Portal to the Future

2010 Shanghai World Expo

By Thomas J. Campanella

World’s fairs and expositions have long served as test beds of architectural and urban innovation, but rarely have they been promoted as such from the outset. At the expansive Shanghai World Expo 2010, organized around the fetching theme of “Better City, Better Life,” urban futurism  stands at center-stage. The Expo enters the record books as the largest and costliest world’s fair ever held, though only time will reveal its ultimate impact on how we make and manage cities. Not surprisingly, expectations are China high.

Shanghai Qingpu New Town Construction Company
Photo © Nic Lehoux
The Expo Axis with the China Pavilion by He Jingtang.
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By now we have come to expect only superlatives from this nation of surging ambition, where a mighty building boom has rattled the earth for a quarter-century. China has come a long way from its Maoist days of red and gray, rice-rationing, and isolation from the world. There is hardly a product in our homes today not manufactured in China; hardly a category of building or infrastructure that has not been superseded, in scale and length and loft, somewhere in the People’s Republic. Two years ago, Beijing staged the most extravagant Olympic Games in history, with an opening ceremony that awed a world still used to thinking of China as an undeveloped nation. In part, the World Expo is Shanghai’s chance to outshine its northern sibling rival. But like the Olympics, the Expo will also telegraph to the world another must-read message about Chinese ascendancy. Even as the economic tide runs out from much of the globe, China is gleefully surfing the zeitgeist of our still-wet century. This summer Shanghai will show what a Made-in-China urban world might look like.

Similarities with Chicago’s expo in 1893

The United States did much the same thing more than a century ago, at a similar moment of acceleration to superpower status. In May, 1893 the proud fathers of Chicago opened the World’s Columbian Exposition. Nominally a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, the fair was really a celebration of Chicago—and America. It capped one of history’s great sagas of urban recovery—Chicago’s phoenix-like rebirth from the Great Fire of 1871—while signaling to the world America’s arrival on the global stage. Youthful and ambitious, the U.S. was the workshop of things to come, the foundry of the future. It had just conquered a continent and crossed it with rails, wires, and property lines; nothing was beyond its reach. More than 20 million people attended the Columbian Exposition—a third of the U.S. population at the time—and they caught a glimpse there of what an orderly, automated urban tomorrow might look like; “Better City, Better Life” could well have been its catchphrase.

The most dazzling aspect of that tomorrow was electricity, then still unknown to most Americans. Electricity powered the Fair’s 90,000 lights, animated its fountains pumped sewage, and propelled mechanical sidewalks and the world’s first elevated rail line. President Grover Cleveland opened the Exposition by throwing an electrical switch, and each night the fair consumed three times the electricity of the rest of Chicago. But though not an exhibit per se, urban design was the Fair’s most lasting takeaway. Frederick Law Olmsted’s master plan brought spatial discipline to the Jackson Park site, while the aesthetic unity of the buildings themselves—nearly all Beaux-Arts confections—was meant to inspire a lofty sense of civic harmony and order. It provided, as John Kasson writes, “an animating vision of American cultural achievement for an age of disorder, strife, and vulgarity.” For better or worse, the Columbian Exposition ushered in the City Beautiful era, setting standards for American urbanism that would endure until the arrival of European modernism in the 1930s.

Earlier experiments in urbanism

Just as the Columbian Exposition heralded the American Century, the Shanghai World Expo portends a coming century of Chinese supremacy. How fitting that Shanghai be its host! The city has long been China’s portal to the future, its most aggressively modern metropolis—the first to electrify; to provide municipal water and sewer service; to communicate by telegraph and telephone. Albeit, much of this was due to Shanghai’s status as a Treaty Port—a well-oiled machine that helped spirit China’s wealth off to London, Paris, and Tokyo. But it was also in Shanghai that some of the most progressive Chinese experiments in urbanism were carried out. The most ambitious was by none other than Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic. His 1919 “Great Port of Pudong” plan proposed a canal across the Pudong peninsula to divert shipping and commerce away from the Bund, leaving the foreigners high and dry. The 1930s Greater Shanghai Plan was inspired by a similar yearning to reclaim the city from foreign control, even if it adapted City Beautiful principles for its administrative core at Jiangwan.

Will the Expo extend Shanghai’s legacy of urban progress and innovation?  Will it change how we imagine and build cities the way the Columbian Exposition did four generations ago?  Its planners certainly mean it to. A visit to the Urban Best Practices Area (UBPA) offers a glimpse how. There, in what is arguably the Expo’s most original attraction, the organizers exhibit state-of-the-art urban planning and architectural practices on a 50-acre site. This is by no means the first time a world’s fair has dabbled in speculative urbanism. The popular Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—with its mechanized “Democracity” diorama of the American landscape circa 1960—celebrated a coming order of skyscrapers and sprawl. For the 1964 World’s Fair, Robert Moses commissioned a vast model of New York to showcase past and future improvements. But the scale and ambition of the UBPA is without precedent, and its relentless message—about sustainability, energy alternatives, and reducing our collective carbon footprint—is the most urgent of our age. How far we have come from the Columbian Exposition’s glutinous celebration of electric power!

