All’s Fair in Seville

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – April 27, 1992

All’s Fair in Seville

A splashy Expo ’92 opens this week with a focus on both past and future. The best buildings don’t include one from the U.S.

FOR ALL THEIR POLYVINYL sheen and electronic gadgetry and spiffy biomorphic shapes, world’s fairs are 19th century spectacles. They are celebrations of human (or, anyhow, bourgeois capitalist) confidence, of mechanical ingenuity, of rationality, of progress. The first was staged in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, just as the 19th century was really becoming the 19th century. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, Edison exhibited his phonograph, Bell his telephone and Underwood his typewriter.

The 20th century has amply demonstrated machines’ nightmare side and thus tended to extinguish that kind of proud, dizzy, uncomplicated hubris. Its last full flowering was a generation ago, when the four full-fledged world’s fairs of the postwar era took place back to back, almost continuously: 1958 in Brussels, 1964-65 in New York City, 1967 in Montreal and 1970 in Osaka. And then, in the neo-Luddite, small-is-beautiful era since, we have had nothing — or nothing but piddling, second-and third-rank expositions that reflected (and self-fulfillingly confirmed) the tapped-out, lowered-expectations zeitgeist.

 It may not be morning in America anymore, but in Europe, with communism spent and the trans-Channel tunnel imminent, there is still just enough of the ; upward-and-onward spirit to produce a real old-fashioned (that is, circa 1970) fair in Seville — although, in line with recent fashion, it is not called a world’s fair but Expo ’92.

 Because a certain kind of modernizing hopefulness fuels such extravaganzas, prospering, postfascist Spain was the inevitable next place for such an event. The Spanish government spent billions on the fair and attendant public works, including a new high-speed bullet train that makes the trip from Madrid to Seville in less than three hours. Like any world’s fair, Expo ’92 has its fetching gizmos. The 231 IBM touch-screen computer monitors scattered around the 538-acre site are truly useful: a visitor, presented with an aerial photo of Expo, touches anything in the picture and gets a closeup view of the area touched — and then, with another touch, a still closer view of a particular pavilion or theater. Restaurant reservations can be made on the screens, video messages left for family or friends.

 But unlike all recent world’s fairs, Expo ’92 is not single-mindedly focused on wowing people with visions of the technology-intensive Utopia just around the corner. It is a comparatively backward-looking affair, a pageant of past progress. The official theme is “The Age of Discoveries,” and that pretty much means European colonization, featuring full-scale replicas of Columbus’ ships. In Europe, Eurocentrism is not yet a bad thing.

 Of course, any modern fair is obliged to give frequent lip service to a kind of chipper one-worldism (110 countries have exhibits — an all-time world’s fair record!) and to environmental sensitivity (organizers planted 300,000 shrubs on the site!). Moreover, the gee-whiz, spick-and-span perkiness found in New York’s Flushing Meadows in 1964 is strikingly evident in Seville. At any moment, one expects to see teams of Esperanto-speaking U.N. technicians in lab coats disembarking from Hovercraft to brief James Bond.

 The sense of mid-’60s retro time warp seems almost deliberate. The omnipresent piped-in music is a dated, Muzaky mishmash. Outside the vast white Pavilion of the Future sits the pan-European Ariane 4 rocket. There is a heliport and, of course, a monorail.

 The fair’s green themes seem more with-it. Hungary’s folkish, quasi- ecclesiastical pavilion was built out of Hungarian lumber by an imported team of Hungarian carpenters; it has a solitary, mysterious-looking hydroponic oak tree growing inside. The Netherlands’ eco-pavilion is exemplary, novel and fun. An open steel superstructure crisscrossed by escalators and ramps, this not-quite-a-building is wrapped, as if by a Whole Earth Christo, in perpetually waterlogged canvas netting, meant to cool the interior by 10 degrees or more. Expo ’92, like the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs, also has its obligatory giant globe, in this case a 70-ft. “bioclimatic sphere” that pumps out a fine cooling mist over a vast stretch of outdoor space.

 THE PLACE IS CHOCKABLOCK with fountains, almost all of them officially described as new-age outdoor-air-conditioning systems. Water gushes and gurgles almost everywhere. Architect Nicholas Grimshaw’s pavilion for the United Kingdom, a fine, robust example of the high-tech style at which the British excel, is the grandest, sleekest Expo aquatecture of all: the whole plate-glass facade, 60 ft. high and 235 ft. long, is a waterfall. A lovely, quirkier glass-wall waterfall, the work of the New York architecture firm SITE, defines a promenade along one of the Expo avenues. For almost a quarter- mile, the 20-ft.-high serpentine glass zigs and zags sensuously, paralleled by an artificial creek that catches the falling water.

 The Chilean pavilion has a 60-ton iceberg in an indoor pond. But it’s the well-conceived, meticulously wrought Norwegian pavilion that triumphs in the ice-water category. In fact, Norway’s building, a witty, sublime little Constructivist jewel box designed by Oslo architect Pal Henry Engh, is among the best at Expo.

