BY Douglas Murphy in Influences | 01 JUN 10
Featured in
Issue 132

Vanity Fairs

Shanghai Expo 2010 is the most recent incarnation of the Great Exhibitions that began in London in 1851

BY Douglas Murphy in Influences | 01 JUN 10

The UK Pavilion designed by Heatherwick Studios, as part of the Shanghai World Expo, 2010. Courtesy: UK Expo 2010. 

A writer based in London, UK. He blogs at His first book, The Architecture of Failure (Zer0 Books) is forthcoming.

The Shanghai Expo marks the strange return to prominence of what had seemed to be a dead architectural tradition. Expos, or, as they were originally called, Great Exhibitions, Expositions Universelles or World Fairs, were huge temporary pageants dedicated to the notion of progress, but the last few generations have witnessed their slow decline into near insignificance. They have been the source of a great many of our most memorable architectural images, which is remarkable considering their highly ephemeral nature.

The very first world exhibition was the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents’, held in London in 1851. It was organized, in the words of Prince Albert, ‘to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived’. The exhibition building, the Crystal Palace, was a gigantic crystalline web of mass-produced iron and glass, a vast display cabinet containing over 100,000 exhibits, ranging from industrial machinery to raw materials, from fabrics to furniture. More than six million people visited the exhibition in six months; it was one of the most significant early moments in mass culture.

On the one hand the Great Exhibition was a way of symbolically demonstrating Britain’s lead in the industrial race, but at the same time it was an event that was born from ruling-class anxieties about insurgency; conceived in the wake of the failed European revolutions of 1848 and the Chartists revolt, the Exhibition was partly designed to promote class harmony through distraction. Many opposed it on the grounds that it was a target for revolutionaries, but not only did the red hordes fail to materialize, the exhibition united the clashing aristocracy and bourgeoisie behind the banner of free trade, inaugurating a new regime of spectacular capitalism – Walter Benjamin wrote that at the Great Exhibition, ‘the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value’. At the same time, however, revolutionaries would see in the Crystal Palace a symbol of the future just society.

Both Paris and New York would hold their own exhibitions within the following five years, and they would soon be repeated the world over. The iron and glass architecture that accommodated these events reached its apotheosis at the 1889 Paris Exposition with the construction of the Galerie des Machines (the world’s largest room) and the Eiffel Tower, which was and would remain the world’s tallest structure for the next 40 years. But the revolutionary architecture of the exhibitions was soon subjected to a bourgeois aesthetic reaction – the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was entirely draped in beaux-arts frippery, prompting American Modernist architect Louis Sullivan to exclaim: ‘The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.’

Despite the wider rejection of the aesthetics heralded by the early Exhibitions, the Expos themselves were still opportunities to display the most modern styles. The 1900 Paris Exposition marked the brief flowering of Art Nouveau, still visible in the ironwork of Hector Guimard’s Métro stations, while early streams of Modernism were also prominently visible. Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau was included in the 1925 Paris Exposition, along with the incredible Soviet Pavilion by Konstantin Melnikov, while Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s seminal Barcelona Pavilion was the German Pavilion for the 1929 World Exhibition held in the Spanish city.

Although they were inextricably linked to ‘progress’, the Expos could also be scenes of tragic regression. There is hardly a more poignant architectural image than that of the 1937 Paris Exposition, postcards of which show the ghastly kitsch of Albert Speer’s German Pavilion and Boris Iofan’s Soviet Pavilion practically head-butting each other across the Champs de Mars, as the Eiffel Tower looks down sadly, its Utopia in peril. At the same Expo, in the Republican Spanish Pavilion, Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was hung for the first time.

After World War ii, the Great Exhibitions never attained the same level of cultural prominence that they had before; the immaterial qualities of both electronic media and atomic science did not lend themselves to large-scale spectacles of this type. Nevertheless Expos would continue, occasionally still creating seminal works of architecture; Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis’ Philips Pavilion from the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, for example, was a unique, immersive audio-visual environment without equal. Generally however the tendency was that of decline, with some Expo sites even turning into futuristic ruins. The sight of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome from Montreal 1967 transformed into an overgrown skeleton after a fire in 1976, or mvrdv’s now dilapidated Dutch Pavilion from Hannover 2000, is uncanny; the disappearance of something that hadn’t had a chance to properly arrive.

The cultures that the Expos gave original spatial form to are now so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible; both vast shopping malls and super-museums (supermarkets of culture) are typologies that were first accommodated in Great Exhibition buildings. With this in mind the Shanghai Expo seems anachronistic, an old fashioned spectacle of a kind that no longer has purpose – the presentation-as-new of old space. But this is strangely appropriate: the architecture of the Shanghai Expo, its individualism and flamboyance, is eclectic in a way that is almost Victorian in its stylistic incoherence.

A curator who lives in Shanghai, China.

Under the banner ‘Better City, Better Life’ – a sentiment which, according to the organizers, represents ‘the common wish of the whole humankind for a better living in future urban environments’ – Shanghai Expo 2010 is the largest World Expo to date, hosting 189 countries and 57 international organizations. Seventy million visitors are expected to visit by the time it closes in October. Residents in Shanghai, many of whom have been given free tickets by the government, have been saying that, while the Beijing Olympics showed the world what China can do, the Expo is an opportunity for the world to show the Chinese what the world can do. Perhaps they have a point.

The Expo is a kind of virtual world tour, where locals can realize their dream of travelling to places that they have never been to. (I overheard some excited visitors asking: ‘Have you been to America?’ or ‘Did you see Japan?’) When I went, it reminded me of Jia Zhangke’s film The World (2004), which takes place in a theme park near Beijing that is filled with scaled-down replicas of many of the world’s most famous landmarks – the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Twin Towers, and so on. The Expo’s staging of the world introduces cultural icons from different countries as a substitute for the real. One of the most popular attractions is the Denmark Pavilion (themed ‘Welfairytales’) which was designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group and which houses the statue of the Little Mermaid which usually sits on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbour; it has been temporarily replaced by a video installation by Ai Weiwei, which comprises a live broadcast of the statue in Shanghai. Another star attraction is The Golden Lady, a 1923 war memorial which normally graces Luxembourg’s main square, and which now sits atop a three-metre steel column at the entrance of the Luxembourg Pavilion (themed ‘Small is Beautiful’), which looks like a medieval fortress and tower surrounded by a forest.

The Expo’s major art-related project is ‘Art for the World’, a sculpture park created along the central boulevard. It includes works by Dan Graham, Subodh Gupta, Zhang Huan, Liu Jianhua and Sui Jianguo, among others. Organized by French curator Ami Barak, the park is appropriately subtitled ‘The City of Forking Paths’ after Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’. According the curator it evokes: ‘a transposition into the complex and multifaceted contemporary metropolises in the form of milestones leading to the ramps of the modern Tower of Babel.’

Douglas Murphy is a writer based in London, UK. His book Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture (2015) is published by Verso.