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Shanghai’s World Expo: a vision for the future?

Two cars collide in the city of Xian. Not an uncommon occurrence in a city of eight million lacking the providence of traffic lights on every street. Rather than display a Dutch civility when butting up against their neighbors, Xian drivers refuse to give way. “The other guy will move. I am staying my ground,” they must think. And so did subsequent drivers, all piling into this intersection. Instead of some taking the foresight to back up, thus relieving the maelstrom, all just inched forward, locking this Chinese Burr puzzle ever more tightly. The future of our cities is running headlong toward this urban juggernaut, or else the wizards of urban planning will find solutions. And to that end usher the dazzling lights of Shanghai World Expo.

This latest incarnation of The World’s Fair or World Exposition is the largest yet realized and the first to be built in a developing country since the fair began in 1851. Expo 2010 Shanghai involves the participation of 189 countries and regions, and, by closing day on October 31, will have seen 70 million visitors, 93% of whom are Chinese nationals, pass through its six gates. With the theme, “Better City, Better Life,” Expo uses themed, corporate, and national pavilions to relay its message of a brighter greener future just around the corner.

Aside from the razzle-dazzle of colorful themed and national pavilions and the cuteness of Haibo, the impish blue mascot character in his many manifestations, the six months long affair means to instruct visitors and nations that their un-green ways have alternatives. Rather than closing day being centered around fun and games, a huge summit forum on “Urban Innovation and Sustainable Development” will occur wherein the Shanghai Declaration, a consensus document on world urban development issues, will be issued. Tang Guoqiang, China’s Ambassador to Norway, said that the world is now going through the most explosive urban growth in history and that Expo is set around the themes of “Blending of diverse cultures in the city,” “Economic prosperity…,” “Innovations of science and technology…,” and “Remodeling of the communities in the city.” He said each country was invited to show its own contributions to these ends. Thus Expo, as other World’s Fair’s, has a mission.

Environmentalism is nothing new to China. According to Asian Tribune writer, Judge Weeramantry Buddhism teaches that nature is permanent, but we are fleeting. It instructs that we should consider how our actions will impact on our fellow humans. Pupphavagga in Dhammapada states: ‘As a bee that gathers honey from a flower and departs from it without injuring the flower or its colours or its fragrance, the sage dwells in his village.’

It is not that the promotion of cleaner environments is new to the expositions. Spokane in Washington State, U.S.A. was the smallest city to ever host the event. With the slogan, “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment,” the city realized to be true to its word it had to “clean house.” Civic groups collected empties around town; and the blighted features of dams, mills, parking lots, and railroad trestles were transformed in the years prior to the fair. The legatee of that standard was Zaragoza, Spain, host of the 2008 expo, with the motto, “Water and Sustainable Development.” By fair’s end delegates had signed the Zaragoza Water Charter, just as Shanghai will sign its own declaration about urban responsibility.

Nevertheless, Greenpeace and others denounced Zaragoza for building thousands of square meters of construction, all for the presumed impact on attendees. And now Shanghai is in the same moral quagmire – planning to scuttle all but a few of the complexes down to shards of glass, steel scrap, wood, concrete, when, as American business consultant , Richard Brubaker, contends in The Washington Post, it would have been better to reuse them.

Spokane has now risen from its pre-fair ash heap to become a responsible and clean city. But it stands at 463,000 citizens and can hardly be a role model for Shanghai’s 19 million. This mega-city, the new New York, went over to TCP low carbon gasoline and created the floating magnetic wonder train, the Maglev to hold up its environmental end. At the same time it created nine new subway lines and displaced 18,000 people to make way for the exhibition. Besides the toll on the human psyche of the relocated, it means streets torn up, buildings demolished, hundreds of millions of tons of non-green Karma that might come back at Shanghai, a metropolis known for bad Karma.

With the 2008 Beijing Olympics this is China’s cultural bid to rise as a world leader, and it realizes a leader must look responsible as “the whole world” passes through the Expo gates. Most of the fairs have mixed in cultural hegemony with genuine concern for the welfare of all. Starting perhaps at the 1939 New York fair, visions of society transforming itself for common good in the near future appeared.

The 1939 Futurama building envisaged vast suburbs connected by superhighways, and homes educated by that new invention, television in the year 1960. This proved to be no pipe dream. The Urban Planning Centre, outside of and built before Expo, in turn imagines a realistic vision of Shanghai of 2020 as planners predicted in 2000.

Back at Expo Pavilion of Future, Dream of yesterday section, fair-goers are surrounded by images of various futures as seen by past visionaries: Blade Runner, Metropolis, etc. The City Library of the “Dreams and Practices” area presents past (realized and idealized) principles in city planning, such as the ancient Zhou capital based on the number nine.
Inventions that debuted at past expositions have also come to pass. Fairs were testing grounds on the public mind for such brainchildren as the telephone, high-powered steam engine, concrete, printers, the elevator and escalator, infant incubators, motion pictures, light bulbs, nylon, popcorn, ice cream, Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit Gum, Cherry Coke, and Cracker Jack. Now how could we have made any progress without Cracker Jack?

