For over five years the only news about the 2015 EXPO in Milan was dismal. No concept, no site, no content, no cooperation, everything behind schedule, internecine rivalries for commissions, organized crime in the subcontracts, land speculation in the development, misplaced national priorities. Yet somehow Giuseppe Sala, the executive commissioner, and his team pulled it off and a more than decent event has taken hold. Despite a rocky opening on May Day, with terroristic vandalism by Black Block exponents in downtown Milan, the show went unfazed and the city proved to be surprisingly resilient—the day after Mayor Pisapia led hundreds of volunteers on a clean-up campaign.
The planning for “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” began with a willfully modest concept: instead of fancy pavilions, each participating country would prepare a cultivated plot featuring its national agricultural specialties. Once the deal for the site was made, however, the committee began to express doubts about the allotment concept and reverted to the conventional idea of showy national pavilions. The final plan retains the strong idea from the initial layout, a magnificent 1.5 kilometer long Decumanus, ariticulated with continuous scoop-shaped pergolas, reminiscent of a suq or even cognate with the city’s venerable Galleria.
The original vision of a single path served by a cross-axis leading to the subway station and subsidiary canals has been attributed to the Swiss archistar Jacques Herzog (of Herzog & de Meuron) , after brainstorming sessions with the Italian architect Stefano Boeri, British urbanist Ricky Burdett, the american eco-architect William McDonough, and the doyen of the Slow Food movement, Carlin Petrini. With the evolving politics of the event, which involved municipal, regional, state, and international authorities, this wellintentioned team was dumped, substituted by mostly unknown professionals. The ultimate feeling appears surprisingly democratic, in that the national pavilions must all be tethered to the grand axis and thus no single pavilion, excepting the Pavilion Zero at the start of the itinerary can be seen on its own. Thus Sir Norman Foster’s fantastically expensive “canyon” for the United Arab Emirates must share equal exposure and access with relatively cheap but evocative projects for countries like Sudan or Ecuador.
As one might expect Herzog has not withheld his disdain for the EXPO, griping: "These expos have become huge shows designed merely to attract millions of tourists...What a bore and a waste of money and resources!" His complaint has been reinforced by Petrini, who although he has remained in the organization of the EXPO, assails as a lost opportunity. Not such a coincidence then that Herzog designed an understated wood-framed pavilion for fellow dissident Petrini’s Slow Food, found at the terminus of the grand axis.
Petrini, of course, is absolutely right, and the hypocracy of “feeding the planet” has been reduced for the visitor to stuff your face. There is little else to do, considering the lack of interactive exhibitions, but to goggle at food and try to find the best things to eat. Instead of putting the work of farmers into focus, most of the pavilions partake in a global supermarket. France, which displays an ambitious potager at its entry, recalling the dense vegetable planting at Villandry, has stocked the interior with the typical products of its various terroirs, many of which can be acquired at the exit.
The US pavilion begins with an enormous billboard of the American flag and a high-tech fountain worthy of Disneyland. The country that has spawned several of the junk food sponsors of the EXPO, such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola, and prevails as the greatest dispenser of genetically modified crops, made a rather feeble attempt to produce vertical seedlings, most of which looked very seedy. Although Obama is at the end of his term, the prominently displayed video of he and his wife seemed more like a campaign ploy than an invocation to help the feed the starving.
The Spanish pavilion has an equally absurd vertical planting strategy, executed with surreal know-how: an extensive pergola for strawberries, which when ripe will presumably cascade down those sitting at the tables below. The most interactive, and thus popular shows were the Estonia pavilion, which provided swings between each of the bays of its wooden crate-like structure, Brazil, which invites the crowds to dare climb an enormous net to enter, and the Dutch who set up as sort of gypsy camp of junk food trailers of the sort one finds at amusement parks, many of which sell innovative foods, such as algae burgers.
The major show, Pavilion Zero, a picturesque mountainous ensemble of wood-covered halls designed by Michele de Lucchi, presents in its interior a deluge of images of food, cases of seeds, and piles of simulated wasted food. In case we are not aware of it, 30 to 40% of all food in developed countries is chucked out. But like the rest of the fair, there is not much in the presentations that challenges one to know more or to do anything about it, and the surreptitious presence of sponsors like Syngenta may explain why. The great multinational food monopolies such as Nestlé have too much at stake to join the ranks of Slow Food or follow the program of Vandana Shiva, who produced a manifesto “Terra Viva,” condemning point blank industrial agriculture as the source of human and environmental woe. Only a few exhibitions, the Austrian, which reproduced the microclimate of an alpine forest truly involved one in an experience. The British, designed by the artist Wolfgang Buttress, in this regard was superior to the rest. A grand spindly form which from a distance looks like a sphere inside of a cube, and closer inspection evokes the structure of beehives. Sensors have been placed in a healthy hive in Nottingham that produces the sound of the bee colony in real time. It seduces the viewer and begins to raise awareness of the fate of bees, subject to Colony Collapse Disorder across the planet, with the disappearance of from 30 to 60% of bees due to the extensive use of toxic herbicides and fertilizers. More than 70% of all edible plants rely on the pollination proved by bees, and without them, indeed, forget about feeding the planet.
Richard Ingersoll, teaches architectural history and design at the Politecnico di Milano and Syracuse University in Florence. His books include: Sprawltown, Looking for the City on its Edges (2006) and World Architecture, a Cross-Cultural History, with Spiro Kostof (2013).