Monday, November 29, 2010

Exposition (Corporate)

It might sound counter-intuitive or perverse, but to really get the feel of futurism, delirium, pseudo-science and spectacle that should accompany any Great Exposition, you had to cross the river to get to the Puxi side of the Expo, or as everyone seems to be calling it, the 'corporate side' - the part that is a reminder that an Expo is, and always has been, one level little more than a glorified Trade Fair. Perhaps I thought that this was the area of true metropolitan thrills mainly because I got there as the lights switched on...

When you emerge from the Metro line that gets you from one side of the river to the other, the first thing you see is this - the sight of aforementioned concrete bridge illuminated in different colours (it's purple now, but in a second it'll be red, then yellow, then blue...) and, in the foreground, the sight of the turnstiles that process (some of) the millions of visitors. This is the Edutainment side of the river (a neologism I'm amused to find spellcheck now permits), a series of promotional and would-be-educational pavilions which may well be quite prosaic in the humid light of day, but which at night easily match their fancy-foreign-architect-designed equivalents on the other side of the river.

It's also here that the contradictions of the Expo's 'Green agenda' are most easily visible. Much attention has been paid to (eg) the sheer waste of the Expo (from its opponents) or to the use of electric buses as transport (from its supporters). On the Puxi side is the part of the site that indulges in some adaptive re-use. This was the industrial area of the city, and as its functions are hived off to the exurban pandaemonium of the Yangtze River Delta, it is freed up as another brownfield site, like any other in Northern Europe. As well as containing various shipyards, dock sheds and a power station, it was apparently also the site of the much older Shanghai Arsenal, the cradle of the Chinese industrial revolution - none of which has been preserved. Above is the Pavilion of Footprint, which has instructive material on the carbon footprint. It sits opposite OIL.

OIL is one of the most fabulous architectural objects in the entire expo, its polygonal form constantly pulsating with polychromatic electric colour, with Alsopian wonky pilotis underneath, similarly vivid. If there's one serious evident architectural innovation in this place, then it's the total fearlessness about using electric light in its most aggressive, least 'tasteful' manner, with extreme garishness and maximum effect. If you tried to do something like this in most European cities various excuses would be offered to prevent it - crassness, tastelessness, commercialism, 'light pollution'...or perhaps more convincingly, a massive drain on scarce energy resources. Yet these things are already lit up at night, so you don't bump into them. It's surely at least in part a continuation of Lenin's old equation socialism = soviet power + electrification, only with the first part of the equation forgotten. But it reminds of how Mayakovsky, when he wrote on Paris, scorned how 'the bourgeoisie, after inventing electric light, prefers to eat by candlelight'. The enduring affect of Shanghai as I remember it was a feeling of oppressiveness and difficulty interspersed with sudden moments of euphoria. Almost all those moments of euphoria entailed staring at neon lights. (or is this even neon? Is that a dated term for this light-technology?)

You see this approach to lighting in all manner of places, and it need not even signify 'futurism' or the metropolis - in Nanjing's historic centre, the ancient capital outlines its undulating and spiking roofs in contrasting strips of multicoloured neon. By way of comparison, imagine what would occur if there were a proposal to do the same to the dreaming spires of Oxford. Yet obviously there are certain unpleasant resonances, particularly in the case of OIL, which cannot be denied. The faceted end of it here is enlivened by a video showing oil derricks at work, which, like the skin of the building itself, is constantly changing. Inside, and hence the large queues, is one of those '4D films'; underneath, in English and Chinese, is a warning against pregnant women or those with heart problems entering the Pavilion.

This one, I know from the pictures at City of Sound, is of no interest whatsoever by day, a light-industrial shed of no note; but here, is the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion not at least slightly utopic?

Even more so, the Chinese Railways Pavilion, where the grid of the railways is the object of illuminated abstraction. If Expos are where an epoch dreams its successor, then the libidinal force applied here to the furtherance of public transport is somewhat more impressive than OIL; although here as ever there is never any sense that all these things can't happily coexist, no matter how antagonistic they might appear to intrinsically be. Again, it represents the ideal rather than the real, which in this case is the so-so mediocrity (in design, if not functional terms) of the Shanghai Metro.

