One of my greatest regrets in life is that I missed the golden age of World's Fairs by about a century. I would mope around the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and read The Devil in the White City (a fantastic book about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893) in a futile attempt to recapture the glory days of Ferris Wheels and Pabst Blue Ribbon and huge plaster statues embodying civic virtues.
Well, I have great news for anyone who suffers from this particular nostalgia: The Shanghai World Expo promises to revive the splendor and absurdity of the World's Fairs, with high tech production values worthy of the new millennium. The theme of the expo, which will be open from May to October 2010, is "Better City, Better Life", reflecting Shanghai's desire to upstage Beijing in the wake of the 2008 Olympics. Like at the original fairs, countries will build pavilions to showcase their national spirit and products. Luckily, the expo differs from the early fairs by allowing Third World countries to represent themselves, instead of importing Polynesian villages for display (the early fairs were filled with supposedly anthropological exhibits of "primitive" people). The Indian pavilion will be in the shape of an ancient stupa built by Ashoka, while the South Korean pavilion will be staffed by holograms. The Czech pavilion is entitled "Fruits of Civilization" and focuses mostly on ice hockey (??). Each country will put on events, lectures, and concerts, including an appearance by Jamaica's own Shaggy!
South Korea Pavilion
The pavilions nominally focus on ecological design and man's relationship with nature, but they look more like opportunities for architectural showboating. Many of the designs boast unusual textures and floating components, although it is difficult to gauge from the CG images what they will really look like. I couldn't find an image of the US pavilion, but it will certainly face tough competition. China has been building excitement about the expo for the past few years by displaying architectural models of the city filled with pavilions. These miniatures are actually very large and impressive, filling entire rooms of museums in Shanghai and Beijing.
I urge anyone who will be in China next year to visit the World Expo. As well as undoubtedly being really fun, it heralds a return to wackiness as competition, a phenomenon that resurfaced in the Beijing Olympics and the architecural antics in the United Arab Emirates. The Expo is inevitably politicized, as China struggles to define its changing role on the world stage. World's Fairs were often riddled with political animosity expressed through building, as in the Paris International Exposition of 1937, where the Soviet and Nazi Pavilions were awkwardly placed directly across from each other, in a monumental showdown. The World's Fairs established fantasy environments as arenas for political competition and aggression. These serious undercurrents may betray the peaceful spirit of the Expo, but they provide a safe release for conflicts that might otherwise erupt into violence. Moreover, the bizarre buildings that result from such competition are well worth it.