Public diplomacy through Expos: The nine commandments for Expo pavilions
Some of the greatest successes in the history of national projection overseas have been accomplished by Expo pavilions: Finland’s presence at the Expo 1900 Paris was a spectacular ‘coming out party’ for the nation that predated the country’s independence from the Russian Empire by seventeen years. Weimar Germany’s pavilion at Expo 1929 Barcelona introduced the world to Bauhaus and created an enduring iconic modernist space and design.
The United Kingdom’s wartime appeal to the neutral United States at the beginning of the Second World War built on foundations laid by the splendid British contribution to the Expo 1939 New York. The United States positioned its pavilions at Expo 1967 Montreal and Expo 1970 Osaka to perfectly promote that country as the home of creativity and a partner for the future.
Such successes beg the question of whether there is a formula of success. Certainly, unlike space technology, which proved such a draw for the United States in Montreal and Osaka, great pavilions are not themselves products of - in that favourite American phrase - ‘rocket science’ - but they do not happen by chance either. Successful pavilions are products of great design and looking at the recent and longer-term history of Expos, it is possible to isolate a number of lessons for future designers: nine commandments that a well-considered pavilion should incorporate.
Expo pavilions are a tool of public diplomacy, and public diplomacy, like all effective communication, rests on effective listening. Successful pavilions shine because they are in step with the tastes of the Expo-goers. Word of a terrific pavilion spreads and, whether or not it is a favourite of the global community of architects or local prize juries, lines to get in begin to lengthen and its message spreads. This kind of resonance begins with a process of listening: the pavilion team pay attention to the tastes and culture of their likely audience and design a pavilion that will meet the audience where they are rather than where the funding government might wish them to be.
Good recent examples of listening include Denmark’s pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai and France’s pavilion at Expo 2017 Astana. The Danes knew that one of the few things Chinese people knew about Denmark was that it was the home country of fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen and that their favourite landmark in the country was the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen harbour. It made sense to transport the statue to Shanghai for the duration of the Expo and build the pavilion around it. In a similar vein, the French began their pavilion in Astana with figures who were best known to Kazakhs: the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and physicist Marie Curie.
Some nations are deft at shifting emphasis based on local opinion. In Shanghai, Israel presented itself as the country of Einstein; two years later at Expo 2012 Yeosu, the emphasis was more on the country of the Bible, which made sense in a country where nearly a third of people identify themselves as Christian. Notable failures in listening also include the Danes in Shanghai. The pavilion team failed to realise that the bicycles that also featured prominently in their pavilion at Expo 2010 were not seen as icons of the emerging green city as they were in Europe, but as relics of the 1970s in China, and moreover, that sending bikes with backpedal brakes of a kind unknown to Chinese riders would lead to broken bones. The miss-step led to days of partial operation and a scramble to find bikes of a more familiar design.
Following on from listening, it is important to be relevant. That means selecting themes that engage not simply with the existing knowledge of audiences, but that might add to that knowledge in a satisfying and emotionally rewarding way. It made sense for the British pavilion in New York in 1939 to foreground the shared democratic heritage of the United States and the United Kingdom by making the centrepiece of their pavilion an original copy of the foundational legal document from 1215: Magna Carta. They added resonance by using the copy held by Lincoln cathedral, making a connection to the most admired of American presidents.
The United States’ pavilions at Expo 1967 Montreal and Expo 1970 Osaka worked with things that audiences already knew about the United States – its technology, art and popular culture – and created immersive experiences to celebrate the best of that output. The Germans understood the appeal of their country’s musical heritage to audiences in Japan and built their Osaka pavilion in 1970 around that. It was a clever extension of the declared theme of ‘progress and harmony for mankind.’ Sometimes, a detail can add relevance. The Israeli pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai included a wall thanking the people of the city for sheltering Jews during the Second World War. It is always nice to be thanked.
