Milan Expo’s 13 Most Architecturally Compelling Pavilions
In 2010, Shanghai spared no expense mounting China’s first world expo, which drew some 70 million visitors. This time around, the setting is Milan—specifically, a fairground 20 minutes from the city’s center. More than 100 countries are participating in the event. Its theme—Feeding the Planet—Energy for Life—was an invitation to address world hunger and plans for future food production.
But many countries focused more on creating enticing pavilions than on filling them with information. (That’s just one reason protesters, calling the Expo a waste of money, took to the streets of Milan on opening day.) So expect to be entertained, not educated by the 2015 World Expo, which runs until October 31. There’s a lot for visitors to take in, which is why T+L has pared down the expo to the best, most architecturally compelling pavilions. Consider this your must-see list.
United Arab Emirates
The British architect Lord Norman Foster, best known for crisp glass-and-steel buildings, created a pavilion that mimics a desert canyon. Glass showcases are positioned between sheer “cliffs” of reddish concrete. A film about the Emirates (seven small kingdoms, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi) plays in a circular theater at the end of the canyon. After watching the film, head downstairs to the exhibition about plans for the next world Expo, to be held in Dubai in 2020. If the Emirates’ pavilion is any indication, that Expo may have undulating walls—but otherwise won’t make waves.
Of all the Arab countries vying for attention at the fair, Bahrain makes the best impression. It does that not with obviously Middle Eastern architecture (try Oman, Qatar, or Morocco for that), but with a contemporary form—a low-slung building that is as much a gem as the Bahraini antiquities displayed inside. Dutch architect Anne Holtrop designed the pavilion as a kind of jigsaw puzzle, with precast concrete walls positioned to form lovely rooms and desert gardens, filled with fruit trees that will flower at different times during the six-month Expo run. The idea is to remind Bahrainis—and teach foreigners—about the country’s flora. A quiet jewel among the Las Vegas-style cacophony of the Expo.
Vanke and Coke
The huge Chinese real estate company Vanke has turned to American architects for buildings in Chinese cities like Shenzhen and Wuhan. For Milan, it hired Daniel Libeskind to make its pavilion pop. Gone are Llibeskind’s usual acute angles; instead, he designed a kind of serpent covered in scales—really iridescent red tiles. Inside, there is an exhibition on Chinese communal dining—shown on some 300 screens—but it’s the building that’s the star. The opposite is true of the Coca-Cola pavilion next door, which isn’t especially attractive but contains hard information about soft drinks. To its credit, Coke will donate the pavilion, designed to house an indoor basketball court, to an Italian town after the Expo.
In its first outing ever at an overseas Expo—and five years after it hosted its own extravaganza—China wanted to make a splash, and it has. Its pavilion consists largely of a vast undulating roof; at one end, it is shaped like the Beijing skyline; at the other end, like a Chinese mountain range, with a lot of twists and turns to get from one PROFILE*** to the other. Under the roof are exhibitions on life in 11 Chinese provinces. But follow the wide ramp to the second floor, where you can look down on a wheat field, really 11,0000 aluminum stalks. The LEDs at their tips function as pixels, turning the wheat field into a giant DELETE TV***screen.
The U.S. pavilion was privately funded by a group that includes the James Beard Foundation and the International Culinary Center. For gourmet dining, the sponsors rented a space in the center of Milan—an expo outpost where America’s best chefs will cook during the next six months. At the fair itself, food trucks alongside the pavilion offer burgers, lobster rolls, and barbecue. A ramp made of wood recycled from the Coney Island boardwalk, sheltered by a 7,200-square-foot green wall, leads visitors into the pavilion, where an exhibition on agriculture is presented in pinball-machine-shaped cases. Overhead, there are more crops growing in troughs hanging from the ceiling; pavilion employees have been eating, and loving, the fresh produce. Lively videos, like one about how different ethnic groups celebrate Thanksgiving, play in a series of ground floor rooms. “There’s a balance between wanting to provide real content and needing to move a lot of people through,” says exhibition designer Tom Hennes.
