The Chinese are used to long waits in queues. They patiently stand in line until they reach their goal step by step, be it under the scorching sun or in the pouring rain. One image seared in our minds from the Expo 2010 in Shanghai: the queues and the devices necessary to channel them: barrier tapes and fences.
The Expo in Shanghai is the largest of its kind ever. Something that really taxes the visitor. Expressed in figures, the fenced area measures 3.28 square kilometers and the Expo grounds as a whole 5.28 square kilometers, meaning it is approximately as large as Venice. Wide streets lead you from the newly built subway stations to the entrances yet the areas surrounding them are confusing. At the spots where you are supposed to pass the fence painted in white and blue with a ticket, people explain to you with any manner of gestures where to buy the latter. "Can you see it, back there, the office building behind the parking lot that says ‘China Telecom'?! In front of this building you will see many white umbrellas and that is where you will find the ticket booths." In other words, by the time you actually enter the Expo you will have already walked quite a distance. Behind the white-and-blue fence you then have to walk once again, this time to the security check, which is again some distance away and which has been reduced from the 50 originally planned to only five checkpoints that are actually open. You soon wish you had a scooter, a sedgeway, inline skates, a bike or any conceivable vehicle that would help you cover the distances.
The vast grounds, designed to accommodate millions of visitors during the day, seem strangely deserted at night. In general, the hustle and bustle of the first, euphoric days has ebbed. While the Expo was extremely well attended during the first few days of May, which are official holidays in China, only a little later the organizers started contemplating giving away tickets for free to attract more visitors. That said, waiting times in front of particularly popular pavilions decreased, if only from between four and five hours to between two and three hours.
The Chinese pavilion is the pride and joy of every Chinese visitor to the Expo. It stands a full 63 meters tall, and is thus three times higher than the other countries' pavilions, something guaranteed by special building regulations. Thus, the huge red building with the nickname "Crown of the East" is especially visible from a distance, dominates the exhibition grounds and towers above all the other buildings. Conceived to function as the landmark of the Expo 2010, the official construction costs were estimated to be €220 million - when the project was first launched. The architect masterminding it, He Jingtang, sought to design something that would look very Chinese: "Some say it looks like an old Chinese official's cap. Some say it's a kind of ancient Chinese cooking vessel. Some even say it's a grain barn. No matter what they think the image is, they all think it is very Chinese. That's what I wanted." The elements of which the building is composed, as is so often the case with Chinese cultural treasures, are all laden with meaning. For example, the red color of the pavilion used to be reserved for the Forbidden City, the 56 roof braces represent the number of nationalities living in today's China, and the roof surface follows a traditional Sudoku pattern.
How different is the German pavilion, by contrast: It looks like a blend of Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, and boasts a design that aspires to express the theme "Balancity - a city at equilibrium". The exhibition inside more or less explicitly presents the contradictions that characterize today's cities: Renew or conserve, innovate or preserve tradition, city or nature, community or solitude, work or leisure. Chinese visitors are relatively indifferent to all this, because they love the Germans and Germany, and patiently join the line of those waiting here as well. Once inside the pavilion, they will be overwhelmed with all kinds of information. Here, possibly too much is expected of the visitors who, given that there are more than 200 pavilions, are asked to take time to read a great amount of information panels and writing, explaining, for example the green belt concept used in Cologne or the significance of the Pfahlbaumuseum in Unteruhldingen. In comparison, other countries field presentations that are catchier and possibly tend to get remembered better.
This is true of Spain, for example, which has opted for a large pavilion with broad paths and housing three spacious rooms. In the very first room, visitors are exposed to sounds from all sides. Accompanied by powerful music, film sequences about bull fights, herds of horses and flamenco are screened on the vaulted ceiling. Sometimes, when the images are particularly dramatic, even the ground trembles. The first room is followed by less emotionally charged rooms and at the end an oversized baby in a sitting position sees the visitors off, leaving them with their heads full of questions.
It is the British pavilion that truly stands out among all the symbolically charged edifices and pavilions, among the geometrical nodes and golden waves. Together with the carefully modeled landscape around it, the "dandelion" has certainly achieved one of its goals: It has made it into the top five of the most popular pavilions. The building created by architect, designer and artist Thomas Heatherwick consists of more than 60,000 fiberglass rods into the ends of which, inside the pavilion, seeds have been inserted. The seeds stem from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew in southwest London and are part of the "Millennium Seed Bank Project", the world's largest seed conservation project. In other words, the architecture is a direct representation of the content, a reference to the seeds' potential, to the future they bear within them.
The Finnish, Dutch and Danish pavilions carefully guide their visitors into the respective building and through the exhibition shown there without leaving any paths unused. They resemble a loop which winds into the building and then upwards to accompany the visitors out of the building and back into the public space again. In fact, it would have been great had the Expo throughout made use of such a varied guidance system. All too often you feel as if you were on an asphalt parking lot instead of an ambitious theme park of the future. Temporary buildings as standalones that are positioned quite incoherently across a chess board in an urban desert with a typical small Chinese garden over here and a riverside promenade over there. What is missing is a clear red thread uniting them all. Evidently, the planners did not think of designing the space in-between the pavilions, which is why the city of Shanghai is often more appealing than this global exhibition. Of course, the Expo is visible everywhere in the city, too. Even in luxury hotels, the blue mascot is evidenced in lobbies in the form of a cuddly toy. The Chinese love their "Hiabao", which beams at them with rather non-Chinese looking big, round eyes. They are pleased to have the Expo in their country; they are proud and wish to be good hosts. Thus, millions of volunteers support the large-scale project, providing information and monitoring adherence to certain rules of etiquette: It is prohibited to walk through the city in your pajamas, for example; however, this does not prevent some people from doing it all the same.