The inverse of this is to beware of over-emphasising things that matter to you but are of limited interest to an outside observer. Poland has a history of sending representations of its history whether or not audiences are interested (witness the pavilions at Expo 1939 New York and Expo 2015 Milan). The Mexican religious art puzzled visitors in Shanghai who had no way to understand a sculpture of the Virgin Mary with a sword stuck in her heart until guides mentioned the contemporary monetary value of the gold leaf used in its creation. There will always be pavilions whose content appears wholly tone deaf and simply reflects the dogma of the point of origin. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Iran both fell flat in Shanghai, though the Iranian pavilion in Milan in 2015 did win fans.
The processes of listening and ensuring the relevance of the eventual pavilion are two aspects of a wider process of design. The great pavilions have been products of experience and design both inside and out. Expos are associated with iconic host buildings, many of which have in time come to symbolise the city for which they were created - the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Atomium in Brussels; the Space Needle in Seattle; the Oriental Crown (now the China Art Museum) in Shanghai. Some of the greatest pavilions have become equally iconic in their own right: the United States geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller for Expo 1967 Montreal being the most obvious, though the pavilion created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich for Germany in Barcelona has become an icon of design if not place.
In recent years, especially well-remembered pavilions include the Dutch pavilion at Expo 2000 Hannover created by MVRDV, the Spanish pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai created by the Italian-born Benedetta Tagliabue with its walls of basket work, the British pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan - ‘The Hive’ - created by Wolfgang Buttress with its emphasis on sound. Foreign architects whose contributions have been recognised by local Expo juries include - perhaps embarrassingly - Albert Speer, whose Nazi German government pavilion in Paris in 1937 won a prize, and the Soviet architect Alexey Dushkin, whose Mayakovskaya underground station won a grand prize at Expo 1939 New York.
Of course, a well-designed interior is as important as an exterior. Germany’s Barcelona pavilion was as influential for its furniture as its architecture. Masters of Expo design include Jack Masey, the man behind multiple exhibits mounted by the Cold War United States Information Agency. Successful interiors of recent years include that of Austria at Expo 2015 Milan (a transplanted forest) and those created by Germany for pretty much every modern Expo, though some feel these err on the text-heavy side. The Swiss Pavilion in Milan managed a perfect integration of its external form and internal message. The prize-winning pavilion featured towers stocked with Swiss food products, the floors of which lowered as the products were consumed so the building metaphorically consumed itself.
From the days when the motion picture pioneers stunned Chicago audiences of 1893, Expos have featured state of the art display techniques. Pavilions introduced audiences to ‘circarama’ immersive motion picture projections in the 1950s, multi-screen displays in the later 1950s and 1960s, and high-resolution and IMAX formats in more recent years. Some recent pavilions have looked to blend movement and large format projection. Kazakhstan’s pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan accomplished this especially well. Others have sought to work with virtual reality. A talking ‘hologram’ of Benjamin Franklin was a centrepiece of the US pavilion at Expo 2005 Aichi. More recently, smaller countries looked to individual virtual reality headsets to transport the visitor to the midst of their landscape. A deft use of this technology by the Republic of Georgia at Expo 2017 Astana was an effective component and a little gem of a pavilion.
Big audiovisuals can sometimes be a trap. Some exhibitors place too much emphasis on an innovative format and not enough on the quality of their content. Canada has never fallen into this trap. Historically, Canada gained much from partnerships between its pavilions and the National Film Board of Canada, delivering excellent documentaries in astonishing formats at multiple Expos. A second trap can be the bottleneck that pausing to exhibit a piece of media places on the flow of visitors through a pavilion, and the feeling that some visitors might experience of being captive and unable to explore a pavilion at their own pace. This was a major critique of the United States pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai.
Relatively small elements of design from some pavilions can have extraordinary reach. The best example is probably the uniforms designed by Mary Quant for the British pavilion at Expo 1967 Montreal, which launched the mini-skirt in North America. Sometimes, it has been the menu that provides the breakthrough: the Spanish pavilion at the non-BIE New York Fair of 1964/65 introduced the United States to sangria and in the process, helped to rehabilitate the regime of General Franco. Peru built its appearance at both Expo 2010 Shanghai and Expo 2012 Yeosu around its cuisine, and took a major step towards securing its position as one of the world’s great gastronomic destinations.
