Identity parade

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo is an opportunity for countries to represent their character on a global stage. But what do the shortlisted pavilion designs say about Britain the brand? Fiona Sibley took Wally Olins to the V&A to find out

At London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the six contenders fighting it out to shape how Britain is presented at the Shanghai World Expo in three years’ time have lined up their architectural models, ready for judgment by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

On the wall, corresponding posters outline the aspirations and concepts of the six teams – each made up of a coalition of practices chosen by the lead partners (see box).

The Expo theme is Better City, Better Life, and the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai is impeccably placed to host a public festival on the challenges of urbanisation. It is experiencing exponential growth rates, and has laudable plans for sustainable urban development.

Yet aside from this theme, the wider Expo aims remain prevalent. The Expo has always afforded an opportunity for countries to flaunt their cultural and economic successes to the world. And, since 1992, when Spain used the Expo in Seville and the Olympics in Barcelona to reinvent itself as a dynamic modern country, the event has been increasingly seen as a vehicle for national branding. This is a prime opportunity for Britain to brand itself.

The Government plans to use the Expo to trumpet Britain’s creative edge. ‘Expo 2010 is a fantastic opportunity to influence the world’s view of the UK as a creative hub,’ said Digby Jones, Trade and Investment Minister, at the unveiling of the designs. ‘It builds on the work already done by UK Trade & Investment to boost the image of creative industries in the country.’

But is this concept actually going to distinguish Britain as a brand, and set it apart from rivals? Not really, says branding expert Wally Olins, chairman of Saffron brand consultants.

‘We can say that we’re creative, but it’s just the same as what everyone else is saying; Germany and Denmark can say they are creative and it’s true. So it’s not unique,’ he says.

Looking over the design proposals, Olins notices a few interesting threads that could mark a way to brand Britain.

‘There seem to be two potential themes,’ he says. ‘First, that “islandness” is important. But you could take the cultural view that with air travel and the Web, islandness is becoming less important. And who’s to say that Japan is not the most important island now?’.

‘Second, there’s a mention [by the Draw Architects team] of the importance of the English language, and that’s very interesting. That might be the most important contribution we have made to the world,’ Olins claims. ‘The English language has made an enormous difference to how we are perceived, and from this idea you can then talk about influence, and what a huge influence Britain has had.’

Olins loves the idea of our language being the cornerstone of a national identity, but the competition has got his back up. He is irked by the absence of any explanation of the brief, and casts doubt on its quality.

‘What was in it?’ he snaps. ‘There’s a lack of continuity between the themes, so it’s clear that these teams haven’t been told anything. How can they work with that? These are invented concepts. You’ve got to be very clear about what the pavilion is supposed to represent. They’re very nice, but they could be from any country.’

Later, it transpires that a brief does exist, outlining the FCO’s aspirations to promote our creative economy, yet contained little more guidance, as Olins guessed, as to our national character.

Isn’t it the case that British identity is fractured and difficult to pigeonhole?’

‘It’s always fractured and difficult,’ says Olins. ‘The problem is that Britain has had four or five different ideas of what it is in recent times. Cool Britannia, for example, was a disaster, because politicians tried to implement it in five minutes.’

‘Creativity is something that won’t necessarily last,’ he says. Also given short shrift is Britain’s regular tendency to play up its values of tolerance. ‘Who wouldn’t say they were tolerant?’ sniffs Olins.

For him, Britain may be an influential modern country, but there are plenty of them about. Regarding his own consultancy’s experience, he says, ‘When we work on nation-branding projects, there has to be some kind of idea. The idea we have been developing for Poland is “creative tension” – the Poles have real tension with each other, but this can be good as well as bad.’

Would Olins like to be tasked with branding Britain? ‘Love to,’ he chirps.

Trust a brand consultant to question the brief, but perhaps Olins has a point. Could this event have afforded an opportunity to resolve the identity of brand Britain? l

The shortlisted models are on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until the winner is announced in September


Avery Associates and Sidell Gibson
An island pavilion surrounded by a lake promotes our island race and its achievements, while proposing a reconnection with nature as a way to create better cities

Draw Architects and DCM Studios
Our Island, a pavilion surrounded by water, will remind visitors we are an island nation, also with ‘whimsical’ qualities Heatherwick Studio The Pavilion of Ideas is a mass of light, structured as thousands of flickering cilia, projecting both light and ideas

John McAslan & Partners
The Ribbon of Culture pavilion will map out a journey through British culture Marks Barfield Architects Eight independent, but connected, tree structures will represent innovation in Britain, populated by user-generated content

Zaha Hadid Architects
The UK China Network Pavilion depicts Britain’s creative, cultural and economic structure, encouraging connections with China

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