Stephen Hitchins takes an informative and witty hike around the national pavilions of Expo 2015 in Milan.
Words by Stephen Hitchins
There is never a bad time to visit Milan, and this should be a good one. But if an Expo is symbolic of the host country, then the lingering question that will inevitably hover above Expo 2015 for its duration is whether this host, Italy, is making a comeback. To stage an Expo is to place a bet on the future; now we can see if that bet has been won. 'Feeding the planet, energy for life' is the theme, but then overall themes count for very little.
On a site six miles from the city centre, the bureaucratic delays have been entirely predictable, the corruption scandals were inevitably foreseeable, that the bid was rigged should hardly be a surprise, and that politicians at all levels have been caught up in wrongdoing something that could have been anticipated. Expo 2015 has been mired in controversy from the beginning. This is the country that not so long ago boasted the world's highest per capita consumption of concrete - and where the corruption seemed to have set hard. That all that graft has been uncovered by a former Mafia-prosecutor now heading the country's anti-corruption authority whose work has been praised by the American Embassy no less was altogether unlikely, and all the more remarkable for that.
For years, the dishonesty was matched only by 'pure disorganisation' according to Luca Beltrami Gadola, who tracked the evolution of the Expo on his blog Arcipelago Milano. The event has exposed some of the rifts in Italy today, from the government's strenuous efforts at reform, to fury at what many consider an event riddled with waste and corruption, its big green message hiding a big business agenda. With 43 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds out of work in Italy the youthful nature of the protests around the site was also to be expected. It is all part of a high-stakes game that is not over yet.
And yet the city has been transformed in the past five years from its skyline to its subway system, from its new museums under construction to the doubling of its green spaces, from its renovated Fascist-era railway station to the redevelopment of the Porta Nuova business district where a vast swathe of retail, office and residential space has grown, mostly upwards, just 1.5km from the Duomo.
Its gleaming facade has been restored. Will the event be a success? No, it will be a disaster, according to a local bartender near the site. (She had a knife in her hand... it seemed safest to agree.) Should you go? Of course! Avanti! It will be fun, this is Italy! The last minute is the way these things happen. Why should Milan be any different?
Some 20 million visitors are expected over the six months Expo runs. Some 19,000 jobs have been created on site, and four times that number off-site. There are 53 national pavilions (way down on Shanghai's record 246) set between 150 eateries, their quality may be gauged by the fact that McDonald's and Coca-Cola are official sponsors and partners, leading inevitably to the charge that the theme of sustainability cloaks the interests of commercial conglomerates. Leonardo da Vinci has been declared the city's 'hero' and the Palazzo Reale is staging a major exhibition of his work. The organisers are counting on the show generating €10bn, but Expos have a habit of haunting rather than benefitting the host city. This one has cost more than €1.5bn to stage, less than half the official cost of Shanghai in 2010, and only a fifth of the unofficial €50bn that news media later reported was the Chinese spent.
National design characteristics are once again laid out before me as I write this. From the rooftop of Russia I can see the USA. Iran is just around the corner. What might be implied by these various locations is anyone's guess. GB is hunkered down behind a steel beehive. Hungary is a funny organic Noah's Ark, the work of architects Attila Ertsey and Herczeg Ágnes Sándor Sárkány, Libeskind is responsible for a Chinese corporate, Vanke, and so the identity parade passes before me.
Meanwhile, Jacques Herzog, part of the Expo's masterplanning team along with Stefano Boeri, William McDonough and Ricky Burdett, who all walked away from the project in 2011, has said that the original plan to reinvent or least transform the event into a radically new vision for a world exhibition had become twisted into 'the same kind of vanity fair that we've seen in the past'. The team had wanted to stop building monuments to national pride, each one striving to be more spectacular than the next, pavilions sandwiched between restaurants and pissoirs, and to concentrate on content rather than architecture.
A tented structure was to have covered a grid of plots based on the cardo/decumanus orthogonal grid of the antique Roman city. However, he lucked out and the demands of tourism won the day. We shall have to wait and see if the upcoming Expos in Antalya, Astana and Dubai are any different. In the meantime Herzog & de Meuron has itself been criticised for creating 'a perpetual vanity fair' designing for themselves and their own egos in order to build market value for their clients. Your starter for 10.
For the UK, the eight-person studio of Wolfgang Buttress together with the Manchester office of BDP beat the combined talents of AL-A, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and Studio Myerscough, Asif Khan, Barber Osgerby, David Kohn Architects, Grant Associates, and Paul Cocksedge Studio in a competition to design the pavilion. The 14 cu m aluminium lattice weighs 30 tonnes, has 115,000 structural components, and more than 1,000 LED lights illuminated within the hive relaying information from a real beehive located 870 miles away in Nottingham, where Buttress is based. A meandering wildflower meadow leads visitors to an 'immersive sensory experience' designed to highlight the plight of the honeybee and a taste of the 'lasting flavour of the British landscape'.
