Chinese whispers

After an elaborate opening ceremony broadcast live on state TV and an extensive corporate partner programme that has seen the official mascot Haibao appear on products and billboards across the city, the Shanghai World Expo 2010 has now settled down to its daily business of attracting paying customers.

Although queues for some pavilions are extensive, overall the site feels under-populated in parts, with staff outnumbering visitors at some of the entrances and restaurants.

While most media coverage prior to the opening focused on the architecture of the pavilions, attention is now turning to the content housed within them. Having spent millions on the construction of their sites, some countries have struggled to match the architectural vision displayed on the exterior.

Reverting to expo tradition, several appear to have been curated by travel agents and rely heavily on films and presentations that feature traditional costumes and geographic landmarks. Denmark should be acknowledged for having the sense of humour to follow this concept to its logical conclusion by bringing the actual Little Mermaid statue to Shanghai for six months, much to the consternation of the Copenhagen Tourist Board.

Among all these statements of grandiose national pride and achievement the UK pavilion [designed by Thomas Heatherwick’s team] seems small in comparison, in particular when compared to its Italian and French neighbours. When viewed from the top of Holland’s psychedelic ’Happy Street’ opposite, it resembles a strange furry creature within its enclosure at the zoo. Yet without doubt it is one of the most original and memorable pieces of architecture at the Expo.

The courageous decision to create a singular inside/outside design, whereby the content of the pavilion is the pavilion itself and vice versa, has been fully rewarded by an enthusiastic response from the public, resulting in long queues throughout the day.

The only criticism to be heard was from two Italians working in a nearby pizzeria, who commented ‘Yes, it is beautiful, but it’s not lit up at night’. Given the environmental focus of the ’seed cathedral’, this does suggest however that the subtlety of Heatherwick’s concept may not have been understood by everyone.

Pete Collard is a postgraduate curator studying an MA Curating Contemporary Design, at Kingston University in partnership with the Design Museum

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