Learning From Las Vegas. Notes on the 2010 World Expo
- Fireworks in New York on July 4? Pretty enough. But I want more noise, more flash, bigger crowds, and an obvious historical context. Thanks to China, I’ve gotten used to having my symbolic moments more orchestrated. Something more heavy-handed, over the top, and obvious. Like the Beijing 2008 Olympics or the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.
Those of us old enough to remember Montreal ’67’s monorail and geodesic dome, the magic of the Unisphere as touchstone of New York’s 1964 World’s Fair, the Crystal Palace in Kew Gardens…well no one is that old. You get the point: the adolescent flush of newly felt power, shiny and bold; the magic of symbol large enough to walk through. Back before we were all jaded by theme parks, it meant something to be part of a nation that built monuments to its own economy.
Venturi/Scott Brown’s 1975 book Learning from Las Vegas – the Hidden Symbolism of Architecture
, was, among other things, a launch pad for the post-modernist doctrine that “Less is a Bore”. Architects of China’s powerful cities, fond of gimmick, doodad, gesture, and Flashing Lights, have learned indeed. Some takeaways on Chinese taste, culture, and mood, courtesy of the World Expo – a temporary Vegas on the Huangpu:
1. China wants to be overwhelming. If it isn’t Biggest and Most Expensive Ever, it’s not worth doing. A site that would take a least a month to explore fully? Perfect.
2. Aside from the tip top of the market, “Intimate” and “Quiet” aren’t the selling points. “On a scale of 1 to 10, the crowds are a 37” 热闹renao: “hot and noisy – is the term describing a good party. 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 95% humidity, blaring speakers, crowds nearing half a million daily for weeks on end, hour long queues in the hot sun? Let’s get a bus together and go!
3. The USA isn’t over. Despite coming together at the last minute, being architecturally uninspired in comparison to other country pavilions, and showcasing almost entirely - aside from the Committee of 100 exhibition on the Chinese experience in America – its own corporate sponsors, the USA Pavilion still draws the second highest number of daily visitors. Historical context and symbolism in play here. See point 6.
4. Nationalism is far from over. China is still the most interesting thing to Chinese. The number one pavilion is...well, guess. The most expensive one and the biggest one are both…The China Pavilion!
5. Chinese people are used to processing huge amounts of stimuli – so bring the bling. Flashy lights, a silly mascot, giant fiberglass animals, and the official China debut of World Wrestling
. Gimme your crass, make it big, or let’s forget about it.
6. History is always the context, and everything is symbolic. One hundred years ago, the sunset of the Qing Dynasty and the dawning of Republican China, China’s reformists wanted to hold a World’s Fair. As the stability-seeking CCP has made ‘China’s 5000 years of continuity as a nation’ its ultimate Key Message, so does the success of the Expo (Biggest and Most Expensive) symbolize that China Today can do what Dynastic and Republican China could not. In the idealistic west we think that legitimacy breeds success. In China and other top-down situations, success often breeds legitimacy.
Speaking of historical context and symbolism, why was the World Expo, a concept more or less moribund in the developed world, worth throwing some $50 billion at?
: The Great Exhibition: Britain’s declaration of global leadership, Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Expo: coming out party.
- New York 1939/redux 1964, Montreal Expo ’67: more Anglo American splashouts of power.
- The French in 1928 formed the Bureau International des Exhibitions (BIE) to spread – and regulate (what are the French without bureaucracy?) an apparently moneymaking concept beyond the Anglo-American world.
: Shanghai has breathed life into the World Expo movement because this is the 21st Century, and it belongs to China as did the 19th Century to England and the 20th to America. Also, Shanghai loves the French, and the Africans, and the Arab States, and Central Asians, and anyone they can do business with all over the world.
: it’s FUN to drive nails into the coffin of Anglo American dominance using a symbolic mechanism the Brits and Americans pioneered. It’s FUN for Shanghai to compete with Beijing – you do an Olympics, we do an Expo. Besides, any city that would turn down $45 billion in infrastructure money and an opportunity to play insufferably ambitious showoff – well, it wouldn’t be Shanghai.
Janet Carmosky is a career China business specialist. She moved to China in 1985, where she lived until 2003. She founded The China Business Network in 2008. See more on her profile.