The good news for exhibits is that well-designed pavilions regularly surpass well-funded pavilions in impact. Some low budget pavilions that shone in Milan at Expo 2015 included the pavilions created by Ireland, the Holy See and Save the Children. Sometimes the simplest and cheapest installation can lift the experience of the visitor to another level. The Chilean pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai included a ‘well of the antipodes’ into which visitors could look and see a screen relaying images of Chileans looking into their own well on the other side of the world. The United States pavilion at Expo 2017 Astana included a backdrop of the Hollywood sign where Expo visitors could pose for selfies.
Amid all the attention to design, in an eloquent space full of stimulating materials it is easy to forget the human dimension. The experience of Expo visitors can often depend on interactions with pavilion staff. Since the days of Jack Masey, this has always been a strength of American pavilions. The United States has a tradition of hiring American students with local language skills to act as guides. The warmth of their welcome and their willingness to discuss the good and bad of American life and society has been a proven multiplier. The openness of the United States compared well to the reticence of other countries that tended to hire guides locally or to field personnel with inferior communication skills. Nations that have mirrored the United States practice in recent years include the Russians who had excellent multilingual guides at Yeosu in 2012. Israel delivered similar personal results through technology at Expo 2010 Shanghai, by setting up video links in their pavilion so that Expo visitors could talk in real time to Israeli Mandarin-speakers located at home.
The personal dimension can sometimes raise unexpected issues. Elderly Korean visitors to the United States pavilion at Expo 2012 Yeosu were not always happy with the American guides of Korean descent. While their language skills were fine, they found the absence of the locally expected extreme deference to age to be disconcerting in someone who looked Korean. Koreans did not hold Americans of non-Korean origin to the same standard.
The most famous misfire of a human dimension was undoubtedly the decision of the Belgian Ministry of Colonies to represent Congo at Expo 1958 Brussels through a living exhibit of indigenous people from that country. A similar exhibit had been criticised back in 1897, but in 1958 the world balked at what was seen as a human zoo with visitors throwing food to Congolese participants. The Congo exhibit closed just a few months into the Expo.
Pavilion designers often foreground personal engagement through giveaways of badges or food samples and by installing interactive elements in displays. Path-breaking displays included the IBM computer from the United States pavilion in 1958, which ‘answered’ questions about the country. With this interactivity in mind, today, some pavilions work more like theme-park rides than old-style static museum spaces.
Historically, one of the great multipliers of a national pavilion’s success is for the exhibitor to ensure that there is sustained interest in the pavilion from the home country. It is not enough to simply build and exhibit; real success needs ongoing evidence of a true national desire for a flourishing bilateral relationship with the host. The best way to demonstrate this is through visits of prominent citizens or even heads of state to the Expo. The high point of the British participation in Expo 1939 New York was the visit of the new king - George VI - and his young queen to the Expo. Their friendliness put the lie to American stereotypes of the icy Brit. Other examples of visits lifting Expo participations include the visit of Pope Paul to New York in 1965, or Jaqueline Kennedy and assorted astronauts visiting Expo 1967 Montreal. The Montreal Expo found celebrity guests to be something of a mixed blessing. Anti-Vietnam War protests overshadowed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit, while French President Charles De Gaulle distracted from the message of the Expo by stoking the fires of Quebecois separatism with his famous cry of “Vive le Québec libre!’”. It helped the United States pavilions in Yeosu and Milan to have visits from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A standard feature of Expos since a long time has been integrating performers from participating countries to the pavilion or performance spaces: particular successes included New Zealand’s great diva Kiri Te Kanawa at Expo 1992 Seville, and Canada’s Cirque du Soleil at Expo 2010 Shanghai. Kazakhstan wowed audiences in Milan in 2015 with a sand artist who created shifting pictures of Kazakh scenes for each group as they entered the pavilion. Germany not only designed its pavilion for Expo 1970 Osaka as a circular concert hall to the specification of its greatest living composer - Karlheinz Stockhausen – but also presented the musician in residence, performing to over a million visitors during the season.
