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Some Must-See Pavilions at China's First World's Fair
by Urso Chappell

Note: An edited version of this article was published in FunWorld Magazine as "Like Epcot, Only Bigger... Much, Much Bigger." My photography was also used in the accombanying article "Around the World in 184 Days: All Eyes Turn to Shanghai for World Expo 2010."

Combine the ideas of a theme park, the Olympics, museums, performance venues, and a dash of the United Nations and you have a world’s fair. At over 1300 acres, this year’s event, Expo 2010, is sixteen times the size of Disneyland. At a projected attendance of 70 million, Shanghai will likely host the most attended public event in history. With nearly 200 countries participating, the support of US president Barack Obama as well as personal visits by hundreds of government officials from around the world, including unlikely figures such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you can expect there is a great variety to the hundreds of static and interactive displays, film, live performances, and even rides at China’s first world’s fair. To see everything takes weeks.

Some pavilions, though, stand out more than others and they aren’t always the ones you’d expect. Often, they aren’t even the ones you have to wait for hours to visit.

Australia Pavilion, Expo 2010   Australia

Eager to continue its ties with China and the Chinese people, creative director Pete Ford of Think! put together an outstanding pavilion combining amazingly detailed, cartoon-like exhibits presenting the nation’s history with a groundbreaking theatre-in-the-round show that mixes storytelling, music, huge rotating video displays that form an ever-moving cylinder, and sculptural elements that seem to magically appear from behind those displays. Both inside and outside the pavilion, which was designed to evoke Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), a seemingly unending program of live performances share Australia’s lively, optimistic culture.

China Pavilion, Expo 2010   China

Not surprisingly, the host nation has put together a huge pavilion filled with many types of experiences including historic displays, a series of living room dioramas depicting the last several decades (which bring to mind Disney World’s Carousel of Progress, itself a world’s fair show in 1964-’65), stirring widescreen film, and even a ride-through series of exhibits meant to evoke connections between the past and the present… using both literal and figurative bridges. The building itself is one of the few permanent structures on the site: a gigantic red inverted-pyramid “crown” that reaches 207 feet from the ground. Just as the 1889 Exposition Universelle’s Eiffel Tower became an icon for Paris, the image of the China Pavilion may soon become synonymous with Shanghai itself.

Chile Pavilion, Expo 2010   Chile

A wonderful, unexpected surprise, Chile doesn’t so much provide answers, but asks questions (in Chinese, Spanish, and English, naturally): “What does it mean to live in a city?,” “Why do you live in a city?,” and even “What is your neighbor’s name?” Literally turning things upside down, one display shows a typical city apartment in actual size but hanging upside down from the ceiling above a delighted audience. The pavilion wears its soul on its sleeve by addressing the expo’s theme of cities by talking about connections and relationships. The heart of the pavilion, and one that many visitors sadly walk past, is a beautifully crafted video presentation on eight large vertical video screens mounted on marble entitled “Eight principles to improve your city.” Arranged as monuments in a semicircle, an example principle is “Every city is unrepeatable: its culture and its heritage and its singularity and its distinction.” The pavilion is practically a thoughtful ode to city living.

Denmark Pavilion, Expo 2010   Denmark

Denmark deconstructed elements of Copenhagen and brought them to Shanghai… literally. A clean white modern möbius strip of a pavilion, it provides bicycles to ride, two cafés with beer and danishes, and fountains to play in… all surrounding a small pool with the actual Little Mermaid statue in the center, shipped in from Copenhagen for the six month run of the expo.

Latvia Pavilion, Expo 2010   Lativa

Surprising many that aren’t familiar with this Baltic nation, Latvia’s pavilion encircles a large vertical plexiglass wind tunnel that entertains audience with skydivers choreographed to upbeat electronica. Clearly, this is not your grandfather’s Latvia.

Netherlands Pavilion, Expo 2010   The Netherlands

The Dutch always put on an amazingly clever and delightful show at international expositions. At Expo 2010, architect John Körmeling created Happy Street, a spiraling structure with small buildings attached that seem to float in the sky above a green gathering space. Each little house presents a different slide of life in Holland. I suspect it’s the only place in China you can get a handmade stroopwafel (syrup waffle) hot off the griddle. It truly gives you a sense of what the nation is like.

City Being Pavilion, Expo 2010   Pavilion of City Being

One of several theme pavilions on this site, it should really be called the City Life Pavilion. It has some awe-inspiring, oversized, grand exhibits, but its 360-degree theater at the end is where it all ties together. Short visual stories are told showing city life around the world highlighting such events as Christmas in Edmonton and family’s move to Mumbai for better work.

Switzerland Pavilion, Expo 2010

The Swiss offer not only a unique shape to the expo grounds, but a ski lift ride that spirals up the center of the building to a roof designed to mimic the Alpine countryside, except this hilly meadow features fantastic views of the surrounding expo site, the Lupu Bridge and the Shanghai skyline.

United Kingdom Pavilion, Expo 2010
  United Kingdom

Perhaps the most unique and memorable pavilion exterior, the UK Pavilion is a large dandelion shape made up of clear, flexible, acrylic rods — each embedded with a different kind of seed. Nicknamed “The Seed Cathedral,” it was created by designer Thomas Heatherwick. The seemingly impossible structure brings in light to a small chamber in the center in the day and has a faint otherworldly glow at night.

Consider these pavilions to be the best entrees of an Expo 2010 visit. Just as you wouldn’t want a meal consisting just of entrees, a well-rounded tour of the site should include bits of  spontaneous experiences: see what Malta is up to… find out how Timor-Leste sees itself at its first expo… celebrate the World Cup in South Africa’s Pavilion… take a chance on a cuisine you’ve never tried before… or listen to a German rock band that you, and the mostly Chinese audience, have never heard of before. It’s usually the small and unexpected surprises that can make an expo visit for you.

Most people in the amusement park and attractions field will be familiar with Epcot, which was, in many ways, inspired by world’s fairs. They both have theme pavilions and national pavilions. One big difference, however, is that national pavilions at expos are more about how that country views itself in the present. Epcot’s national pavilions depict those countries as they are historically. Some of the most successful expo pavilions are the ones that aren’t afraid to  play with its own nation’s stereotypes and challenge the audience to think of that country, and  the ideas it presents, in a new way.

If you go, though, you best hurry. Unlike Epcot, you’ll never be able to experience Expo 2010 after it closes on October 31st. The vast majority of the site is temporary, designed to live on in the memories of the people that see it and the inspiration it will surely provide, particularly to its youngest visitors.

Urso Chappell | 1219 Parker Street, Unit B, Berkeley, California 94702, USA | +1.415.867.9994