Yet fittingly, given the central role of containerisation and shipping in China's rise to the world's second economic power, the thing here that is really special is the China Shipping Pavilion; here, as in Hamburg, containerisation chooses the best architects, perhaps in acknowledgement that it's a process which would have enraptured any Constructivist. This is another piece of adaptive re-use, this time of a shipyard, and the approach here - interestingly, given that it's there to represent such a closed and securitised system - is strikingly open. Piranesi comparisons are ten-a-penny over here, but there really is something sublimely carceral about these elevated walkways under the steel frame of the roof, all of them lit up for maximum noir effect; pace Non-Plan, it gives container shipping son et lumiere.

You can just walk up and wander round, here. No queues. There is an entrance at the side to the actual exhibits, but for the most part this is a permeable structure, which you can wander through at will, to your heart's content, although when I did so I can't say it educated me in any way about the activities of China Shipping. What it did do was offer a vivid sliver of Fun Palace openness and changeability, in a place which is otherwise based on a completely closed architecture. A city like the Expo would be nightmarish, largely because there's no courtyards, no indeterminate or communal spaces between - save for that lonely wetlands park.

The aforementioned closed architectures do throw up some fairly breathtaking moments, here very much by accident. I can't remember which the pavilion above and below are an advertainment for, but they are clear evidence that what might be mediocre blobitecture in daylight becomes something much more exciting when lit up, like strange neon grubs or larvae.

The above is a mere preamble to the corporate side's least popular, and for anyone expecting contemporary China to offer a viable vision of the future, most interesting Pavilion - the Pavilion of Future, heralded by a giant, illuminated chimney-cum-thermometer.

It's housed in a power station, just as it would be anywhere else, although they struggle to manage to fill the enormous space. Perhaps the reason why the queues are so short here (about 10 mins, less than the queue for Venezuela) is actually because this place doesn't get full easily. The Future Pavilion doesn't have any freebies, but it does have this:

It's worth enlarging this picture and boggling at it a little bit. In the stack here you can find a litany of urban utopias - Campanella, Plato, Francis Bacon, Fourier, More, Mumford, Wright, and the proverbial curveball, David Harvey's Spaces of Hope, sandwiched in just underneath The New Atlantis. The explanation for this collection is found on the opposite wall:

Yes, they really are saying that contemporary Shanghai is the fulfilment of the hopes of the generations, that they come to fruition here, in some manner; but this is not meant as a statement of complacency, far from it. In the room with the stack of books, various urban utopias, from Archigram's Walking City to the Ville Radieuse. There's a wonderful moment in the exhibit on Le Corbusier where, while in Europe or the USA you'd find the usual hand-wringing denunciation of all the evils he wreaked on the innocent slums, there's the line 'sadly, Le Corbusier's ideas were never fully appreciated in his lifetime'. Yeah!

After that, we're in the world of inexplicable symbolic sculpture. Well, some of it more symbolic than others: see what they've done there?

This salvagepunk Miyazaki mobile, a city skyline pieced together out of broken electrical goods, is quite something; a more libinally charged image of the possibilities of recycling than the usual, at least. In fact, it reminds me a little of the work of the Trocadero's finest salvage artist.

Then we're back to the serious matter of the Future City and what we are going to do to truly create a Better City and Better Life. Here's a couple of suggestions:

The first, 'Space City' is proposed by the Lifeboat Foundation, a fascinating Libertarian eschatological think tank, which, in a piece of impressive synchronicity, includes the historian of the 1939 World's Fair, David Gelernter, among its members. The organisation was started after September 11, and its aim is to preserve the human race, and the entirely unashamed telos of their plan for our survival is to colonise outer space. These really are people who think it's easier - and more desirable - to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Click on the picture to read the simple explanation of how their space city will work. Next to it is Eco City, which is based on this book, which essentially appears to propose a 'sustainable' Industrial Revolution, which is surely something we can get behind, irrespective of the minutiae; though one of the authors designed an eco village in China which has evidently been fairly botched (although at least it got built, unlike the flagship eco-city of Dongtan. Which was supposed to be open in time for the Expo. Tellingly, it is twinned with the Thames Gateway...). 'We need to reinvent everything' is a criteria of Eco City.