Some have said that this time around the output of new inventions pales next to other fairs, but that may be unfair. 1939 had Roll-Oh, the vacuuming, can-opening, door-answering robot as a butler, but the Japan pavilion 2010 has robots playing the violin. An experimental Chinese car called the Leaf produces its own energy from wind and sun. How about a capsule containing a tiny camera that can be swallowed for internal medical diagnoses? Like other forward-looking inventions, this too shall pass.

But the greatest star might just be the Hungary pavilion’s new math model, the Gombӧc, invented by two of Hungary’s own. It is the first known object with one stable and one unstable equilibrium point. It can lose its shape momentarily, but it always bounces back. Shanghai can learn a lot from it.

It would be remiss to deny mention of the greatest inventions here, though stars they are not. Japan’s machine turning sewage into drinking water; Shanghai Corporate Pavilion’s façade of recycled CD cases; Finland’s exterior shingles made of recycled labels; Italy’s concrete, which changes in transparency according to interior light and humidity; algae fuel cells; and pipes of burnt bamboo which partially treat flowing water at the tiny bamboo and rattan pavilion – these are where the recyclable rubber meets the road as far as showing Gaia we love her.

Planners get it right with 4.6 megawatt solar power generators, 34 3 meg wind power units, LED lamps accounting for 80% of lighting, and over 1000 electric vehicles. Shanghai proper could learn much here too.

Sometimes the message comes across on didactic text boards, but sometimes it is as creative as the Vanke Pavilion’s “Adventure to Termitary Hall,” in which on-lookers are raised through the stories of a bug mound “skyscraper city” to see how termites use natural ventilation for heating and cooling. The architect Mick Pearce was inspired by his wood-munching colleagues when he created a Nairobi government building with just such systems.

You may have been hearing about green roofs lately – those topsoil-rich beds of plantings which reduce radiant heat, cool water to return to the ground (or for use in flushing), and even provide produce for inhabitants below. Expo capitalizes on them with rooftop gardens atop the Saudi, Singapore, and Swiss constructions, whose utility and beauty will lead to their futuristic apotheosis in the to-be-built EDITT Building in Singapore. It will have solar panels; natural ventilation (à la bug city); rainwater collection whereby 55% of grey water and sewage water will be recycled to create compost and biogas fuel; and vegetated terraces that will be a habitat for wildlife. That is Expo to its logical conclusion.

If readers gather that Expo 2010 runs the scale of highly successful to disappointing, they are correct. Look to the Aurora Pavilion, an homage to Chinese jade tradition, for one of many arrant contradictions. Inside is the jade sculpture, some four feet tall, called “Climbing the Summit,” in which benighted yet successful climbers trudge up Mount Everest to hoist the Chinese flag. What Zhou Enlai elevated to Communist propaganda – you know, the People united surmounting all difficulty – now has the tag, “As innovation is the core of every city, so is the will to climb the summit the defining attribute of success.” As China is now in between Socialism and Capitalism, might we not take that as a statement of success in the free market in this bit of sculptural “recycling” we could do without?

A stretch? Perhaps, but other expressions of market-driven lip service abound. One display informs us it is necessary to find a balance between fortune acquisition (an ingrained Chinese tradition, by the way) and the environment. China Private Joint Enterprises Pavilion uses the metaphor of four seasons for corporate entrepreneurship:
Winter brings hardship, but hard effort will lead to rewards. [Corporate logos climb snowy mountain as in the jade sculpture]. Spring brings changes and imagination. Immerse yourself in this ocean of blossom and fresh breeze, and enjoy this wonderful moment when our entrepreneurs plant the seeds of the future growth of China’s private enterprises.  Summer requires hard work, yet it also kindles hope. Let’s take the Ball of Wish and create the miracle of life with our hands.

From there guests enter a theater to see “Ball of Wish” appear in multiples suspended from the ceiling on wires from which they lower and raise in an mesmerizing dance with the Tai Chi master. Tai Chi is earlier described as “going from random to order, chaos to harmony” in the manner of corporations. As if this were not hokey enough, the exhibit culminates in the hall of stars, a wall of fake diamonds encouraging us to succeed and shine too, as do the “star” entrepreneurs on the opposing wall.

The strange bedfellows of environmentalism and corporatism appear frequently enough to give pause. A model of windmills pumping wind in harmony with oil derricks pumping oil lead on to more direct propaganda in the China Oil Pavilion – and one must go there if doing environmental reportage. Oil has a “4D movie” complete with snake tongues that lick you under your seat, predators who pound at your chair back, and a journey through the evolution of the slimy black stuff a billion years in the making. It is truly beautiful imagery. It then imagines life without oil, as the paint peels from cars and apartment-dwellers are shorn of wardrobe. The conclusion? It’s that oil is indispensable to our lives, and, for better or worse, is here to stay.

Haibing Ma, China Program Manager & Chief Representative in China for Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group, says that is “more of a statement of the fact for now…but I don’t think oil [will be] indispensable in the future. Actually, all kinds of renewable sources do have the potential to replace oil/coal.” For Ma this is due to the “deploying limitation of cleaner energy sources. And those limitations lie in the shortage of technologies, infrastructure, and policies. “Oil is definitely not beneficial to every aspect of our lives,” he says, “It’s just we have to bear with it before we can use cleaner energy on a much broader scale.”