The UBPA delivers its message inside  several renovated Mao-era industrial buildings and a series of standalone “case city” pavilions. In its pavilion, London  looked at its Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED), the first carbon-neutral community in the world, while Madrid erected a version of an innovative social housing project at Carabanchel by London-based Foreign Office Architects, with bamboo shutters, a ventilated glass curtain wall, and rooftop rainwater pool. The Rhone-Alpes pavilion features a daylighting system so efficient that if the four-story structure were used as an office building it would consume less energy than a single-family home. The Danish town of Odense focused its open-air pavilion on urban bicycle infrastructure, while Mecca offers visitors a replica of the membrane-roofed structures erected annually to accommodate Hajj pilgrims. The Ningbo pavilion introduces the model agricultural village of Tengtou with poetics rather than technology (“Life is where love flows and freedom grows endlessly and ceaselessly.”) Additional  municipalities— including Taipei, San Francisco, Cairo, Ahmadabad, Venice, São Paolo, and Porto Alegre, Brazil, (one of the few to focus on social justice issues)—took space in  the recycled industrial structures. The Pavilion of the Future, a reclaimed power plant whose smokestack is now a colossal thermometer, anchors the east end of the site and offers a wealth of interactive displays exploring the theme of urban utopia through the ages.

Instructive but less exciting

When the Columbian Exposition opened, Olmsted was alarmed to see bored expressions on the faces of visitors to the Court of Honor—the Fair’s gloriously didactic centerpiece. The White City, as the fair’s ceremonial core was dubbed, was an obligatory stop for visitors, to be sure; but most soon headed off to the infamous Midway, where they could ogle racist displays of tribal peoples or experience technologies of a more visceral sort—a ride on the world’s first Ferris wheel, for example. The Shanghai Expo has no such pablum, but its earnestly instructive UBPA exhibits don’t seem to be particularly  popular. This is the fault of geography and too much plannerly faith in the aerial view. Like Paris, Shanghai is split by a river; its left and right banks are very different places. Puxi—”west of the Huangpu”—is old Shanghai, the treaty-port city of the Bund. Pudong (“east”) is almost wholly a post-Mao creation, a caffeinated growth zone Deng Xiaoping famously called “the head of the dragon.” Shanghai planners have used every form of infrastructure to pull the city’s halves into a coherent whole, which is why the Huangpu is the most bridge-and-tunnel-crossed urban river in the world.

It’s also why the Expo was laid out neatly on both sides of the water. Yet, as any landscape or urban design student knows, the plan view seductively minimizes ground-level realities. That the Expo’s river-sliced plan would be experienced by visitors as a single entity is pure delusion. Worse, the goods have not been equally divided. The biggest attractions, including all of the national pavilions, are on the Pudong side, while Puxi seems to have gotten the leftovers. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that the Expo’s planners would put the good stuff in the East. Pudong represents China’s bold urban future, and its skyline might well be recognized now by more people around the world than New York’s. Symbolically at least, this is where the Chinese century begins, not among Puxi’s coal-dark masonry and memories of subjugation. This makes it doubly unfortunate that the UBPA, with all its bright-eyed optimism, was not placed on the side of China’s urban tomorrow but in Puxi, where fewer Expo visitors venture. One American attendee described Puxi as the Expo “ghetto,” and the UBPA “the ghetto of the ghetto.”

Of course, all this begs the question: In this age of globalization and light-speed communication is it really necessary to erect such a costly, energy-wasteful complex to teach sustainability in a world of dwindling resources? As with every previous world’s fair, most of the Expo’s structures will eventually be demolished. Despite all the lessons on greenness and sustainability, the pavilions are really not so different from single-use batteries or disposable razors (admittedly, much of the building material will be recycled). In 1893 and 1939—even in 1964—relatively few people traveled to other lands except to make war. World’s fairs shrank the globe and put ordinary people in contact with a wealth of new ideas and information; they were like brick-and-mortar Web browsers. Given our Googlized world of melted borders and mingled peoples, isn’t all this really just elaborate entertainment and a chance for a city and nation to strut its stuff? Perhaps; but then again, for millions of Chinese today global travel is still as remote a possibility as it was for the majority of Americans who streamed to Chicago in 1893. And for the rising generation of more affluent Chinese youth, who spend a frightening amount of time in cyberspace, anything that gets them out from behind a computer screen is a worthy venture indeed.

Thomas J. Campanella is a professor of urban planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the author of The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means For The World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).


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