Weekend Expo Notes I: Future v. Past on Opposite Riverbanks

For the weekend, the first of a couple of random notes on Expo 2010 (World’s Fair) that I’ve had scribbled on an envelope next to my keyboard. First, Future v. Past …

Expo 2010 has grounds on both sides of the Huangpu River, with the Pudong side being home to the national pavilions (China, Japan, USA, etc), and Puxi home to the corporate pavilions (GM, State Grid, Coke, etc). For reasons both obvious and not so, most visitors tend to prefer the Pudong side, with its impressive architecture and long lines. But, as I’ve been saying and writing for two weeks, the Pudong-side pavilions rarely live up to their architecture, relying instead on stale video arrays to project their “national brands.” Meanwhile, in Puxi, the organizations that actually know how to project a brand – multinational corporations – have deployed some truly fun and innovative displays inside of pavilions that don’t – on the surface – look particularly compelling (Edwin Schlossberg’s playful ‘Shanghai Corporate Pavilion’ is a notable exception – but only at night). For example, my absolute favorite pavilion at Expo 2010 – the SAIC-General Motors pavilion – has a spectacular 4-D film that includes some wonderful imagined images of Shanghai circa 2030 (it has a whole lot more, too). Partial image of the very large screen …

I don’t want to give too much away, because some of these buildings – including SAIC-GM – contain some real surprises. But – to borrow author Virginia Postrel’s phrase (as spoken to me on a ferry between the two riverbanks) – they’re “more World’s Fair-y,” where “World’s Fair-y,” as a phrase (to my ears) summons up images of a gee-whiz 1950s America (relevant to note that Postrel is the author of the marvelous ‘The Future and Its Enemies,’) . That is, World’s Fairs (Expos), in the American imagination, at least, speak to a better future filled with technology that’s not only useful, but fun and tantalizing. The national pavilions, on the other hand, are very much backward-looking, disproportionately relying upon their history (I’m reminded of an animated video of armor-clad cavalry riding across the plains showing in the Polish pavilion) and values rather than their futures. Find out for yourself: go watch the somnolent audience reaction to, say, the film featured in the Chinese provincial pavilions (the fair factories of Liaoning Province!) as compared to the excited audiences that exit the GM-SAIC pavilion. That’s not to say that history can’t be fun – it certainly can be – but as deployed at Expo 2010 (at least) it’s much less engaging than the attractive glimpses of the future available in Puxi. So, to repeat myself – if you have limited time, go to Puxi (where the lines are usually shorter, anyway).

[And yes, I’m aware that there are exceptions on both sides of the river – one of which I’ll be discussing at length next week. Stay tuned!]


  1. Never would’ve pegged you as a technophile. interesting. There’s probably a good essay in this post if you were so inclined to write it.

  2. What would be really cool, Adam, would be stories about positive futures that focused on real-world domestic and global efforts to fight encroaching climatological and economic threats. Isn’t what “Better Life” is all about, besides ever more clever vacuum cleaners and smartphones? One half of the world is still poor and that number is growing. A fifth of the land mass could soon be underwater, unless we curb CO2 emissions. Oil and plastic are fouling the oceans. Serious education and social change is more important than gadgetry, since it can spawn the latter but in a more useful vein.

    I bet the SAIC-GM pavilion is cool, but do we really need more vehicles that ultimately, somewhere along the line, require energy that contributes to global warming? Do we need scanners for airport security and exotic health treatments, like those shown in the USA Pavilion, when basic needs like clean drinking water and quality food are so critical now in every region?

    World Expos have never been Meccas for those concerned with saving the Earth, but they have on occasion been gatherings of people who want to make things better. Shanghai should be the latter taken to the max. What’s your verdict? Real change or is the Expo simply cosmetic? Is the meta-story of international exchange sufficient to create projects that contribute to positive change, or are companies via pavilions coming to China just to arrange business deals? Hmmm?

  3. Snoot’s comment comes off just like one of the ANTI technologiests in Postrel’s book. Brace yourself because you’re going to get more. If you mention good left wing technology like what Apple makes (do they have a pavilion?) nobody on the left complains. Car companies = bad. Think different = good. ‘Good’ companies are just as greedy as the bad ones. The Urban Practices area of the Expo is for making money too.

  4. Snoot – In defense of GM, their pavilion includes quite a bit of material focused on reducing emissions, electric cars (prototypes, as well). At a minimum, they made more of an effort to meet the ‘better city, better life’ theme than 90% of the national pavilion. So I give them the benefit of the doubt.

    AG – Thanks for the comment. You are welcome here. However, you are not welcome to start flame wars here. In the future, try to leave an intelligent comment.

  5. Hey Adam! I just saw you on NBC Nightly News! Congratulations on all of your recent success from an old Minnesota compadre.

  6. thought i’d be the first to mention it – guess not. getting too famous for us back in the ol usa. first nbc news and next maybe you can get that deal with warner bros records finally? long overdue.

  7. Adam I wonder if you remember me from your freshman dorm at the U of C? I saw you on NBC earlier tonight. I am going to send you something through your contact details but in case it gets caught in a spam filter I’m leaving this with my email in the form.

  8. If I’m correct, the GM panorama city of 2030 was intended for the US Pavilion. Wonder what happened. Did GM pay more for it at auction?

  9. @Snoot: curious where did you here that crap? As I worked on these pictures I can tell they were designed for GM only.

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