For the USA, James Biber, a former biologist-turned architect, has created a 3, 250 sq m barn of a building with a vertical farm. It is driven by technology. Intended as a space for cultural events, the roof terrace featured 10,000 1m x 3m tiles to create changing patterns of light and shade and carry messages to the world and, being the USA, the architect noted 'messages to God'. He or She is unlikely to need reminding however, as The Great American Foodscape exhibition downstairs revealed that - wait for it - spaghetti and meatballs is a great Italian-American invention.
The German Pavilion. 'Fields of ideas' is the title of the German Pavilion concept. Companies Schmidhuber, Mila & Partner andNussell developed the concept for a three-tier pavilion inspired by meadows, fields and the German landscape. The exhibitionconcentrates on the topics of water, soil, climate biodiversity and the 'garden of ideas'. The Munich-based practice Schmidhuberspecified Egger's materials for parts of the interior
The pavilion's overall purpose appears to be that American culinary excellence has moved beyond McDonald's and Starbucks, symbolised by a large flag with a knife, fork and plate in place of the stars. Because no one was ever fired for hiring Pentagram, this was designed by one of its partners, Michael Beirut, fresh from Clinton's presidential campaign symbol that uses the same red, white and blue for Team Hillary - criticised for resembling a hospital sign that rather unfortunately points to the right. (FedEx was also seen as a source, along with a grocery store, WikiLeaks, NBC, etc, etc.) It sent the Twittersphere berserk when it was unveiled in April and was trashed by many professionals. Logo design is a bloodsport. Campaigns are hardly won or lost on a logo, but the American flag in Milan will be more quickly forgotten. It will only be seen in one place for a start, until 31 October, something that will not happen to Hillary Bold.
Luigi Barzini, author of The Italians, wrote that there has never been a nation so untouched by technology. So why not try the Future Food District? It turns out to be a grocery store operated by Coop Italia, the country's largest supermarket chain. Designed by Carlo Ratti, who runs the Sensible City Lab at MIT, the 20m-high canvas walls are used to project images of visitors produced by robots. Inside, if you wave your arms at something edible in front of you, the story of the food's origin is summoned up on screen. Fun, but. This is little better than the Spanish pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo of 2010, where the future was apparently in the hands of a not-very attractive electronically animated giant baby that is best forgotten.
Now the Spanish future appears to be inside a gable-ended greenhouse, home to small gardens and gastronomy; a visually light, spatially permeable structure designed by b720 arquitectos, the 30-person firm led by Fermín Vázquez and Ana Bassat from Barcelona.
With a 33m-long knife-edge canopy sailing out over the grounds, the Russian pavilion is eye-catching in a way few of the others are. The official Chinese pavilion designed by Tsinghua University in collaboration with the New York firm Link-arc has fantastic shingled-roof panels encasing an undulating field of LED stalks that present a range of patterns and images - a 'field of hope' in the hyperbolic language of exhibitions. The Japanese offer is a 'bowl of diversity' designed by teamLab, including a digital waterfall of information about Japanese food plus a strange optical illusion produced by a sloping dining table and set of 24 seats, cutlery and tableware, all by Studio Nendo. The land of the hexagon, France, has an eye-catching 3,600 sq m glue-lam structure of interlocking lattice girders and pillars covered in vegetation by X-TU, the minimalist firm of Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières from Paris known for its sustainable strategies. Inside is a food court and a shop. Yawn.
The Holy See goes with 'Not by Bread Alone', focusing on the symbolic relevance of feeding the world 'At the Lord's Table with all Mankind' and the fight against the 'culture of waste' in society. The 'modest pavilion' as it was called by Cardinal Ravasi at its unveiling is, however, adorned by a couple of pictures, a Tintoretto and a Rubens. The central structure of the Italian exhibit is a 'Tree of Life' that Chris Wilkinson has claimed is derivative of Wilkinson Eyre's 'Gardens by the Bay' in Singapore. Marco Balich, who was responsible for the Palazzo Italia, called Wilkinson's claim 'ridiculous'. The Nursery of Italy, as the building is known, is a permanent one and will serve Milan as a centre of technological innovation from next year.
More trees are in evidence at Vo Trong Nghia's Vietnam, where overlapping bamboo umbrellas support trees above a sea of water. The landlocked Czech Republic highlights its 'unique relationship to water' with a public swimming pool in a 'laboratory of life'. Foster + Partners created the design of the UAE pavilion redolent of a Richard Serra hot-rolled snaking steel sculpture from the bowels of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The serpentine ribbon meant to evoke the experience of walking through the narrow streets of an ancient settlement will be reassembled in the UAE's low-carbon Masdar City after the show.