 It consists of three objects — a tower, a tube and a black box. Visitors enter through a silver-and-black-striped tower. The interior walls are 29-ft.- high, 6-in.-thick ice sheets, making a perfectly Scandinavian space — frigid, shipshape, elegant and grave, a well-engineered mini-fjord. On into the 12-ft.-wide tube, which contains the exhibition space. Outside, the tube resembles a giant clothes-dryer ventilation duct and sits in a pool atop a black plinth — and inside the plinth, in turn, is an aquavit-and-herring restaurant.

 Although the Norwegian pavilion was not cheap (about $15 million), its very temporariness gave license to the designers to make it strange and wonderful, the perfect folly. But something is odd about the pavilions at this exposition: unlike the unmistakably fake, giddily impermanent stage-set structures of previous world’s fairs, these seem curiously normal, like buildings one might encounter in Miami or a well-to-do Arizona suburb. Over $ the past decade or two, as stylistic jags and economics have made buildings in the real world flimsier, zanier and culturally mongrelized, real-world architecture has pretty much converged with world’s fair architecture, and Expo ’92 can be judged by virtually the same standards by which one judges, say, Houston.

 Expo does not suffer in the comparison. There are a dozen works of intriguing, even distinguished architecture. Some of the 100-odd buildings seem commissioned by clueless bureaucrats inclined to toll-booth architecture, and several by well-intentioned arts-and-crafts types, but the surprise is how many compelling, even cutting-edge buildings have been put up. And there is not much correlation between national wealth and pavilion quality. A few small countries can be very proud, and some big, rich countries ought to be embarrassed.

 Like, for instance, a certain North American superpower. When the Expo turf was carved up in 1985, the U.S. was given the second biggest site. Architect Barton Myers produced a respectable design, but Congress dithered and finally appropriated a measly $13 million to build it. In the end, Myers’ scheme, except for a few details, was dumped. There are no roof, no sides, no back, only a front wall consisting of cheap wire mesh nailed to cheap metal studs. Inside sit a pair of geodesic domes previously used in trade shows, two huge Peter Max murals that look like souvenir-shop curios enlarged to billboard size, and a homely suburboid house that is meant to be typically American but seems quaint at best.

 It is hard to believe that this exceedingly lame showing is the product of the Reagan and Bush administrations; what good is blue-chip Republican Babbittry if it can’t mount an impressive world’s fair pavilion? Elsewhere at Expo, the Berlin Philharmonic will play, and Ingmar Bergman will direct Peer Gynt; at the U.S. pavilion, Arnold Schwarzenegger will stop by in September to judge a bodybuilding contest.

 World’s fairs have traditionally been epicenters of earnestness. Expo ’92 must be the first with strong whiffs of deliberate irony and in-your-face perversity. The Red Cross, of all people, has erected one of the edgiest, most bizarro world pavilions of all, with red steel I beams shooting past thin white metal uprights at queer angles, red brick walls zigzagging crazily. Deconstructivism, a fading fad, has found its perfect project not a moment too soon: according to an Expo spokeswoman, the architecture is an allusion to the Red Cross’s role in assisting victims of earthquakes.

 Other pieces of Expo have altogether different ambitions; they are neither good nor bad, exactly, but something else — Disneyish. The Saudi pavilion, a fake Arab ruin into which a fake nomadic hovel has been inserted, is like a second-rate SITE rip-off — except that SITE actually designed it. The South Pacific pavilion is a compound of grass huts (or was — it burned down last week, but is to be rebuilt promptly). New Zealand’s conventional steel-and- glass facade gives way at one end to a rugged Pacific promontory, complete with recorded ocean noises, artificial stones and plastic seabirds.

Disneyland opened in 1955, at the dawn of the last great Age of World’s Fairs, and Disney World opened in 1971, at its close. Neither date is a coincidence: the existence of Disney theme parks on three continents has diminished, if not spoiled, the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of international expositions. Florida’s Disney World in particular is a world’s fair manque, complete with Utopian subtext, we’re-in-business-to-help-people corporate pavilions and a giant sphere; and now, alas, Expo ’92 may be experienced as something of an imitation. “It’s sort of like Disneyland,” an Expo ’92 flack unhesitatingly said to a group of visiting journalists just before the first of the expected 18 million paying customers arrived.

The fun of Disney parks is a function of their homogenized high quality, their benign totalitarianism. Expo ’92, on the other hand, has real aesthetic lows and real highs, jewels, junk, surprises, quirks, genuine diversity. Disney parks won’t serve wine or beer, and operatives shut the gates tight by 9 on weekdays. In Seville the fair stays open until 4 a.m., night after bibulous night. Children may not have as much fun at Expo ’92 as they will at Euro Disney, but in Seville the hubbub is heartening and authentic, full of life as well as production values.