This is Energy City. I can't remember what the idea behind Energy City is, other than continuing with the general psychotropic illumination that Shanghai already specialises in.

...but I know what this is - Water City, which proposes that we grow artificial gills. And 'the views would be great'; and here, the prophets whose future dreams may be fulfilled are Drexciya. It looks beautiful, though doesn't it? Although all that electricity might lead to hazards with the water.

The future cities in the Future Pavilion rest on certain major assumptions, some more debatable than others. The first is that cities cannot remain as they are; the second is that they will face enormous challenges due to drastic global warming; and the third is that all ideas are of equal value, and that there is no need to set up an opposition between Space City and Eco City. Everything is equally valid - the barest hint of a contradiction and you suspect they'd start worrying they'd end up with a Cultural Revolution on their hands.

So in the corner, not far away from the underwater aquatic city, is this model.

It's a maquette of a gigantic energy-generating complex, and oil refineries go next to wind turbines go next to oil tankers go next to a cubic power station which goes next to pylons which goes next to serried cooling towers, just like those lining the charred landscape of the Yangtze River Delta.

There isn't the slightest hint that this energy-generating complex in its lurid, apocalyptic, radioactive green, or OIL, or Space City, or the Expo itself, might lead to the situation described so cheerfully in Water City. Evolution, presumably, will decide for itself. Below is one of the entrances, its turnstiles strikingly empty. It's late, and soon the pulsating lights will be switched off.

Previous instalments in this now-finished series of ruminations: Flyovers, The Juxtaposition, Megalopolis, The Future of the University, Expo (International). Comments on this and those are very much appreciated, and thanks to anyone who had the patience to read all of them...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Exposition (International)

It's difficult to quite capture the magnitude of the Shanghai Expo. In one sense, it's another example of the bizarrely retro-futurist nature of Chinese ultramodernity - the dams, the skyscrapers, the UFO-topped hotels, the neon - and here an Expo, the first to have received the slightest bit of public attention since Hanover in 2000, which was noticed purely because Kraftwerk did the (delightfully retro-futurist) theme tune, or the Calatrava-popularising Seville in 1992; but, basically, this is the first of any note since Expo '70 in Osaka. For Nick Land in his Expo book, this means China is waking us up from the long nostalgic sleep of postmodernism, letting us revel once again in the thrills of a real urban modernity. There is at least some truth to that. The first thing you notice in the Expo (above) confirms this, in that even here, the infrastructure is an enormous and unavoidable presence, the walkways lifting us from the tedium of the eyes on the street; and the second thing proves that things are really rather more complicated. That second thing is the queues.

This is the queue for the Australia pavilion. The Expo's site extends across an area on the scale of a decent-sized market town, on both sides of the Huangpu river, hence necessitating a metro line to get from the Pudong side (the international pavilions, the bit in the magazines) and the Puxi side (the national and corporate pavilions, a fascinating area so far only really profiled in English by Dan Hill at City of Sound); this comes free with your ticket. Reports suggest there were some major attempts to engineer the visitor figures above Osaka 70's record, with workers taken their on their holidays whether they wanted to or not; and those queues are astonishing. All around the site, giant screens inform you which Pavilions have queues that might last two to four hours. That most state socialist thing, an endless, bickering queue, dominates this showcase of dynamic, eclectic, ultra-capitalist spectacle.

And everyone not in a queue is taking photos. Like most of contemporary Shanghai, the Expo doesn't exactly discourage foreigners, but it's also pretty clear it's not for them; it's presented as a way of seeing the world without leaving China, as an enormous festival, as a temporary theme park, as an Olympics (the clean-up job on the city, in both senses of the term, was apparently more intense than Beijing's before 2008), a mass event, and emphatically not a matter for disinterested flanerie. It's about crowds, and woe betide anyone that can't take a heavy crowd here; by this point I had started to get used to it. Those crowds, or rather those queues, weren't so much there to look at the architecture, but the stuff inside - which pavilion had a '4D film', which had the best freebies, which was serving what food.

