Postcard: Expo 2010, Shanghai

Text by Aubrey Anable
Photos by Nic Sammond

Last July, in the midst of a brutal heat wave, we visited the World Exposition in Shanghai. This was the first world’s fair ever hosted by the People’s Republic of China, and its government reportedly spent over $50 billion on the event, nearly twice the amount it spent on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Given the sheer spectacle and diplomatic value of the games, and how little attention the 2010 Expo garnered in the U.S., this sum is staggering. (The U.S. media have paid world’s fairs little attention since 1984, when the U.S. last hosted one. That fair, held in New Orleans, was so poorly attended it ended in bankruptcy. NBC, on the other hand, just spent $4.38 billion to secure the rights to broadcast the next four Olympic games.) Many Americans we spoke with about our trip expressed surprise that world’s fairs are still held. This is not just ethnocentrism, but also a telling blind spot indicative of the desire to ignore the U.S.’s declining global economic significance. World’s fairs, as they have since their emergence in the nineteenth century, serve as occasions for making national and imperial power visible through spectacular architecture and technological display. In Shanghai, the Expo continued the tradition of marking global power relations through the re-making and re-ordering of the world at amusement park scale. When Expo 2010 closed last October, over 73 million people had visited the fair, making it the largest Expo ever held.

China Pavilion      China Pavilion, “Crown of the East”

The methods of display and world building for world’s fairs have changed over time. Many scholars have traced and analyzed the fairs’ evolution from warehouses of capitalism, such as London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, to sites for museums of civilization and ethnographic display at the turn of the twentieth century (Benjamin, Rydell), and then to the postmodern Expos in which the buildings themselves, not what they contain, serve as the primary signifiers of “progress” (Eco, Bennett).

Walkway                                             A detail of Expo Boulevard, one of the few permanent structures built for the fair.
Channeling Buckminster Fuller, this fluted geodesic structure funnels
wind and
 into the lower levels of the building.

At the Shanghai Expo we saw how incomplete and contradictory this shift from the interior to the exterior has been. It is true that the national and corporate pavilions (a distinction that is fast fading) seemed to be best viewed from the elevated promenades that traversed the two square miles of fairgrounds along both the Puxi and Pudong banks of the Huangpu River. Yet, this emphasis on external visibility did not dissuade the vast majority of visitors from queuing for up to six hours (and no less than one) to view the inside of some of the major pavilions.

Promenade           Vast promenades for flânuerie. The exteriors of buildings serve as screens, externalizing the interior’s
traditional display function.

Some critics of the 2010 expo lambasted the design of the pavilions for offering so little to see after such a long wait, but they missed a larger point by focusing too closely on the exposition’s exterior plenitude. One of the crucial messages of Expo 2010–the imbrication of data and capital–was made most clear inside the pavilions and beyond the fairgrounds, in the city of Shanghai itself. If the Shanghai Expo could be described in one word, that word would be “infrastructure”.

Pens           Not all infrastructure at Expo 2010 was for flâneurie. Crowd control pens, sans the crowd.

In different ways, infrastructure–the unglamorous and often invisible other of architecture–was the theme of both the U.S.A. Pavilion and the Cisco Pavilion. Both pavilions opted for short, overwrought, and ideologically suspect videos that argued for the importance of urban connectivity for a better life. Infrastructure and the role it plays in the imbrication of data and capital is literally Cisco’s business. Thus, that pavilion’s video presentation laid out how digital infrastructure would improve urban life in the year 2020, literally making the network visible by embedding every conceivable surface of the urban environment (including bodies) with a screen and a computer.

The main video presentation of the U.S.A. Pavilion, The Garden, tells the story of young American girl living in the decrepit infrastructure of a U.S. city. Her determination to build a garden amid the decay transforms the lives of those around her, and through them the built environment. Despite the video’s seeming emphasis on community, its underlying message is about the responsibility of the individual–in concert with corporations, in the guise of the local businesses the girl enlists–(not the state) to remediate the decaying urban environment.

Now that the fair has closed and most of the pavilions have been demolished, perhaps the most lasting message of the 2010 Expo is written on the city of Shanghai itself. The theme of Expo 2010 was “Better City, Better Life.” By making cities its focus, the expo brought to the foreground the long and rich relationship between world’s fairs and urban planning. Like many host nations before it, the PRC used the expo as a justification for forcibly removing thousands of poor residents from their homes and communities in order to claim a vast tract of urban space for the event, and for subsequent redevelopment. But the effects of the expo are also visible beyond the fairgrounds. Between 2002, when Shanghai was named a host city, and 2010 when the Expo opened, the government completed enormous upgrades to the city’s infrastructure, such as many new bridges, tunnels, and roadways; thirty-four wind turbines were installed to generate power for the city; a new airport terminal was built; light rail lines were constructed; and six lines were added to the city’s subway system, making it the fastest growing transit system in the world.

Returning to the decaying city of The Garden at the U.S.A. Pavilion, we could read a national anxiety about decaying urban infrastructure as a metaphor for declining global power. Actually, though, it was the final stage of the visitor experience at the U.S.A. Pavilion that punctuated its national and imperial message.

Wall Street      The theme of the U.S.A. Pavilion was “Rise to the Challenge.”

Visitors exit the theater into a large room containing displays by the pavilion’s corporate sponsors (PepsiCo, Chevron, General Electric, Microsoft, Dow, and Citi Group, among others). In the room’s geography, the corporations literally form the foundation for the cardboard cityscape rising above them. Corporations are the real infrastructure of the American city, according to the logic of the pavilion, and this infrastructure appears robust, if not also threatening to overwhelm that which it purports to support.

Microsoft      Microsoft’s display inside the “Opportunities and Innovation” section of the U.S.A. Pavilion

Writing about world’s fairs towards the end of the twentieth century, Tony Bennett argues that they “[function] less as representations than as instruments of self-fashioning, a means for engaging in a future-orientated practice of the self, a dress rehearsal for what one is to become” (The Birth of the Museum, 217-18). Indeed, Expo 2010 provided the space and the props with which to exercise our future selves. Walking along the grand promenades or wilting in the heat during long waits at pavilions there was ample time to consider that the “future-orientated practice of the self” in which we were meant to engage is a fashioning of ourselves as components in a globally corporate infrastructure, rather than as beings capable of designing our own futures.

More photos of Expo 2010 are available here.

Aubrey Anable