Pure propaganda

The World Expo should showcase Kiwi ideas—but Shanghai 2010 is a missed opportunity.

The World Expo should showcase Kiwi ideas—but Shanghai 2010 is a missed opportunity

Tony Laloli

It’s not every day that a nation gets to display its technological creativity on the world stage, proving its worth as a 21st-century player. This year this opportunity will arise at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

World expos have been a tool for promoting the global economy since first-class travel for industrialists became a transatlantic reality. They have occurred intermittently since 1851, when the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industries of All Nations was held in London’s Crystal Palace.

This year, from May 1 to October 31, Shanghai will host the latest world expo. There are expected to be 200 countries exhibiting and around 70 million visitors. The theme ‘Better city, better life’ is the inspiration for the event.

An expo is about vision. It is about the future, creativity, innovation and national pride. It is a concentrated moment of cultural bravado. If the Venice Bienniale is art for art’s sake, then the World Expo is art for business’s sake. It’s about opening a cultural window into national dreams.

An expo pavilion is a dream commission for architects. The mandate is clear: anything goes, with an invitation to showcase eco-friendly materials and technology.

The 1970 World Expo in Osaka was the first time New Zealand contributed a pavilion. It proved to be a success with the Japanese: it was the only pavilion to be bestowed with a commemorative plaque upon its removal.

Our Shanghai pavilion has been commissioned under the direction of Phillip Gibson and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise following on from their experience at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. It comes hot on the heels of historic trade deals with China so NZTE is eager to make the most of that momentum, and has secured a prime position on a 2,000 square metre site in the expo grounds. The project has a budget of $32 million (up from $13.5 million in Aichi). Registrations of interest were called for and selected design teams were asked to submit ideas from which the winning team, which includes Warren and Mahoney Architects, Coffey Projects, Story Inc and Rider Levett Bucknell, have been endeavouring to produce a “showcase of both our lifestyle and the innovative side of New Zealand urban life”. Most members of the chosen team were also involved in creating the New Zealand pavilion at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi.

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Exposition Universal, Paris 1900, and New Zealand’s Shanghai 2010 pavilion

As an exercise in cultural propaganda, the NZTE pavilion ‘Cities of Nature: Living between Land and Sky’ seems to be hitting all the right notes with its themes of pristine nature. It will tell a modern variation of the Maori story of how humans were created, in which forests and people are seen as different aspects of the same creative spirit, and kapa haka groups will perform daily. With recent controversy around the 100% Pure campaign, let’s hope punters don’t get a whiff of Solid Energy’s somewhat incongruous presence as one of the key industry partners.

The theme should give us some pause as to what a post-colonial 21st-century New Zealand city could be. Although the proposed pavilion may allow 40,000 visitors each day a taste of kiwifruit, will it match the fantasy and imagination of other nations’ proposals of similar budget and scale? Does it deliver on the theme?

I say no. I don’t see any manifestation of any of the conceptual ideas inherent in the Maori creation story or the expo theme. A reliance on indigenous performers and clichéd images of landscape, sails and happy families is a 1950s vision of New Zealand. Those images could be presented via a website and virtual space. Why do they need to be set along an ascending ramp through a dark space in Shanghai? In New Zealand are we always walking uphill in the dark? Does the dark space represent our failing power supply infrastructure? Why isn’t the pavilion made entirely out of sustainably forested timber? Where is the capital P for 100% Pure? Where is the wow factor?

In short, where is the Kiwi can-do and know-how that was achieved in Osaka 40 years ago? A quick browse of other countries’ proposals at the expo website (en.expo2010.cn) shows the possibilities of 21st-century design technology. Most national pavilions are the product of rigorous design competition processes, and the resulting innovations bear witness to the success of this system. It’s unclear why this method of ensuring innovation isn’t used in New Zealand. A design process that values previous experience and relationships over ideas and competition will never produce innovation. Any project with public funding should be put to competition. It worked for the Dutch and most of Europe.

Hopefully we can repair the damage done by the so-called Queens Wharf Competition and won’t have to wait another 40 years for the chance to show the world we are leaders in turning ideas about sustainable futures into buildings and cities.