Sowing the seeds in Shanghai

Shanghai leads the pulsating beat of the new Chinese revolution. With a landscape gashed by crystalline skyscrapers and studded with boutique orgies on the Nanjing Road it’s fitting that the city should explore the evolution of urban life in the 21st century ; the stated aim of Expo 2010. Suky Jaspal reports from Shanghai and samples the Expo’s strapline of  "Better City, Better Life.”  (11 Jul 10)

There’s a palpable excitement in Shanghai as the city invites the world to its grown-up graduation ball at Expo 2010. Long gone are its speakeasies and opium dens and its longtang alleyways disappear to make way for the interests of cosmopolitan big business. Time will tell whether Shanghai graduates with a double first or a 2:1 but there’s no doubt that Expo 2010 is a monument to the scale of its ambitions.

And that scale is impressive; Expo 2010 is a twinkling techno-corporate carnival that aspires to attract around 200 nations and 70 million visitors during its tenure from May to 31 October 2010. The Chinese spent twice as much on this event as on the Olympic Games, a reputed 3.2 billion euros. The Expo Park site spans some 5 square kilometres of land on the Pu Dong area of the city and this is the largest World Expo that has ever been staged. 

Arresting sight - Anglo-Chinese relations thrive on site
My thoughts switch from statistics to logistics. Navigating all this will take far more time than I have on my Far East flit. How to narrow it down?  In the end it was a mixture of press intelligence, the ravings of Shanghainese colleagues that this pavilion was the best there and simple British allegiance that drew me first to the UK Pavilion.

Pavilion popularity means crowds, which means around 45,000 daily visitors - a lot of people in a lot of heat. The initial queues, which put the UK Pavilion in one publication’s ‘worth its wait in gold’ list, are somewhat mitigated by new measures. A Foreign Office Expo spokeswoman tells me that a better crowd- flow system and entertainment has alleviated major queuing in the heat issues.
The UK Pavilion's structure induces quizzical expressions all around, looking as it does like an art-concept carwash or a futuristic porcupine. On closer inspection the ‘quills’ of this six-storey high creature turn out to be a collection of slender, perspex rods.  Around 60,000 of these protrude from the structure and quiver in the wind reinforcing its organic appearance. 

The rods produce a fibre-optic effect inside the Pavilion as daylight travels along each ‘finger’ into the structure. In this cubed space the venue shimmers and undulating walls give it an otherworldly feel. The theme is biodiversity and seeds from London’s Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens are embedded in each of these transparent rods to make a striking ‘Seed Cathedral’ which will later be dispersed among children across China. 

The Seed Cathedral is reached by two paths emerging from the structure’s basement where the visitor sees the synergy between green spaces and water in UK cities and the work of architects in creating sensitive builds. The next area, the ‘Living City’ is a burst of foliage that reminds us of nature’s bounty and the need for preservation.

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on...the Seed Cathedral  awaits

 The design talent behind the Pavilion is Thomas Heatherwick. His team of architects, designers and builders are based in a studio in London’s King’s Cross and Heatherwick Studio is currently working on a major redevelopment of Hong Kong’s Pacific Place. “The Pavilion’s not recognisable in conventional terms,” he explained. “Each visitor will be able to explore in their own way. Rather than making a straightforward advert for the UK, we want our pavilion to give each person a more profound understanding of the richness of contemporary UK culture.” 

Leaving the ethereal atmosphere of the Pavilion, it’s with a small jolt that one emerges into the natural world. But acclimatising with nature is easy as we take in the river views and the blue Shanghai sky marked in the distance by the omnipresent Oriental Pearl Tower mast. Outside,  in the English garden the performances and street theatre continue so that visitors are in no hurry to rush off. As night falls this external area sets the scene for Shakespearean plays while the Pavilion glows yellow-pink in the background. 

Those expecting the inside of the Pavilion to be packed with shows and carnival themes will be disappointed. In fact, much of the allure concerns the actual structural design.  As my Foreign Office aide explains it’s about exploring UK themes and potential  rather than endless branding, video and PowerPoint .  “The Chinese have a view of the UK that’s still rooted in a rigid, Dickensian image,” she says. “We want to convey the enterprising culture of UK business particularly in the creative industries, which includes our impact on video gaming culture, and the potential of our financial sector.”  

It’s no surprise that the UK’s Olympic vision takes up presence at the Pavilion in the form of a 3-D ‘green map’. For business, the round-table dialogue and VIP delegations to be expected are informed by the calibre of the Pavilion’s private sponsors - AstraZeneca, Barclays, BP, Diageo and GKN – each of whom contributed £500,000. 

It’s a little like navigating the world by pavilion here as different zones articulate each country’s vision. In this pavilion village another ‘must see’ is the Dream Cube at the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion by New York firm ESL -   a multimedia whirl of dream states and visual innovation (see the film in our videos section). 

The organisers of Expo 2010 tell us that a "Shanghai Declaration" will be issued before the end of the event. Visitors to this country can’t help being struck by Shanghai’s cordial welcome albeit in the wider context of the free speech/access spat with Google, recent images of poorer inhabitants’ homes being forcibly mown down in the name of progress and a questionable human rights record.

The central theme of this Expo concerns business innovation and urban evolution making life better.  One hopes that the Shanghai Declaration will address, in some part, China’s growing pains as well as its undoubted ambitions and that the Expo’s ‘human-centred’ legacy filters down to indigenous China.

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