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:
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.
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.