From wonder to #whatever

(Above: Daniel Libeskind’s Vanke Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015)

Slumped in a scaly heap in the middle of Milan’s sprawling Expo site, like the cast-off skin of some overweight reptile, Daniel Libeskind’s pavilion is certainly hard to miss. Clad with 4,000 shimmering red tiles, it twists its way into a great faecal mound that couldn’t be a more literal representation of “the turd in the plaza” (to quote American architect James Wines’ damning description of much public art) if it tried.

But this isn’t any old ‘turd’. Designed to trumpet the arrival of Chinese property developer Vanke, the largest real estate company in the People’s Republic – which has built homes for 2.5 billion people to date and has now set its sights on conquering Europe – this is a turd with monumental ambition. It is the first time the company has built anything outside China; as a symbolic stake in the ground, it’s here to show it means business.

Yet for the astonishing €30m that Vanke has reportedly spent on its presence at the Expo, it might understandably feel a little short-changed. Inside Libeskind’s lumpen mountain, visitors are treated to a single blacked-out room filled with a forest of bamboo poles, a pond and a series of video screens playing promotional videos of picturesque villagers in rice fields. The visitor experience, which feels more like something you’d be subjected to while queuing for the real attraction, is the work of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the world’s largest exhibition design company – a firm so big, it seems it might not have noticed it had this commission, producing content as vapid as the architectural envelope is extravagant.

None of this should come as any surprise to the regular Expo-goer. Those forced to traipse the novelty gauntlets of expositions and salones, Olympiads and world’s fairs, will know the formula of the sponsor’s pavilion all too well. It must be a diverting enough object to be Instagrammed, hashtagged and liked, but little does it matter what goes on inside it. There is an unspoken assumption that few will venture into a three-dimensional billboard out of choice and willingly elect to be advertised at – unless, perhaps, there’s a free tote bag on offer.

But it has not always been this way. Brand pavilions were once test-beds of innovation, the medium through which young architects and designers could experiment with new materials and trial structures and technologies not yet ready to be deployed at full scale. New York’s 1964 World’s Fair was a sponsors’ jamboree, an unapologetically commercial showcase of everyone from Ford to General Electric, forged by the tyrannical will of Robert Moses and the crowd-pleasing magic of Walt Disney. But their spawn was truly innovative. Charles and Ray Eames, working with Eero Saarinen, produced a landmark pavilion for IBM that would change multimedia entertainment forever. Four hundred seated spectators were whisked aloft into a gargantuan white egg, where they were dazzled with the first immersive multi-screen presentation of its kind, mixing live action with video and multiple sound systems.

“It offers any number of possibilities for new forms of spectacle,” enthused Domus magazine at the time, adding that it “may actually be an invention which goes far beyond the occasion of the Fair,” making it possible to give people across the globe “the same up-to-date information, without obliging them to converge from far away distances at one point in the world”. Below the ovoid theatre was a live demonstration of what would one day be called the internet.

Montreal 67 was a similarly fertile laboratory for breakthrough ideas, being the birthplace of Bucky Fuller’s geodesic Biosphere, Moshe Safdie’s prefabricated Habitat housing complex and Frei Otto’s spectacular tensile tent structures, all of which would inspire a generation of architects.

More recent extravaganzas have rarely left such happy legacies. The Shanghai Expo in 2010, which forcibly evicted 18,000 families from the site, was the fateful event that made the designer Thomas Heatherwick think he could be an architect.

The feathery fronds of his photogenic Seed Cathedral for the UK pavilion wowed visitors, but none of his permanent buildings since have managed to live up to that ethereal promise.

For the London 2012 Olympics, young architects Asif Khan and Pernilla Ohrstedt bravely attempted to reinvent the pavilion for Coca-Cola with their interactive Beatbox, but the project ended up being little more than a jazzy facade screening lengthy queues for a free can of Coke. Still, at least it got a lot of likes on Instagram.

Oliver Wainwright is the architecture and design critic at The Guardian. He tweets @ollywainwright

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