I recently asked Ian Volner to comment on the purpose and implications of the upcoming Shanghai 2010 World Expo. Ian Volner is a writer, critic, and publicist living in Manhattan. A regular contributor to Architectural Record and Bookforum among other journals, he’s presently at work on a book about planning and public housing in 1960s New York
Shanghai isn’t just your run-of-the-mill Chinese boomtown. If you want to see the dynamism that’s become standard fare for Chinese urbanism, you can as easily go to Hangzhou or to Harbin, to Tianjin or Wuhan, or to any one of a dozen mainland metropolis with vertiginous population growth and a building boom to match. No, Shanghai is not one of these: Shanghai belongs in a class of its own. Not only is it China’s largest city, but it’s also home to the country’s largest stock exchange, the second largest in the world. As China—slowly but surely—opens its economy to the world, Shanghai seems well poised to stake its claim as the country’s great global city, the heir apparent to New York or London.
Yet a lingering apprehension of the pace of change on the part of the Chinese leadership could threaten that ascent. That’s why the upcoming Shanghai Expo, opening May 1st, is a big deal: the Shanghai fairgrounds, with its dozens of innovative pavilion designed by a wide assortment of international architects, is a proving ground for Shanghai’s future, a controlled experiment for a city in transition.
Since the 19th century, cities have used world fairs and fair architecture to announce their arrival on the global stage. The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 established London’s bona fides at the forefront of the industrial revolution; the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 was a declaration of the triumph of French art and ingenuity—with the Eiffel Tower as a punctuation mark. It may be that Shanghai’s expo comes too late to produce a corresponding architectural emblem of China’s national genius: that place would seem to have been taken already by Herzog & de Meuron’s famous “Bird’s Nest”, the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. Yet for sheer scope (28 acres, 45 national pavilions, with two new subway lines constructed to accommodate an expected 70 million attendees) Expo 2010 is bound to rank in the uppermost tier of world fairs. As a coming-out into global society, Shanghai could hardly ask for a more glamorous debutante ball.
Of course it could also be averred, with equal accuracy, that fairs have too often produced false positives. New York made a splash with the 1939 fair, but its sequel in 1964 was an architectural dud and a financial fiasco that augured nothing but three decades of ruin, crime, and decline for the city. Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, was a more successful affair all around, though the junky, clunky megastructures that typified the fair pavilions more or less signaled the end of an over-ambitious era in architecture. And then there are the even greater number of fairs that come and go, the ones leave their host cities no worse but certainly no better than before. Hannover 2000, anyone?
So why pin any hopes on the Shanghai expo? Well, a couple of reasons.
As is well known—especially since Google recently announced its provisional departure from the country—limitations on free speech threaten the growth of the Chinese market nationwide. Shanghai suffers as much or more so from these restrictions, but there are additional constraints which are peculiar to the city: as big as its stock market is, foreign investment in it is tightly controlled by the PRC government. Afraid of losing control of its economy, the authorities insure that state-run enterprises have a leg-up over foreign competitors.
Discreetly, within the safety zone of the fairground’s perimeter, the exposition undermines that position. The Chinese were eager to insure that United States participated in the fair, and they got their wish: the American pavilion, designed by architect Clive Grout and sponsored by companies like GE and Boeing, will be a centerpiece of the exposition. Other global companies—Siemens, GM—will have their own pavilions in tandem with their respective nationalities. The very presence of these buildings, and the clear wish of their builders to delight and to surprise the visitor, is an appeal to the Chinese people. It’s also an affront, albeit a polite one and on a limited scale, to the country’s economic insularity, and an attempt to ready the way for a more cosmopolitan China.
But more than that, the expo and its architecture could serve as a powerful metaphor for the cultural enterprise on which China is now embarked. For the architect, “exposition” implies a kind of liminal space, a suspension of norms. Architectural experiment is very much in evidence in the photos of the Shanghai fairgrounds—there’s Britain’s “Seed Palace” looking like a dried anemone, the Arab Emirates’ like an orange soda manta ray. This frenzy of formal experiment is a fairly accurate reflection of a city that is itself looking to experiment as it tries to open itself to the world.
Shanghai is the leading city of China, its financial capital, but if it’s too assume the stature of previous famous expo cities then it must find a way to transform its economy and its culture. The almost garish variety of architecture at the 2010 expo—some of it strange, some of its successful, some of it not—is a model, in built form, of how a plurality of provisional solutions can be assayed without any danger of the whole structure (of a building, of a society) collapsing on itself. It’s also a dipping-of-the-toe into the global waters, and a teaching moment for a city and a society still unsure of what its future should look like.