The World Expo extends beyond just the remit of the event itself. Here, Andrew Saunders looks back at some of the greatest expos in history, and how they have influenced art, architecture and the urban fabric of the city around them
With no fewer than 246 participating nations, a 523–hectare site and attracting a colossal 73.1m visitors, Expo 2010 (above) is the largest and most visited Expo to date. Its size and impact reflected the scale of China’s ambition to cement the nation, already the second largest economy in the world, as a new force on the global political, cultural and artistic scenes.
It was also a major part of the country’s then new soft power campaign – its efforts to persuade the people of other nations that China’s famous ‘peaceful rise’ would be as good for them as it has been for the Chinese. What the 2008 Olympics had achieved for China’s international sporting image, Expo 2010 would do for China’s brand as a leader in tackling the shared challenges of 21st-century life and culture.
The theme of Better City, Better Life reflected the opportunities presented by the rising global trend for urbanization, and highlighted Shanghai’s growing status as a great world city.
It also enabled China to share its expertise of sustainable city building with the world, with some 260m Chinese living in its 15 largest cities. The low-carbon Expo site featured innovative environmental technologies such as rainwater harvesting and solar power.
A huge redevelopment programme was undertaken, which continues to benefit the people of Shanghai to this day, with a new airport terminal and a high speed rail line to Hangzhou and the construction of the longest metro system in the world.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, to give it its full title, was the world’s first international showcase for manufactured goods. Conceived by the British civil servant and inventor Sir Henry Cole (1808–82), it was organized under the patronage of Prince Albert.
Intended as a celebration of the material and cultural progress of society resulting from the Industrial Revolution, it was housed in a vast purpose-built glass exhibition hall, nicknamed the Crystal Palace (see above), in London’s Hyde Park. The thousands of exhibits from 25 countries ranged from the priceless Koh i Noor diamond to the latest printing machinery, from extravagant textiles and artworks to electric telegraphs, telescopes and musical instruments.
Over six million people visited – equivalent to one third of the British population at the time. It made a surplus of £186,000, part of which was used to establish the Victoria and Albert Museum, which formed the cornerstone of a thriving museum district and also led to the establishment of both Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall nearby. The area remains the heart of a vibrant centre for science and the arts to this day.
Like the Expo movement that it inspired, the Great Exhibition was optimistic and forward-looking, pointing the way to a brighter future for all nations. But it also established the Expo as a vehicle for projecting the soft power of the host country onto the world stage.
Fast forward more than a century, and the Expo had more than come of age. With the theme of Transportation and Communication – World in Motion, World in Touch, the 1986 Specialised Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia, focussed on fostering international co-operation and mutual understanding as much as showcasing material achievement.
Visitor numbers smashed all expectations – a total of 22m attended, almost 10m more than predicted. With 65 pavilions on the 70 hectare site on the Vancouver shoreline, Expo 86 featured 55 participating nations and was the first in which China, the US and Russia all took part. The Russian pavilion celebrated the 25th anniversary of manned space flight with a statue of pioneer cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and a life-sized replica of a space station. The Chinese pavilion featured a highly decorated replica of one of the gates to the Summer Palace in Beijing.
The Vancouver Expo was a milestone in the evolution of the Expo into a major force in both national and city branding, as well as a means of projecting Canada’s growing soft power onto the global stage. Opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales, the celebrity royals of their day, it was to transform Vancouver from provincial city to international centre.
The quality of urban redevelopment that accompanied the Expo has helped Vancouver become one of the Economist’s World’s Most Liveable Cities for over a decade, and to develop as a hub for the creative industries – it’s the third-largest film and TV production centre in North America and Canada itself has featured in the top five of the Soft Power 30 global ranking for each of the past three years.
With the theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, Expo 2015 in Milan continued the 21st-century trend for Expos to focus on tackling pressing world issues through international co-operation and understanding.
The 54 pavilions were built on 110 hectares of disused industrial land north of the city. They featured examinations of everything from the science of food safety and sustainable agriculture through dietary education and the importance of food in a healthy lifestyle, to displays on food’s central role in many of the world’s great cultures.
One of the most creative installations was chef Massimo Bottura’s Refettorio Ambrosiano. A pop-up soup kitchen staffed by Michelin-starred chefs including Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi and Alain Ducasse, it was a highlight of Bottura’s movement to tackle food waste. The refettorio turned waste food from the Expo’s other catering operations into dishes composed entirely of leftovers. It has since gone global.
Expo 2015 attracted 21.5m visitors and, as well as leaving behind a science and technology park for the city due to be completed in 2024, it also resulted in the Milan Charter. This sets out principles and objectives regarding nutrition, sustainability and the universal right to food, and was handed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on 16 October 2015.
Billed as a ‘Festival of human ingenuity’, Expo 2020 in Dubai will be the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region. Its theme, Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, is once again a major topic of global concern, but it is also a theme which resonates strongly with the host nation’s own priorities. As the capital of the UAE, Dubai wants to build on its existing profile as an innovative and forward-looking international destination which is keen to play a larger part in building the world of tomorrow.
Over 180 countries are expected to participate, attracting an estimated 25m people to the 240-hectare site – over 70 per cent of whom are expected to come from outside the UAE, which would be the greatest proportion of overseas visitors in the history of World Expos.
With a focus on collaborative entrepreneurship and the use of technology to tackle issues such as the rise of AI and its impact on the jobs of the future, Expo 2020 will explore the growing use of partnerships between small and large organisations to drive innovation and economic growth.
This story appears as part of our special Baku Expo 2025 feature in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of Baku magazine. Pick up your copy on newsstands now to read the full story and learn about the Expo bid’s exciting key players and initiatives.
Images courtesy of Hulton Archive, James Corwin, Corbis, Mohr, Ullstein Bild, Hufton+Crow, UIG and Getty Images
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