The United Kingdom
At the Shanghai Expo, Britain stole the show with its “seed chamber”—a repository for heirloom seeds that, from the outside, resembled a giant dandelion. The British pavilion in Milan is a similarly gossamer structure—the artist Wolfgang Buttress created a beehive out of 130,000 aluminum connectors, and set it in an ersatz meadow. A glass floor allows intrepid visitors to stand inside the hive. Sensors attached to a real beehive in Nottingham, England, where Buttress lives, measure the insects’ activity and convert the measurements into light and sound shows. This is less a building than an art installation—and a grand science fair project.
All the fun is on the outside of this pavilion. Russia commands attention with roof that extends 100 feet beyond the base of its building, angling upward over a large plaza. The cantilever is covered in reflective metal, something like the Bean—the mirrored Anish Kapoor sculpture that has become the top tourist attraction in Chicago. With this vast angled mirror, no one needs a stick to take a selfie. The only catch: Estonia, a former Soviet republic, has a similar cantilever right next door, stealing some of Russia’s thunder. The Russians can’t be happy about THE JUXTAPOSITION***. World’s fair doesn’t mean world’s fair!
Slow Food Pavilion
The slow food movement was founded by an Italian, Carlo Petrini, so it was important that an Italian expo have a slow food building. PETRINI*** enlisted his friend Jaques Herzog, of the stellar Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron, to design the pavilion, which reflects their shared ideas about sustainability. (The pavilion is made out of renewable wood, and it will be repurposed, in small pieces, when the Expo closes.) Pull up to a long counter and order slow wine and a sampling of slow cheeses (10 euros altogether). Just try to avoid catching a glimpse of the crowded McDonald’s, a mere 100 yards away.
One of the challenges facing pavilion designers is luring people off the main thoroughfares and into their pavilions. Brazil handled the problem better than any other country. In place of a ramp or a stairway, its front facade reveals a giant rope net, a kind of knotted trampoline that makes a gradual ascent. Visitors, having fun on the trampoline, barely realize that they have reached the second floor, which houses an excellent exhibition on Brazilian agriculture, with plants growing in oddly-shaped pots that look ready for CULTIVATION*** on Mars.
Future Food District
Carlo Ratti, an MIT researcher, teamed with Coop, a European supermarket chain, to develop a large pavilion dubbed the Supermarket of the Future. With its sleek interiors, it makes shopping a pleasure, even if some of the promised features (“printing” your own meals, which are then wrapped in edible, spray-on packaging) seem less than than appetizing. This is a working supermarket, which makes it one of the best places to pick up provisions before exploring the vast fairgrounds. One the shortcomings of the Expo is the absence of any way to get around other than walking, a problem for almost everyone, and a disaster for the elderly and the disabled.
The first pavilion most visitors encounter—meant as an orientation to the Expo—may also be the best pavilion they encounter. Italian architect Michele de Lucchi designed a series of interlocking domes, then filled them with demonstrations of man’s genius at inventing agriculture—and carelessness in allowing it to despoil the environment. One great installation after another—models, sculptures, videos on giant screens—leaves visitors struck by the important lessons of the Expo.
The Holy See
The Pope has mixed feelings about the Expo—in opening day remarks, he warned that it “does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development.” But the Vatican is a quietly important presence at the fair. The exterior of its pavilion, a modest building that nonetheless suggests a cathedral, bears the words “give us this day our daily bread” in 13 languages. Inside the building, works by Rubens and Tintoretto inspire, and images projected onto a large table illustrate the theme “At the Lord’s Table with all mankind,” showing both humility and humor.
Countries that couldn’t afford to build their own pavilions were, in keeping with an Expo tradition, given sections of “communal” buildings. But there is nothing shabby about the buildings provided by the Expo organizers, which in some cases are as interesting, architecturally as the “country-built” pavilions.” Not only that, the ready-made pavilions left the countries free to spend their resources on content. I knew nothing, for example, about East Timor before I entered its pavilion (grouped along with those of other coffee-producing countries). The photographs on the walls, the products on display, and the friendliness of the greeters made me want to visit right away. That’s just what Expos are meant to accomplish.