The Shanghai Expo is the biggest ever

Like all Expos ever since, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 was a strange cocktail of national, global and local celebration. Intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in 1492 (it was a year late), the fair left an indelible impression on the city, and on the world beyond.

The first Ferris wheel loomed above the “White City” and carried 2,160 people simultaneously on a 20-minute ride for 50 cents, every ride accompanied by a band in one of the cars. Nikola Tesla illuminated the fair in the biggest electric light show the world had ever seen, and displayed the first phosphorescent and neon lights. Meanwhile Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, Quaker Oats and Shredded Wheat made their first appearances; Scott Joplin introduced the world to the syncopations of ragtime; the hamburger appeared at the fair and Whitcomb L Judson displayed his “clasp-locker” for the first time. It wasn’t quite there yet but it soon became the zip.

The Exposition must have been a world of wonder, of relentless novelty in a fairy-land of white faux-marble and wedding-cake architecture. L. Frank Baum’s magical city of Oz was said to be a homage to the sparkling lights of the fair.

The history of Expos is long and intriguing, presenting a method of tracking the concerns of the time – imperialism, shifting geo-politics, militarism, anxiety, fashion, consumption. The lodestone was London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Set in the vast Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park, it was a cornucopia of manufacture, a temple to the industrial revolution.

“Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things,” wrote Charlotte Brontë. “Whatever human industry has created you find there ... It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth.”

But if the Great Exhibition seemed a spontaneous expression of joy in production and consumption, its legacy was extraordinary. The Crystal Palace itself was a wonder, and the 6m tickets sold produced a vast profit which was turned to the creation of the South Kensington institutions – the Victoria & Albert, Natural History and Science Museums and Imperial College. Elsewhere, Expos have left behind the Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion and Brussels’ Atomium.

That 102m-tall cluster of balls representing the atomic structure of iron is an outstanding monument to the Expo’s utopian folly. Built for Brussels 1958, it perfectly expresses the optimism as well as a looming, cold war anxiety about the potential of those atoms for destruction.

Chicago’s White City and London’s Crystal Palace represent the first age of the Expo. Things were clear-cut then: the British concentrated on trade and manufacture, the US on the future and the French on the arts. Stereotypes were there to be lived up to. The Atomium, though, represents the second phase of the Expo, an endearingly utopian faith in science. The New York World’s Fair of 1939 had shown the way with General Motors’ Futurama (the future of transport it transpired was, unsurprisingly, automobiles) whilst crowds gathered in the Chrysler pavilion to watch a car being assembled. The New York World’s Fair of 1964 augmented cars with a mono-rail and space travel (even if the leaders in the space race, the Soviets, were conspicuously absent). The next, most recent Expo phase, however, has moved beyond pure technology to cheerily embrace global catastrophe, climate change and environmental apocalypse, the utopian impulse turned towards saving the planet.

Still concerned with the future, the Expo now faces forward with trepidation as well as delight. Anna Jackson, a curator at London’s Victoria and Albert museum and author of Expo: International Expositions, 1851-2010, explains. “The original ethos of the Expos was of peace and prosperity – of moving towards a utopian future, but we now realise that the future isn’t a linear progression. They were didactic but during the 20th century they became less about ‘education’ and more about ‘experience’.” And that is where we find ourselves now, with a government- and corporation-sponsored, high-minded theme park.

Shanghai Expo, which opened on May 1, is the biggest Expo ever, spanning both sides of the Huangpu River, covering over five square kilometres. Just as they did with the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, the Chinese have gone into overdrive to create a spectacle. At $55bn, Shanghai has spent twice as much on its Expo as Beijing spent on the Olympics, adding several new metro lines, airport terminals, railway stations and other infrastructure.

About 70m people are expected to have visited by its close at the end of October. With 192 countries represented, it makes more than a day out for visitors to Shanghai: you could easily spend a week here.

But is it worth a detour for anyone visiting China this year? And what is its point? The architect Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the British Pavilion for Shanghai, says: “That’s a bit like asking what’s the point of a festival? Or what’s the point of a party? The whole point is not to define the outcome too precisely but to bring people together. It’s a party for countries.”

Heatherwick’s pavilion looks like a slightly squashed sea urchin, a prickly blob of wobbling spines. Each spine is a fibre-optic rod which skewers the structure and encloses at its inside end a seed from the Millenium Seed Bank at Kew’s Royal Botanical Gardens – and there are 60,000 spines. What on earth does this have to do with the Shanghai expo theme, “Better City, Better Life”? It is, according to the designer, “a seed cathedral”, a pantheistic pincushion, a space for “contemplation” (mobile phones must be switched off inside).

At the Danish pavilion, architects BIG have imported the single most familiar Danish landmark, the Little Mermaid statue, to sit at the centre of their pavilion. In its place on the Copenhagen waterfront, China’s brilliant conceptual artist Ai Weiwei has created a video installation, whilst visitors to the pavilion in Shanghai can participate in activities such as a bike ride or a swim in the “harbour pool”.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have erected an astonishing inverted pyramid, a massive red structure which stands somewhere between the complex timber roof structures of a Chinese palace and a frightening vision of Russian constructivism. Architect He Jingtang says of the red: “It is the first time that I dared to use red on such a large-scale building. We collected every kind of red colour that we needed and tried to find the right Chinese red from these colours, such as the red of Tiananmen, the Forbidden City and the Chinese national flag.” You get the impression He will not be getting into trouble for using red, and that Tiananmen has entirely different connotations in Shanghai than the rest of the world.

Perhaps, I suggest to Sir Andrew Cahn, chief executive of UK Trade and Investment (the civil service client for the British Pavilion), it is the government involvement in the Expo that raises suspicion that, whatever else might be said, the Expo is still propaganda. “Certainly for the Chinese it is about doing everything bigger and better,” he replies. “But for the other countries it is also about recognising China’s importance, economically, politically and culturally.”

“It is an exercise in public diplomacy – the design of the British pavilion shows that we are still culturally vigorous. The polls naturally show that the Chinese pavilion is the most popular at the Expo but that the British pavilion is number two. Many millions will visit it and it will be seen around the world.” But will it? Are Expos still really news? “It’s true that the British are quite sceptical about government-organised events – and rightly so. We are quite sceptical about extraordinary things – until they’re proved.”

So what is the legacy here, beyond the six-month event? Shanghai will have a hugely extended subway system, new parcels of formerly industrial land in the city centre cleared for development, a new congress centre and huge performance space.

“There are economic benefits but there are also diplomatic advances,” says Vincente Loscertales, Secretary General of the Bureau Internationale des Expos, the body which oversees international Expos. “There are 192 countries represented at this Expo, and 22 of those have no diplomatic relations which China. This can be the first step in a relationship.”

The pavilions, with their lack of functional brief, present architects with an astonishing opportunity to build something challenging, to experiment with no real consequences. But ultimately Expos are about spectacle. The Expo has become the mall of contemporary mores, in which possible futures are set up for consumption as spectacle.

The world will not gasp as they did at the astonishing, epoch-making innovations at Chicago in 1893. Shanghai will leave us nothing as lasting as neon lights or Juicy Fruit chewing gum but, in its magpie mix of artifice and authenticity, it has become the perfect cipher for the contemporary city. Better City, Better Future? The Expo as an event, and Shanghai more than any other so far, is no longer a glimpse of the future city but, in its relentless search for the special, the spectacle and the engineered experience, its hunger for obsessive architectural iconism, the Expo is the city of the future. The fake has become authentic because spectacle has become the reality.

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