Turning to the content of Expo pavilions, experience shows the special value in displaying authentic items. Like pilgrims heading to religious shrines, Expo visitors plainly crave a moment in the presence of an authentic object. Successful objects include the real Magna Carta and the British crown jewels at Expo 1939 New York, the real Little Mermaid statue in the Danish pavilion in Shanghai, Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican pavilion at New York in 1964, or the US Bill of Rights in Seville in 1992, all of which made an impact. The Spanish in Shanghai had the good fortune of being able to add the newly-won FIFA World Cup to their pavilion in 2010. For the United States, sending a moon rock to Expo 1970 Osaka was a sure-fire hit given that the Apollo XII moon landing had happened only a year before, but it took a more nuanced understanding of Japanese culture to understand that visitors to the pavilion would also be wowed by original relics of the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth. The exhibit included the Babe’s uniform and equipment locker. Expo-goers, including Prince Hiro, were delighted.
Expo visitors have a nose for exaggeration and distortion, and Expos and pavilions that stretch the truth are hostages to fortune, and run the risk of being denounced. Some designs have deliberately sought to include a country’s flaws. The United States’ pavilion at Expo 1958 Brussels included a presentation about the country’s racial problems (until the Senate intervened to close it down). The German exhibit in Shanghai included an example of a Stolpersteine or stumble stone, a small raised cobble stone set into the floor as a memorial to a victim of the Holocaust. Perhaps the most celebrated piece of work depicting a negative was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a painting depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, which was commissioned as a mural in the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at Expo 1937 Paris. Curiously, given its status in the history of art, it made little impression of visitors to the Expo. Of course, not all authenticity is relevant. The British Government was widely criticised at home in 1937 for focusing its Expo pavilion on aspects of British domesticity, including handicrafts and a giant photograph of the new Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, dressed in a fly-fishing outfit. The controversy laid the foundation for the United Kingdom’s attention-grabbing work at Expo 1939 New York.
One of the ongoing issues for any pavilion is the question of how it might connect to a wider community. Pioneering prestige projects overseas, Italy’s Benito Mussolini developed his contribution to the Century of Progress exhibition, Expo 1933 Chicago, in concert with the city’s Italian American community. The community raised money to raise a statue of Christopher Columbus that is still part of the Chicago landscape. Mid-century pavilions sought to extend their reach by hosting broadcasts and using the mail to distribute educational materials to schools. The British pavilion at Expo 1939 New York extended the reach of Magna Carta by mailing copies of it to schools.
Nations have used their pavilions as meeting points for trade negotiations and other exercises in outreach. Many of the pavilions at Expo 2010 Shanghai included especially elaborate reception spaces and their use as anchor-points for trade talks was part of the justification for their budgets. Beyond this, exhibitors have increasingly sought to use digital media as a multiplier of their pavilions. The websites of Shanghai had become Twitter, Facebook and other social media feeds in Milan. Sometimes the outreach has been physical. A number of Shanghai pavilions sent touring elements to venues beyond the Expo site. The staff of the United States pavilion in Yeosu impressed locals by taking part in voluntary environmental projects along the coast - showing a readiness to live the message of the pavilion of shared stewardship of the oceans.
The past is frequently invoked in Expo pavilions as they seek to revisit moments of cooperation or friendship with the host, or assert past national glories whether or not Expo visitors care (the run of recent chaotic Turkish pavilions fall into this trap). The commandment to remember the past should focus on the history of Expos themselves. It is important that the work of preparing for an Expo does not take place in a vacuum, but with an awareness of the history and accumulated experience of the participant country and of other countries. Pavilions do best when they have the benefit of a dedicated supporting bureaucracy for pavilion creation and operation. Most countries find a way both to prepare for Expos long in advance and to retain knowledge and experience from the past. A major element in the ongoing success of the United States on successive Expo projects in the Cold War was the embedding of its Expo unit within the supportive bureaucracy of the United States Information Agency. By this same token, a major reason for that country’s under-achievement in post-Cold War Expos has been the absence, until recently, of a permanent Expo infrastructure and restrictions on the expenditure of government money on Expos. At the time of this writing, the United States Government is in the midst of an overdue attempt to rebuild its Expo infrastructure within the State Department, to arrange an ongoing mechanism for federal finance and thereby clear a pathway to a return to the tradition of excellence displayed during the middle and later Cold War.