A visit was complimentary from Jiaotong University, and initially me and another participant in UK Cultural Week were taken by four young Jiaotong students; but Chris, who was writing (and has now written) an excellent essay on the Expo, which I shall plug when I know where it's published, had promised to meet me there, so I left my guides very quickly. Chris suggested we meet outside Venezuela; the route there took me through part of Europe. It's Bosnia that you can see above, one of many retoolings of a basic shed design provided by the Expo authorities for free for those who can't pay for their own architects. These decorated sheds had their moments, generally being more fun the less seriously they took themselves. Bosnia's child-art approach is curious, and certainly more interesting than the Czech Republic's good taste (though that looks interestingly like the fragments of a city map printed on the shed there): the undisputed winner of the Denise Scott-Brown Memorial Decorated Shed Award is 'Europe's Last Dictatorship', the post-Soviet state highest on the Human Development Index, Belarus. This piece of Mitteleuropean silliness is perhaps inspired in some way by the Belarussian Marc Chagall, or maybe it's inspired by chocolate boxes, Soyuzmultfilm and neoclassicism, but it seemed the most popular of the sheds for photographers either way.

The other way to reconfigure the standard shed is by adding a bit of 'architecture' (usually of the computer-generated, parametric variety, based on The Fold) to the facade, like so (courtesy of Montenegro):

Venezuela, our meeting point, had far greater architectural ambitions, housed in a rather excellent pavilion by Facundo Teran, a dramatic but non-ingratiating sculptural creation, its clashing volumes centred (in a manner which distantly recalls Melnikov's similarly politically charged Soviet Pavilion at the Paris Expo '25) on a steep staircase. While I sat here, one - I would say definitely not Shanghainese - visitor came and sat his son next to me, and went off to take a photo of him next to this amusing Laowai.

The Bolivarian Republic is next to its comrade in Latin American Socialism, Cuba, but sadly puts it completely in the shade - even within the limits of the free shed genre, a hell of a lot more could have been done than this:

...which clearly shows the likely very austere grip of the current sacking-more-public-servants-than-Eric-Pickles Raul Castro regime. However, those of us who still hold out hope for 21st Century Socialism found a great deal to admire about the Venezuelan Pavilion - in fact, its similarity to Melnikov and Rodchenko's presence in Paris in 1925 or El Lissitsky's in Cologne 1928 is much more than an aesthetic matter. The queue, however, was pretty mild - a mere 15 minutes - despite the no-nonsense signage, suggesting that word had spread among Expo visitors that there wasn't much to see in here.

First of all, the pavilion makes very clear that it takes the Expo slogan 'Better City, Better Life' more seriously than does perhaps its originators, only expanding it out rather further, across 'Mejor Mundo'.

The theme of the Pavilion is, quite simply, 'Revolution' - and bear in mind here that the last 'revolution' here, in the late 1960s, is now held in massive governmental opprobrium. Here, as so often with the Bolivarian Republic, they talk such a fantastic fight that if I judged the place purely on this pavilion, I'd probably emigrate there at once.

How can all this not sound just a little pointed? 'Everybody may get involved and take decisions in politics, economy and culture'' " a country where all are included"; and surely a subliminal reference to Shanghai's hyperstasis: 'a revolution makes everything move again'.

This chap is one of several people giving testimonials of all the things the Bolivarian Revolution has done for them - stories of collective ownership, co-operatives, workers' councils, of expropriation, of non-alienated labour, told by construction workers, teachers, slum youth. Chris points out that 'nobody reads the signs on anything in the Expo', so it is perhaps a little misjudged in its heavily textual approach. He does find one gentleman reading them very intently, and asks him in Mandarin 'so what do you think of all this talk of revolution?' 'It's great - but it'd be a long story to tell you why', was the response. 60,000 people were displaced from their homes to make way for the Expo.

