Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Shanghai Expo: Yesterday's World's Fair Today

I had the pleasure of spending two days at the Shanghai Expo during the summer, in the company of my son, Jamey, who lives and works in Shanghai. The visit reactivated a long-standing interest in the history of world’s fairs, which led me to discover a recent book by Anna Jackson -- Expo: International Expositions 1851-2010 — which is the catalogue for an exhibition on the subject at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

As Jackson shows, cities have been hosting world’s fairs for more than 150 years. From the very beginning, international expositions have had multiple objectives– partly trade show, presenting new technologies to businesspeople; partly corporate advertising, presenting new products and services to prospective consumers; partly popular education, introducing fairgoers to other societies and cultures from around the world; and partly entertainment, with rides and side shows for the general public.

In the broadest terms, however, the overall purposes of international expositions have changed considerably over time. Until World War II, when international travel was far more difficult (and therefore less common) than it is today, fairs were mainly intended for the people of the host country, displaying goods, art objects, and performers from the rest of the world, often with an emphasis on exhibits from the host country’s colonial empire. In those days, as Jackson shows, international expositions were essentially a nationalistic enterprise, creating greater public understanding of the outside world in which the host country was playing a growing part, and building a sense of national pride in host country’s role as a major power

More recently, as foreign travel has become easier, the main purpose of such expositions has changed. They are increasingly aimed at foreigners, rather than at domestic audiences, and have been organized around themes that have global relevance and appeal, such as scientific progress, urbanization, and the environment. Their purpose is to educate foreign fairgoers about the theme, rather than encourage local visitors to understand and celebrate their country’s role in the world. Their agenda, in other words, has become less nationalist and more internationalist.

From this historical perspective, the Shanghai Expo is largely a return to the earlier form of international exposition. To be sure, it is organized around a theme of global relevance –urbanization -- with the motto “Better City, Better Life.” Many of the pavilions in the “Urban Best Practices Area” on the Puxi side of the exposition, sponsored by various cities around the world, examine this theme in some detail, as do several of the theme pavilions on the Pudong side. And certainly the Expo organizers have encouraged foreigners to visit the far to learn about the experiences of major world cities in urban planning and design.

But the more important purpose of the Expo is not to introduce foreigners to best practices in urbanization, but rather to introduce Chinese to the rest of the world. Most of the pavilions are national pavilions, varying greatly in size and quality of presentation. Most of those national pavilions, in turn, have little to do with the official theme of “Better City, Better Life,” but instead are intended to introduce the economy, culture, and society of each country to visitors. The overwhelming majority of those visitors are Chinese, not foreigners. And the primary purpose of the Expo – at least as perceived by a casual visitor like me – is celebration of the rise of China, not education about a global issue.

The relative importance of these two purposes – the traditional nationalist purpose and the more contemporary internationalist objective – is most clearly evident in the Expo’s physical architecture. Although there are, as noted above, several theme pavilions, they are not particularly striking architecturally, nor do they occupy the most central places in the Expo’s plan. Instead, the most important building – in terms of design, size, and location – is the Chinese national pavilion, which has become the Expo’s principal icon:

Having the national pavilion of the host country serve as the central iconic structure in a World’s Fair is quite unusual, especially in the contemporary period. Normally, the iconic structures in recent international expositions (and in most of the earliest fairs as well) represent the theme, not the host. The symbols of the earliest world’s fairs were industrial exhibition halls, such as the Crystal Palace in the London World’s Fair of 1951. The familiar icons of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 were the Trylon and the Perisphere, representing the fair’s theme, “The World of Tomorrow.” The San Francisco World’s Fair, also of 1939-40, featured an 80-foot statue of “Pacifica,” depicting peaceful relations among the Pacific nations. The symbol of the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 (whose theme was science and the atomic age) was the Atomium; the symbol of the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 (whose theme was space) as the Space Needle. And so on.

As expressed architecturally, therefore, the main theme of the Shanghai Expo is far more the rise of China than the design of better cities. Its target audiences are far more Chinese than foreign, and its purposes are more nationalist than internationalist. This is not unprecedented, but these characteristics and purposes make the Shanghai Expo far more similar to the world’s fairs in Paris in 1851 or London in 1862 than to more recent expositions.

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