A recent article in New Zealand business magazine Idealog discusses that country's contribution to Expo 2010, currently on show in Shanghai. I've long been interested in the architecture of Expo pavilions, and how they work (or not, as the case may be) as manifestations of a country's culture, aspirations, and identity.
The building that originally spurred this interest for me was Alvar Aalto's Finland Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair (below), where images are arranged on a vast interior wall evoke that country's Northern Lights. This effort to merge media and architecture is meant to produce an experience for the visitor that is unmistakably Finnish.
The anonymous author of the article shares my interest in the narrative potential of such buildings--many of which, if not all, take a page from Aalto:
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....
The author argues that while the New Zealand pavilion may adhere, in images and planned events, to its theme of "Living between Land and Sky," a sense of poetry and vision that extends to the pavilion's architecture is weak (and also implying that an Aaltoesque approach, applied today, is not special enough to achieve the intended effect). This is where the pavilion falls flat--perhaps tripping somewhere along its long, ascending internal ramp:
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.
The author also smartly calls into question the concept of a national pavilion itself, and whether such a physical representation of place is achievable, or even appropriate:
...Images [of New Zealand] 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?