EXPO, VICTION · Owen Vince
“Exposition culture” is an experience difficult to define. Think of a trade show, but for nation states, a sort of open-air market selling the glossy intangibility of “power” and “status”. Each year, host cities, from Milan to New York, put on what are known as “International Expos”, or World Expositions. These events conjure images of Worlds Fares, of hazy Americana and artificial globes lifted above meandering crowds. They sound distractingly – pointless, even harmless. In these events, states are granted a plot of land on which to build a presentational structure intended to represent the nation and its interests. Some lead with abstraction and design; others use the opportunity to wildly experiment; others hand out national foods and freebies. If unnecessary from an infrastructural perspective, the Expos are at least important events in the architectural calendar, and offer the kinds of opportunities for architects to take risks in a way that would not be conscionable during “regular” design processes.
On July 22, 2010, an “international coalition of 38 human rights organizations” demanded that the United Nations investigate allegations that the Chinese government had “committed gross human rights violations” in the course of evicting some 18,000 families in order to make way for the Shanghai Exposition of the same year. The Expo's motto had been, “Better Cities, Better Life”. Protests against these evictions – which are not isolated to the Expo, but have been occurring across China at a dizzying rate in recent years – have grown significantly, though the number of districts and buildings demolished, and residents forcibly removed, has not slowed.
Protestors made allegations that the families had been evicted “with virtually no due process or fair compensation”. The protestors, in their letter to the United Nations, reminded the UN that under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his [sic] home”. And of course, there is nothing even remotely “necessary” about an Expo – as I said, their atmosphere is strange in the least. Owen Hatherley, in the conclusion to Landscapes of Communism, describes entering the fist-raising, revolutionary antagonism of the Venezuela pavilion only to be greeted with free handouts of coffee and dark chocolate. The pavilions are a form of national representation at their most unforgiving, their most implausible. It will come as no surprise that the designer of the UK's pavilion in 2010 was Thomas Heatherwick, darling designer of the British government and also winner of the commission to build the proposed London Garden Bridge. The pavilions are about “showing up”, and showing up in style; a form of national self-advertisement designed to brag to and lure in investors, events, and brands.
The 2010 UK pavilion looked somewhere between a fuzzy explosion of gold spines and the nail-embedded face of Hellraiser; its volume, blurry, wavering, suggests a kind of organic process that has been paused in the moment of its expansion. Arch Daily reported that Heatherwick's Studio had adopted a design strategy, handed down by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), that it should include a “significant area of open public space around it” so that visitors “could relax and choose either to enter the pavilion building, or see it clearly from a calm, non-queuing vantage point”. Circulation around the structure isn't, however, straight forward – the main volume of it is canted on a piece of grey tarmac with elevated artificial walls folding away from it. If you're supposed to sit and relax, the only option is to stand before it, grimacing at the possibility that somebody might press “play” and these thousands of spines will continue their journey outwards.
So much gloss, so much International Modernism with its confidence in lightness, manipulation, and articulated form, can only but raise questions. The confidence in a “better city” is deliriously facile when faced with the fact that an entire community were forcibly uprooted in order to build a playground for investors. Of course, many prominent architects – and non-architect designers such as Heatherwick – have made a habit of working for less than desirable regimes, often because those regimes will do away with the kinds of awkward community and democratic instruments, such as planning permission and consultation, that slow the development rate of countries in Europe. These states often offer a blank site and a blanker chequebook and only ask that the finished product is dazzling. Obviously, cities and societies need buildings – and especially, as cities become larger, more populous, and the needs of their citizens change, they need to be of high quality and adaptable. But the question remains, should designers not become accustomed to asking questions and making demands in cases where obvious violations of community and human rights are made in the effort to “clear the ground” for new architectural projects. Many will remember the evictions and “clean up” that preceded the London 2012 Games in Stratford, deeply wounding a community and a location who felt un-consulted and betrayed by political elites.
The Shanghai Expo was not exceptional, either in its lavish gloss or in the degree to which it represented an architecture which both alludes to and reproduces precariousness. No, various participating states were probably indifferent or ignorant to the alleged crimes perpetuated by the Chinese government in the course of these evictions, yet the fact that they did not ask, and never adequately responded to the charge, only acknowledges the sad fact that so often architecture, posturing the rights of nations and their populations, routinely punish and subject the poorest and least vocal within those populations to precariousness and suffering, simply because those populations do not represent the societies that such architectural “events” are really talking to, or intending to “represent”. World Cups, Olympic Games and Expositions represent a typology of architectural event where Capital, state power, and Nationalism work sleekly together, replacing real human communities with the glossy, immaculate glass and steel possibilities of an imagined society that cannot possibly exist. The irony of much International Modernism is this unintended ambiguity; planes of glass, streaming light, and transparent domes and canopies stretched upon tensile pillars and beams imply an openness and transparency, a capital-led drive into the future, yet their reality has frequently involved the burying of former neighbourhoods and communities. Like alien spacecraft, they land and settle upon once stable districts, crushing them with light.