We Are Not Trying: the inexplicably weird Hungarian pavilion @ Expo 2010 (World’s Fair)

Say you’re a mid-sized Eastern European country without much of a public image in China. More or less suddenly, in 2006, you receive an invitation from Premier Wen Jiabao, inviting you to attend Expo 2010, the biggest and most expensive World’s Fair in history. You accept, of course – why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of this unparalleled opportunity? – and convene your country’s best minds to decide what, in fact, you’ll do with your national pavilion. You’re not a superpower, so you certainly aren’t going to take the approach of Germany, France, or the UK and (try to) build an architectural masterpiece; but you’re not Albania or San Marino, either, and you’re surely not going to occupy a glorified booth in one of the European group pavilions.

So what you do? Well, if you’re Hungary, you install a two-meter tall silver plexiglass geometric curiosity in the center of a 1000 square meter building and hire a handful of Chinese volunteers to explain what it is. No, really. That’s what they did. Here it is: the Hungarian Gömböc:

And here, next to the big Gömböc are three volunteers, with several pint-sized Gömböcs, trying to explain – in Chinese and English – just what this thing is to those (like me) utterly perplexed as to why Hungary would construct an entire pavilion around one.

Seriously, and this bears repeating: there is nothing else in this pavilion but that thing, that Gömböc. The display cases? Empty (seriously, they’re empty). No goulash. No Bela Lugosi. No Bela Bartok. No even a hint of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Just. this. orb.

So what is it? Well, according to this article (and there are many, many others) a Gömböc is:

… the first known homogenous object with one stable and one unstable equilibrium point, thus with two equilibria altogether on a horizontal surface. It can be proven that no object with less than two equilibria exists. The discovery of the inaccessible path has led to the idea of GÖMBÖC.

Needless to say, two Hungarians discovered it. In 2006, no less.

There was no queuing for the Hungarian pavilion when I visited it yesterday. Let’s hope – for the sake and safety of the good-natured Gömböc Explanation Team – there never is.

[In other inexplicable pavilion news, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos collects some early reviews – Chinese and foreign – of the USA pavilion. Worth reading.]

[Clarification: As noted below in the comments: as weird as this is, I actually really like it. Nice change of pace, and the only pavilion that I was still talking about – and blogging about – hours after leaving the grounds. Kudos to Hungary.]


  1. No Hungarian porn stars!!! Where’s Eve Angel??? Seriously if the Hungarians wanted to improve their image in china they’d promote their export of porn stars. There would be five hour lines if you had Eve there.

  2. Were the volunteers moving the thingies around to demonstrate? Because if I understand correctly the object will always roll around to come to rest on the same point (unless-theoretically–you could perfectly balance it on the second, unstable equilibrium point).

    And how many blocks was the line for this pavilion?

  3. It seems only fitting that with the exterior of many pavilions seeming like surrealistic reconstructions, the interiors should be dadaism updated to the 21st century.

  4. I understand your perplexity, and I see why many people would dislike this. But I want to say some words to support the Hungarian choice, because I really like it.

    This is precisely what makes the EXPO worth visiting for me, and this is what makes it different from a “World Tourism Fair” that some want to call it. Countries do bizarre things like this, with a high geek added value. I remember in Seville I really loved the Chilean pavillion which was almost entirelly filled by a piece of Iceberg!! Speak of representing Chile, LOL.

    Besides, The problem with European countries is that there are way too many similar folkloric traditions, and all those pavillions that try to represent their dances and folk art are Boooring. I dig Hungary and I am looking forward to more weird stuff!! I can’t wait to roll over theor Gomboc, I am sure it sounds like Bartok!

  5. Julen –

    Thanks for the great comment. It’s funny – yesterday I visited more than a dozen European pavilions, and the only one that I was talking about several hours later was … the Hungarian pavilion. It really is one of the strangest places at the Expo, and – when I get around to writing up my must-see list – it’s going to be on it.

  6. I read this and the first thing that came to mind was ‘Stranger Than Paradise. I think Eva and Aunt Lotte and Jim Jarmusch would get this perfectly. Awesome post. Thanks!

  7. I am of Hungarian descent – but – this post is hilarious. I’ll be coming to Shanghai end of June – great posts on the Expo – thanks.

  8. Thanks for blogging about this. Very appealing to a nerdy person like me! It’s things like this and the Seed Cathedral that would draw me to the Expo if I were able to go.

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