The Mexican sculptural form is a big corn cob designed by Francisco López Guerra Almada, together with Jorge Vallejo and consultant biologist Juan Guzzy. Morocco gave us 'a journey of flavours' in a kasbah built of wood and clay with five gardens through which to stroll in Berber architectural style that characterises the south of the country.
Thailand's 'nourishing and delighting the world' arrived in the shape of a giant rice farmer's traditional hat, the ngob. 'I feel Slovenia' by SoNo Arhitekti looks to reflect the country's natural beauty inside a series of glazed wooden wedges. The Qatari demonstration of innovative technologies are located in a roof garden set above a huge jafeer, the traditional food basket, but here more than 10m across, and a souq - a spiralling exhibition space designed by Andrea Maffei Architects in 2013 sadly having been abandoned somewhere along the line.
Germany's 'field of ideas' in a 'supplanted landscape' concept by the Schmidhuber architecture practice in Munich with Miller & Partner from Stuttgart responsible for the content highlights of four sources of nutrition: soil, water, climate and biodiversity, inside a protective canopy that makes one think of little other than a discarded Calatrava sketch.
For the Netherlands, its pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover was believed to have generated €350m in long-term economic benefits for the country, more than 10 times its investment. In Milan if you are looking for it, do not be confused by New Holland, a tractor manufacturer with its origins in the USA that just happens to have a pavilion devoted to sustainable agriculture, and one that is far more impressive than the sunshades of Holland World, the official national entertainment exhibition.
The German Pavilion, at night. Egger's materials were used in the interior
For nations it is an express-yourself-in-a-building trial; for the hosts, Expos are inevitably seen as a key part of a strategic plan for urban development intended to act as catalysts for accelerating transformation of the infrastructure. From the Eiffel Tower to Disney's 'It's a Small World' boat ride in New York in 1964, from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Brussels Atomium, there is usually some symbolic legacy item that remains. In Milan it will be a very large park: 56 per cent of the site will remain green.
The love of illusion has played a pervasive role in most works of Italian thought and culture since the Renaissance; it is the serpent in the garden of that remarkably gifted land. Her political philosophy at times celebrated deception; her painters treated realism as a tiresome facade; on the stage opera singers wear masks as they intermingle, exchange roles, politely deceive and betray. It is, after all, tribute to the civilised wisdom of Italian life that the stiletto has usually been preferred to the bludgeon. But the mask is an essential prop. For a country that appears to have aged in the fast lane, has abused itself and has the scars and stories to prove it, the contest between hard-headed realism that lies at the heart of Machiavelli and the seductive appeal of illusion will always be there. The art of illusion is what Expos are all about, the governmental business agenda the background to every move an exhibitor makes. As a designer at an Expo one has total freedom within very strict limits. Sadly few in Milan this year appear to have pushed those limits.
Supernova of the architectural star system Rem Koolhaas has compared Milan to 'a pancake with few high-rise elements; the environment is so grey it needs a little colour'. Half an hour's drive south of the Expo site his practice OMA has injected some colour into the local scene with a gold-leaf exterior applied to what it has called 'a haunted house', so drab was one element of the 11,000 sq m complex created for Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli.
What began in 1993 as PradaMilanoarte, and is now the Prada Foundation, opened new doors to the public just one week after the Expo on the site of an old distillery in a downbeat industrial district. For once, there will be no Prada logo on the facade, and no architect-designed handbags on sale in the shop. Its eventual impact on Milan could well be more far-reaching than any design statement on view at the Expo.
They used to call Milan the big olive, this sprawling industrial powerhouse (Roma eats while Milano works, they would say) a city driven by fashion, football and fornication, a city of style over substance, sustained by the 60-second espresso. Rich and romantic, and full of life of course it is, but away from the Expo, if you get a chance, see the restored canals in the Navigli district, and La Darsena, the dilapidated old harbour that has been spruced up as part of the city's reinvention. Milan is not an easy place for visitors to know.
It does not have boulevards or shiny cafes like Paris. You learn to act on recommendations because the best places are often hidden away and do not advertise. And while you may not be staying in the new Mandarin Oriental Milan, if you wish to sample specialities from outside Lombardy you could sample farina and pesto-slathered Genovese specialities at U Barba, via decembrio 33, or Neapolitan pizza at Lievito Madre al Duomo, Largo Corsia dei Servi 11, an outpost of Gino Sorbillo's pizzeria that opened last year. Oh, to be in Italy. Fai un buon viaggio!