The final commandment for any pavilion must be to look to the future. Expos have always been festivals of the future, celebrations of the potential of human ingenuity, and places to see the latest technology. Great pavilions have engaged the future in two ways. They have understood the need to develop a legacy for their own exhibit. There is a history of governments commissioning great works of art for their pavilions and this work living on after the Expo. Picasso’s Guernica is the best-known example. From the same Expo in Paris in 1937, the mammoth Soviet sculpture of a worker and a peasant woman with arms raised in shared struggle (Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman) was shipped home for permanent display outside Moscow’s Russia Exhibition Centre (it provided the logo of Mosfilm studios).
While host country buildings regularly survive Expos, to begin with, the survival of a national element of a pavilion was a matter of luck. Amazingly, a replica Viking ship, which sailed from Norway to the Expo 1893 - the World’s Columbian Exposition - can still be seen in Geneva, Illinois, and Norway’s pavilion - modelled on one of the famous stave churches - also lived on; equally remarkably, the Japanese tearoom from the Expo 1915 San Francisco was relocated and remains a landmark in Belmont, California. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion did not even survive for a year but was lovingly reconstructed by Catalan architects in the 1980s in an acknowledgement of its significance.
By the second half of the 20th century, exhibitors aimed more consciously for legacy. The much-admired Yugoslav pavilion from Expo 1958 Brussels relocated to the Belgian town of Wevelgem. The frame of the United States pavilion from Expo 1967 Montreal lives in its original location on as an iconic exhibition space now known as the Biosphere, though it lost its acrylic skin in a fire some years ago. In the aftermath of Expo 1992 Seville, Canada donated its pavilion to be a trade school while Italy’s pavilion survives as a business centre.
While some pavilions settle on an afterlife only at the end of the Expo, the entire concept of the British pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai included its ultimate fate. The United Kingdom conceptualised the entire pavilion as a gift to the people of China. The design included a surrounding landscape shaped to resemble a newly opened piece of wrapping paper. The building was composed of 60,000 plastic filaments slotted into a cuboid structure, each one containing the seed of a plant preserved for the future. At the end of the Expo, the filaments with their seeds inside were dispersed to schools across the country as reminders of the Expo and the United Kingdom’s connection to China. The United Kingdom also ensured an afterlife for its ‘Hive’ pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan. The building relocated to Kew Gardens in West London, where it became an addition to the national botanical collection. The United Arab Emirates has a habit of repatriating its iconic pavilions created by Foster and Partners and making them part of projects at home. The country’s Expo 2015 Milan pavilion is now part of a sustainable project called Masdar City. In an era focused on issues of sustainability and recycling, it is wise to ensure that a pavilion has enduring value of some kind and cannot be branded a waste.
But beyond the humdrum matter of the fate of a particular pavilion, Expos have regularly engaged the future of humanity. The importance of visions of the future should not be underestimated. Visions of the future have the ability to reassure, to inspire, to rally and, maybe most importantly, to wean humanity away from its most corrosive obsession: its past. Visions of the future are more than one way to move beyond global crisis; they are the only way to do so. The world’s emergence from the Great War, the Second World War and the Cold War all required the articulation of a vision of the future attractive enough to inspire not only allies, but adversaries and much of those visions were regularly made material on Expo grounds.
Taken together, a well-designed national pavilion offers a country an opportunity to be known, and to open a dialogue with the citizens of the host country. The immersive experiences offered by pavilions provide a route into the consciousness of visitors of a kind that can only be matched by actually visiting the country, and which may even be more intense for their edited and refined quality, and for their ability to make an alternate future tangible. A wise country recognises the need to accumulate the expertise necessary to work consistently in this field and takes steps to pass the knowledge on within its bureaucracy. Diplomats need designers and do well to seek out their equivalent to Jack Masey and to cultivate and retain design expertise within the bodies responsible for mounting Expos, whether they are foreign ministries or cultural agencies. In a world in which a nation’s success rests on its reputation with global public opinion, Expos remain a staple of public diplomacy and a sound investment in building reputational security.
This article that initially appeared in “Image of a Nation: Country branding at World Expos”, the 2019 edition of the BIE Bulletin.
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