The Pavilion is a series of rooms with canted stairs going off at angles from them, and on the ground floor, open to the air, there are several definitions of what Revolution might be, printed on cotton blinds. It is, respectively, Individual Revolution, Collective Revolution, World Revolution.

There is another sort of Future envisaged at the Expo, which we will get to presently.

This central part of the Venezuela Pavilion is where the freebies are given out - here, it's chocolate and coffee, and on the coffee tables are, in classic national pavilion style, descriptions of the country's cash crops; and, in far from classic national pavilion style, descriptions of its class and historical relations, like the role of the sugar industry in the slave trade.

The part where all of this suddenly seems to be too good to be true is at the back end, where you get a lovely view of a steelworks, one of the few non-adapted parts of what was once the industrial centre of China's greatest industrial city. At the back of the Venezuela Pavilion are thousands of red, plastic flowers, with the following message:

True enough. As any fool knows, the Bolivarian Revolution's reforms have been paid for by oil revenues.

Yet if there's a cause for optimism in the Shanghai Expo it's in this place, somewhere which argues that better cities and better lives aren't caused by throwing tens of thousands of people out of their homes, or by 'civilisation' campaigns aimed at the uncouth proletariat. Architecturally, too, it's more rigorous than most, its pleasures and surprises discovered through exploration and circulation rather than in an instant hit, a sight-bite (copyright J Meades).

After this, it's pretty much all about the sight-bite. Some of these are great, some quite diverting (such as Mexico's giant bloody great multicoloured mushrooms, above), some forgettable, some awful in either a good or a bad way. I only covered Europe and Central/South America, aside from brief peeks at Australia (Parametric, of the bulgy organic variety) and Thailand (Disney Orientalism), so this is a pretty partial view, not including such delights as Foster's 'sand dunes' UAE Pavilion. As has been pointed out, there are two common threads to the Expo's eclecticism - a folksy doilytecture, and the inevitable Parametricism, and most of the below cleaves to that, with a couple of major exceptions, one wonderful, one hideous.

Even great sworn historical enemies are united in their love for the doily. Above is the Cossacky wobbly hetman hats of the Russian Federation...

...and here is the somewhat more successful doily style of Poland, which in this case is combined with another fetish, the Fold (it comes from Deleuze, you know). I was very keen to go into Poland so I could bring something back for Pyzik, but it had a two hour queue, and they wouldn't even let us into the shop at the back when we asked. A few weeks later, in Warsaw, I would find out what the tempting two-hour-queue justifying freebie was - a big bowl of Bigos. The person who told me this seemed a little embarassed that this was the representative of Polish culture and cuisine, but evidently the undeniably culinary-sophisticated Shanghainese disagree.

Much (even?) less interesting was Romania, although there was perhaps a reminisce or several here of earlier Expo buildings, with the effect resembling Bucky Fuller designing one of those wildly popular Eastern European green-glass malls. It was also the most authentically, tackily theme park like in feel, a feeling supported by this Romanian tourist board poster...

...the more High architecture here also refuses to take itself seriously, insists on its Irreverence. So the Austrian Pavilion, below, might seem like a classic bit of smooth (not striated!) Parametricism, organic and futuristic and so forth, but click on the picture and look at what's balancing on top of it.

The Silly is however best represented by the Netherlands. There has been a curious change in the political and architectural perception of the Netherlands from the UK in the last couple of years - from bastion of tolerance to centre of anti-Muslim racism, and from centre of modernist rectitude to apostle of the new pomo. Even such a vulgar Marxist as myself can't quite conjure up a direct explanation for this congruence (as the new Dutch postmodernism is so far from being comforting, classical and Volkish, so clearly poking fun at any hint of Heideggerian notions of eternal dwelling), but there it is. The Dutch Pavilion, by John Kormeling, is called Happy Street. It combines two big silly ideas - a giant flower and an airborne 'street' of typically Dutch houses (where De Stijl goes next to the gabled), where one would have been more than enough.

