seed is cast. From the inside, the viewer sees pretty much the same, with light flowing in through the filaments. In an era in which Expo pavilions are not supposed to house anything meaningful, but are instead houses of themselves, the seed cathedral pushes its content into its exterior and sits hollow. Like any brilliant piece of branding, it’s alluring, it’s clever, and it’s all skin.