You do not need to hear it. Just head to Beijing or fifty other Chinese cities, and you will “taste” it in your throat – that stinging irritation that leaves your windpipe drier than the sands blowing in from the Gobi.

Nevertheless, Ma says the fair is green in its successful transportation, recycling, and energy efficiency and that it has all the mechanisms in place to convey a low-carbon lifestyle. But, in the end, it is up to visitors what they take away. Change in people’s minds, he says, takes time.

Perhaps fair designers thought patrons would not notice the many paradoxes that stand out in Disney-like fashion. Future Pavilion’s discourse on Charles Fourier’s Philansteries, self-sufficient phalanges, or communities based on labor rather than capital; and Ebenezer Howard’s plan of self-supporting towns scattered through a wooded landscape in opposition to cities arouse Utopian fantasies. And skimming your hand over one of the data pods will open up windows to a bright extrapolation of our lives in the coming years, a life of human-based communities where one world digital currency, a global political committee, open access to info, and funds managed by customers around the world will exist. Back on line, to see the near-fisticuffs break out between a wizened Chinese man in his upper sixties and a slovenly middle-aged Chinese woman over her impudent queue jumping reminds us that human aggression will not be engineered out so easily.

Getting the message wrong is forgivable when it is not intentional, such as when the Pavilion of Future’s red hot glowing and pulsing Globalization Towers in Global Square are compared to The Tower of Babel as far as the need for cooperation and trust (a future model). So says the text. Copywriters must not have picked up their Bibles; The Tower of Babel ended in a communications disaster.

Communication reminds us that the proceedings are about the land and water and human beings. Here too are discrepancies. For example, the Sunshine Pavilion is the first in fair history designed for those with disabilities. Notwithstanding, in South Korea’s entry we view an enchanting film about an unhappy little girl in a wheelchair whom the “Wish Makers” turn into a virtual depiction of herself and whisk away to fly over the city of Seoul. This might send the wrong message to persons with disabilities who might accept themselves the way they are, and it should be a warning to us if we pin our hopes and selves on the virtual world.

Information and Communication’s film has a child ask that his wheelchair-bound grandfather get better, whereby a vortex swirl of information enters the old man’s body, where nanobots operate and heal him. Should science promise such a future when there is no certainty? And what of the way the film ostensibly chooses three young audience members “at random” and transports them through the magic of the data cyclone up on the screen? They are obviously good-looking actors trained with proper diction. What does that say about respect for diversity?

As to respect for diversity of ethnicity and nationhood, the fair is stellar. The “It’s a Small World” ride at the 1964 New York fair advanced love of a common humanity through the use of robotic children of the world living in harmony. The Thai monk Buddhadasa Bikkhu said, “When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise then we can build a noble environment.” The parallel here is the respect accorded to small, even miniscule, nations are not being shunted to the far corners of the three national display zones, but standing proudly with their larger cousins (Serbia near Spain).

Juxtapositions work likewise in the way lyricism, poetry, and metaphor are used. It is done, for one, to defuse controversial topics such as oil, and electricity generation (The State Grid Pavilion), and to let us get a hold of mundane sales points such as broadband. Another reason is to instruct us how to be green. To stand transfixed over the wonderment of the huge globe in Urban Planet is to give in to the metaphor of farm fields projected on the globe turning into the grid of global electrical use, and then into the patterns of silicon paths on a computer chip. We can see a visual representation of how we are all connected.

Metaphor makes for inspiration too. In three presentations “birds return when”, as described by Joshua Cooper Raymo to Matt Lauer and Bob Costas at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, “the conflict between Man and nature has been resolved and where a model that allows both prosperity and environmentalism flourishes.” To see the pulsing and sizzling zaps of electricity become birds in flight in State Grid and the intangible waves of sound become the paths of birds in Taipei Case Study is to see a reckoning of our harnessing of power with a protection of the natural world.

To see it more cleverly proposed one must go to the Polish Pavilion designed by WWAA Marcin Mostafa and Natalia Paszkouska. The exterior is a double reverse ramp with perforated walls in the manner of a Polish folk paper cut box. Walk inside to behold a tour de force of more perforations, but these morph into organic forms, industrial ones (such as gears), and city ones (as the perforations take on the form of a city skyline, meant to show the migration of people into cities). The large throbbing, pulsating expansion of network suggests a forest, replete with moving images of fluttering birds, falling leaves and, what, sap or blood flowing through it all? The network could also be a rhizome or even the neurons of the brain, if we admit human faculties. And why should we not? The deployers of this strange world chose three themes: human, creativity, and the city. But there is maybe another concurrent theme. It is mankind, represented by the neurons of thought, at one and at peace with the web of the natural world. One organism. One energy. One noble environment.

Stuart Kurtz is a free-lance for hire writer of arts, travel, and opinion pieces. He is also a budding script writer and playwrite. Find his articles at,, and, His blog is  Reach him at
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