Opposite Happy Street is the People's Liberation Army:

Although quite frankly, this is them at their least terrifying, with a not particularly purposeful or drilled march I know not where including at least one distant straggler:

There are actually some quite interesting things in the sheer complexity of the structure, its winding stairs, stilts and walkways, making it seem as much MC Esher as MC Hammer; but there is still something grating; perhaps it's because the irony in Happy Street is laid on pretty bloody thick. The ATMs are in a part of the Happy Street called Happy Money.

A brief cameo for the British Pavilion, which surprised everyone in the British architectural press by having one, distinctive visual idea - trite as the 'seed cathedral' might be, a fine piece of Expo greenwash - and sticking to it, with nothing extraneous stuck on to explain. Inside, apparently, it's the RSC and David Beckham, but the absence of slatted wood or barcode facades is both atypical and welcome.

Its simplicity is equally impressive in the face of something like the Swiss Pavilion, where greenwash is expressed via the green roof and photovoltaic lights which constantly switch themselves on and off. The thuggery of the concrete pillars is a bit of a surprise, though, a rare bit of visible construction, and a reminder of the Expo's spectacular unsustainability.

Like Murphy's Armchair Review, I'm going to make a general exception to this tale of more-or-less-interesting eclecticism and muddle - the Spanish Pavilion by EMBT.

The idea here is as pat as any - the façade is pieced together out of wicker baskets, which is a Reference to local craft; and the aesthetic of wood and organicism is usually rather tired; but this is still the clear stand-out of the international half of the Expo. The difference, the distinction, is not at the level of the conceptual imaginary, but the tectonic physicality, the corporal force; the way the bits of wicker are assembled, the way they bulge forth, and the way that the wicker gives a bristling, uncanny force to the whole construction - if this plays with metaphors of the 'natural' then it's a monstrous nature, suggesting strange and beautiful creatures that we haven't yet imagined. It's a bestial architecture, at the same time as being clearly the most cleverly detailed and fastidious construction here. I didn't go inside; by some accounts, the inside is less successful; but of all the Pavilions, it is unexpected to find that the one made out of baskets is the one which (in architectural, if not, unlike Venezuela, social, terms) really suggests possible new paths for architecture - which is, after all, surely the architectural point of an Expo in the first place. If the retro-futurist conjuring trick is successful, and Shanghai 2010 really does come to be remembered like London 1851, Paris 1889, 1925 and 1937, New York 1939, Brussels 1958, Montreal 1967 and Osaka 1970, then this will undoubtedly be one of the structures whose dismantling we will mourn.

There are a few things in the Expo which will not be dismantled. The China Pavilion, a futurist-traditionalist red pagoda which you can see in the background of the Australia queue at the top of this post; the Expo auditorium next to it, the walkways and bridges, the Metro line (obviously), and, more interestingly, a 'wetlands park' in the marshes along the Huangpu.

This really is a remarkable creation, mainly because of the suddenness of the transition - one moment you're in a massive crush of people either wandering, photographing or queueing, the next there's almost nobody else to be seen, and given the 'civilising' obliteration of portside river traffic (the barge above is apparently increasingly a rare sight), it is extremely quiet. It has the feel of a place already forgotten, and has a magnificent view of the world's largest concrete suspension bridge (I think), just in case it all starts to feel too placid.

Small, rickety-feeling constructions are the main architectural intervention into the park. There's nothing to see here, and hence the frankly astonishing unpopularity - you wonder whether surely at least a few people might make it here to catch their breath after one of the crushing crowds or the endless queues, but seemingly not. Or perhaps nobody's here because they know they'll be able to come back to it later, as it won't be erased in a week's time (these pictures were taken a week before the Expo closed), but more likely its values are rather different to those of the rest of the Expo.

At this point it starts to get dark, and the blue neon switches on, as do the little lights behind the lego squares of the Serbian Pavilion (which 'derives specific code out of multitude'), leaving the Spanish Pavilion dark and darkling alongside; and it's time to cross the river to the other side of the Expo, for the delights of Oil, General Motors, the Pavilion of Footprint, Urban Best Practices, and The Future.

Earlier Shanghai posts saved from drowning: One, Two, Three and Four. Next and final post: The corporate side of the Expo.