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Around the world in a day

The year 2010 gave me an ideal opportunity to undertake a much awaited trip to China. As an architect who was bitten by wanderlust long ago, I found the ideal amalgam of both passions in the Shanghai World Expo of 2010. This event comes around every five years, hosted by a chosen city, and while the main focus behind the event is to promote urban development and allow a kind of {re}branding by the city, it has actually become more valuable as a testing ground for architectural ideas. Expos or world fairs are a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, when large fairs were put up for the benefit of regular folk and to display the latest technological and radical concepts being explored in architecture. Every expo has a theme and one can see over 200 countries manifest their interpretations and identities in their representative pavilions.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851 | Public Domain

The Crystal Palace, built in the London expo of 1858 was one such experiment embodying a radical shift from traditional load bearing technology to steel and glass balloon frame structure. The Paris expo of 1889 gave us probably the most iconic structure ever to be identified with a city – The Eiffel Tower.

General view of the Exposition Universelle, 1889 | Public Domain

Reams have been written about the paradigm shift in architecture caused by the German pavilion, in the Barcelona world expo of 1929, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe. It at once cemented Mies as a master of Modernism and continues to be studied by every architectural student and scholar, finding new interpretations in every new reading.

More recently two pavilions have captured the imagination of contemporary architects. Moshe Safdie’s Habitat -67 was considered the landmark building of the Montreal expo of 1967 (the same expo also showcased the famous geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller). The pavilion radically re-conceived dense urban living within the Modernist apartment building typology, by exploring precast construction.

Habitat 67, as seen from street level by Taxiarchos228 | Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The second being the Dutch pavilion by MvRdV built for the Hanover World Expo of 2000. This project explored my personal favorite conceptual idea in architecture – the programmatic stack. The architects created a six storied high pavilion with a different aspect of the Dutch natural landscape on every floor. People ascended to the top floor and gradually ambled their way down through every landscape. The lines to enter they say were endless.

‘Expo 2000 Hanover, Netherlands Pavilion’ by   Benutzer JuergenG |Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Every city that hosts the World Expo has a chance to situate the event in a new part of the city and develop the urban infrastructure and amenities for the area. Several tourists flock to see the World Expos, case in point Montreal ’67 which received 50 million visitors at a time when the population of Canada was only 20 million people. Design practitioners at the forefront of their discipline are engaged to design pavilions that best represent the participating country. Many a career has been catapulted into the limelight from this opportunity.  Ideation and execution are seen as issues of prestige and the best homage to the success of an idea is visible in the long lines of visitors snaking outside the most popular pavilions.

The most iconic pavilion of the Shanghai World Expo, was unequivocally the British Pavilion by Thomas Heatherwick. Conceived as a gift from Britain to China, the pavilion named- the Seed Cathedral, appears as a jewel that sits within its original wrapping (embodied in the modulated landscape around the pavilion). Brilliantly crafted and formed of millions of acrylic tubes that embalmed a seed at its end, the cathedral signified the importance of the seed which is the earth’s innate symbol of promise for the future. The light inside the pavilion changed subtly with the sun’s position in the sky but from the outside the structure was visually complex and dramatic, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.

The Pavilion lit up inside by sunlight getting refracted by the tubes.

The Danish pavilion by the now renowned BIG architects had been developed as a helical cycle ramp surrounding a waterbody that the visitors could bike down,  indicative of the culture of cycling prevalent in Denmark. Categorical of BIG’s tongue in cheek approach, the Little Mermaid (one of the most visited tourist attractions in Copenhagen) was transported to the center of the pool for the entire duration of the event. The pavilion allowed the visitor to engage with it in an almost irreverent manner, not taking itself or the event seriously.

The Spanish Pavilion explored the modularity of a skin using low tech bamboo material. The interactive art displays inside were perhaps more engaging than the ad-hoc put together skin.

The Mexican pavilion – an extremely simple but engaging idea of an undulating landscape with a series of umbrella like structures creating shade,  at once reminded one of the familiar neighborhood park.

The Chilean pavilion was a well crafted experiment in the architectural use of wood for facades.

The Canadian Pavilion appeared to explore a kind of juxtapositions of textures- wooden clad exteriors enveloping a reflective interior with intermittent panels of greenery.

The Dutch pavilion was a rather simple but sadly quite ill executed experience of an urban Dutch street.

The Korean Pavilion was a statement on the newly emerging digital technology, manifest in both design and execution. The entire pavilion was constructed of laser cut metal panels and where the interiors of the pavilion were exposed, the pixel contained Korean typography. When lit up at night the pavilion was visually stunning.

The UAE pavilion formally mimicked the structure of sand dunes while modestly exploring architectural ideas of smooth form construction.

Almost at the end we came upon where the two Asian behemoths of China and India stood warily eyeing one another, as always. Each pavilion appeared to be drawing inspiration from traditionally iconic forms found in their country.  The Chinese pavilion drew inspiration from the wooden temples seen in the forbidden city in Beijing. The Indian pavilion was fashioned after the Sanchi Stupa – perhaps reminding one of Buddhism – the most significant export to come out of India.

We ended our short but intense trip around the world at the India pavilion. After standing in lines for two long days the scents of Indian food being served inside seemed familiar and comforting.  Ironically, seeing several Chinese folks sampling tandoori delicacies albeit with chopsticks, made me realize that despite our many differences, in effect the world is indeed one family or as the saying goes – vasudev kuttumbakkam.

All photos © Sahil Latheef | excluding the ones from Creative Commons



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