The World Expo 2015 opened in Milan’s vast Rho exhibition centre in May of this year, and continues until October 31st. Following in the grand tradition of world fairs dating back to Victorian times, the Expo 2015 hosts the pavilions of 145 countries, and is themed around the concept of “Feeding the planet, energy for life”. We bought tickets at a stand at the airport, and paid around 80 Euros for a family ticket. There has been a lot of controversy over the cost of tickets in Italy, but it didn’t seem overly expensive when you compare it to the cost of major tourist attractions in the UK. So on a surprisingly rainy (but warm) Italian day, we headed off to the Rho showgrounds. I was expecting it to be busier than it was – the Expo website claims that 20 million people will visit over the six month period.
It is difficult to describe the scale of the Expo. The pavilions range from relatively modest affairs to architectural flights of fancy by some of the world’s most famous architects. We started with the Brazil pavilion, which caught our eye with its large wave-shaped tensile net structure that people were queuing round the block to climb over. Luckily for us, as we had a pushchair and small child in tow, so we were allowed to queue jump. The walk across the net was hilarious, as unless you were wearing trainers it was very difficult to remain vertical. I’m not entirely sure what it was supposed to be saying about Brazil and sustainability, but the net definitely got the kids’ attention and got everyone involved. After crossing the wobbly net, you could access the rest of the pavilion, which included an all-white display of ceramic containers, suspended from the ceiling, and containing sand or plants. The containers moved up and down as you walked through the display, and each one reminded me a little of a Tatooine home from Star Wars, but modelled out of glossy porcelain. Our next stop had to be the Brazilian restaurant, and here we realised that the critics are indeed correct – it is extremely expensive to eat in the Pavilions (unless you visit the McDonalds pavilion, which is presumably the same as every other McDonalds). Lunch was good, in a pricey kind of way – I chose a vegetarian platter, with a combination of rice, salads and veggies cooked in a Brazilian style, and the kids shared the meat version. The meat was probably the better option. The most cost effective way of visiting the Expo would be to bring your own food and drink, they do bag checks at the gate but I don’t think it’s prohibited to bring your own food. I have to say I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more in the way of freebies at the pavilions, you couldn’t wander round sampling food and drink, but then I guess if you are expecting millions of visitors this isn’t really feasible!
After Brazil, we left to explore the Vietnam Pavilion, with its evocative bamboo structures representing the lotus. The combination of water, bamboo and greenery created a restful space which felt like a little escape from the crowds outside. There has a been a lot of criticism over the size of the queues for some of the pavilions. When we were there (midday on a Friday) there were queues around the China pavilion, the UAE pavilion, and Brazil, but standing in a queue for an hour with a pre-schooler and a teenager isn’t really practical, so we just resigned ourselves to missing these. There is so much to see at the Expo, it seemed a waste of time to queue.
The reason I had really wanted to go to the event was to see the UK’s pavilion, which seemed to me to have one of the strongest design concepts. The theme is a “hive of innovation and creativity” and the pavilion was designed by British artist Wolfgang Buttress, along with engineer Tristan Simmonds and BDP architects. The theme was inspired by the work of Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University, who has conducted brilliant work in the field of research into bees and their hives. The central feature of the pavilion is a hive structure made of aluminium, and weighing 50 tonnes. The approach to the “hive” is through a winding path of raised beds, with traditional British meadow plants at eye level, giving you a “bees view” of the plants. As soon as you enter the pavilion, a soundscape of music leads you through the pavilion to the central hive. The hive is best seen at night, or early evening, when the 891 LED lights give the hive a truly magical feel. It is a beautiful construction, a thing of wonder. The UK pavilion is quite different to many of the other pavilions, which tend to be more traditional buildings, with the focus on the interior. The UK pavilion is an outdoor sculpture, or installation that you can stand in, or under. From a distance, the hive does look like a blur, a haze or a swarm of bees suspended in mid-flight. As you approach, you appreciate the solidity and strength of the construction. The aluminium structure is made up out of thousands of parts, assembled in a way that I can’t imagine, which is why I liked it. The impossibility of designing or building something so complex is exciting, and the contradiction between the visual lightness of it, and the actual strength suggests both the perfect yet improbable bee, and the idea that despite declining numbers, there is cause for optimism for the future of these great pollinators. Without sounding biased, the UK pavilion was my favourite. The United Arab Emirates may have their Norman Foster designed pavilion, there may be bigger and glitzier efforts, but the UK pavilion is both coherent in theme and execution, and is uplifting and moving in a way that works of art can be.
So did we come away from the Expo 2015 fully informed about sustainability and feeding the world? No. Frankly some of the pavilions contained little that was really engaging or interesting, and the kids were most impressed by the Coop’s “Supermarket of the Future” which was basically a supermarket with fancy touch screens giving you information about food sourcing when you picked items up. But from a design point of view, it is a great way to see the work of brilliant architects, artists and designers. You can taste lots of different food (for a price) and meet lots of friendly people from all over the world. It does make you think too – the UN have estimated that by 2050 there will be 9 billion human beings on Planet Earth – and while the population is growing, the amount of agricultural land is not. So you do come away with an inkling of how serious the predicament is in which we find ourselves, and glad that some people are coming up with solutions, as well as thinking about how we can be part of those solutions, and not just a passive part of the problem.