Expo Zaragoza 2008, the latest world’s fair, runs from June 14th to September 14th in Zaragoza, Spain. Situated a short high-speed rail trip from either Barcelona or Madrid, Zaragoza is Spain’s fifth largest city.
Under the rules of the governing body for international expositions, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), this is a “recognized” exposition as opposed to a larger “registered” exposition. As a recognized exposition, it is a smaller affair than Japan’s Expo 2005 and China’s upcoming Expo 2010. One can almost think of the smaller expos as the Winter Olympics of world’s fairs. As such, it is required to have a fairly compact site, explore a somewhat limited theme, and run for only three months (as opposed to six months for the larger expos).
By Urso Chappell
Expo Zaragoza 2008’s theme is “Water and Sustainable Development,” falling much in line with the current trend of environmentally-themed expositions. The 57-acre site is located along the Ebro River, a short walk from the city’s center. After closing day, it will form a portion of a large park that is being developed by the city.
Zaragoza’s world’s fair features a theme tower, the Torre del Agua, the Pabellon Puente (Bridge Pavilion, photo bottom right , bottom image) designed by architect Zaha Hadid, and what is said to be Europe’s largest freshwater aquarium. All three structures are permanent additions to the city’s infrastructure along with several other structures, most of which will house businesses and convention space after 2008.
The permanent legacy of an expo is significant in terms of the improvements it brings to the area. But what I love best about an expo is the ephemeral part of things - the various national and regional pavilions along with the exposition’s own theme pavilions - the result of months and years of heartfelt planning and design by exhibitors that will, except for a few structures, vanish after Sept 14. I spent a total of five days visiting all the pavilions on the site, and during that time I also caught many of the shows and live performances. I include here what I feel are some of the representative highlights of Expo 2008. At this writing, the event still has about five weeks to run, and in my opinion it is well worth a visit.
Nightly on the site, crowds gather along the Ebro River to witness Iceberg (right, top), a multimedia extravaganza that features powerful music, light projection, water effects, live performers, and video imagery. All of this is contained in an artificial iceberg on the river that unfolds to reveal a massive, artistic expression of the exposition’s theme. The soundtrack includes no dialogue (common for shows of this kind, in order to skirt language barriers) and for me, this adds to the emblematic power of the show, because it expands the possible ways in which it can be interpreted, and multiple viewings reveal new aspects. After a day scrambling around the site perhaps being a bit overstimulated, it provides a nice conclusion to tie up all the various issues about water that compete for attention in your head. And this all happens with an accompanying dramatic view of the Ebro River, a wonderful new pedestrian bridge built for the exposition, and the city center with its magnificent, centuries-old Basilica-Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar.
Germany’s Wunderbar Pavilion features an indoor boat ride with reclined seats. Choosing one of four languages, you ride through several scenes addressing the theme of clean water and the environment in somewhat whimsical ways. Following the ride are more exhibits that continue the tone. For example, an exhibit about toilets includes four flush cords, each with a different national flag, to trigger audio in the corresponding language. Little touches such as these can make an exhibit even more compelling and hold the visitor’s interest.
The host region’s pavilion, designed by architect Daniel Olano (bottom right, top image), was designed to recall a fruit basket. At night, large glowing pieces of fruit inflate to emerge on top. Supporting the structure are four thick legs tucked under the basket which are serve as entrances and exits.
After passing through several artistic and informational exhibits, you enter a large dark space that takes up the upper levels of the building. All four walls are covered with huge video presentations and dramatic accompanying music. Guests wander around the space which is divided by a small meandering river and the black masses that run through the whole building and provide support. The paths are punctuated with interactive projections on the floor and an occasional hidden art exhibit. It is a pleasant, thought-provoking environment in which you can spend an hour just wandering around, as the entire exhibit progresses every few minutes to address different themes and moods. These types of open-ended, self-guided exhibits allow patrons to spend as little or as much time as they want exploring a space.
Cities of Water Pavilion
One of the site’s six thematic squares, Cities of Water stands out to me as the most interesting from an architectural and design perspective. The entire structure is open-air and addresses the issue of water and its relationship to cities. The use of tile and other physical (i.e. “non-virtual”) materials is a welcome break from the many exhibits relying on video technology. I can’t imagine these amazing tile works will be easily discarded after the exposition. It’s a reminder that an exhibit doesn’t necessarily need to have flashy technology to tell a story.
Digital Water Pavilion
Designed with the help of the MIT Media Laboratory, the “DWP” sits just outside one of the expo gates. Ostensibly an information booth for the city of Zaragoza, this open-air pavilion has three curtains of water flowing around three sides of the building. Computer-programmed nozzles along the roofline turn the water on and off to create patterns (checkerboards, water droplet shapes, etc.) as well as text (“EXPO ZARAGOZA 2008”) in the falling water. The building itself is a minimalist rectangular shape that allows the falling water to be the main focus.
This is a wonderful example of a pavilion that’s fun just to watch simply because of its interaction with guests. Adults and children alike either make a gameof ducking through the gaps in water or purposefully cooling off in the falling letters and abstract shapes. The other guests become the exhibit.
Each of Spain’s regions outside Aragon is represented in a group of small exhibits bunched together along the eastern end of the site. A rather modest exhibit on the whole, Galicia’s Pavilion (top right, bottom image) stands out to me, nonetheless, as an example of how a powerful impact can be made with mostly inexpensive materials.
At first glance, the whole back wall of the exhibit may seem to be a standard video screen, but at a much lower resolution and with larger gaps between pixels. In reality, the cells are plastic food containers filled with water containing small red, green, and blue LEDs. Thanks to the low resolution, the images appear almost abstract and the slow rotation of images lets one contemplate each image rather than view it as standard video. The designers wisely placed several low-lying seats on the floor so that guests have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the environment, complete with a minimalist musical accompaniment. Amid the hubbub of a world’s fair, it’s good to remember where good “chill out” spaces exist for getting away from the cacophony.
Austria’s pavilion completely charms its guests with a simple concept and what I find to be a rather humanistic theme. After proceeding up a ramp, you enter into a theater with a large, inflated snow globe. (It's actually only one-fourth of a globe, reflected against a long, mirrored wall. Inside the globe are fans and fake snow to give the illusion of a snow globe.) A guest is selected by the pavilion staff as people are being seated. Moments later, the guest appears in the globe with a companion dancer dressed in traditional Austrian clothes. They dance a waltz for the audience. It was wonderful to watch the audience react.
These are just a few of the pavilions that stand out for me. Other noteworthy components of Expo 2008 include Spain’s national pavilion, the aforementioned aquarium, a daily parade performed by Cirque du Soleil, the Extreme Water Pavilion, and the Japan Pavilion.
Sadly, you won’t see the pavilions of the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom on any list of the best of Expo 2008. All three countries were surprisingly absent from the expo.
The Zaragoza exposition runs until September 14th. If you don’t get a chance to see it, China’s much larger Shanghai Expo 2010 will run for six months and boasts the largest site ever for a world’s fair (beating out St. Louis 1904) and a record number of participating nations (at least 200). And if Shanghai meets its estimated projection of 70 million to 100 million visits, it should easily best the numbers of Osaka Expo 70.
Urso Chappell is a designer and the founder of ExpoMuseum.com, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. He has attended seven world’s fairs to date and was the winner of Expo 2005’s Linimo Design Competition.
Update on Zaragoza Expo 08
The Eye, the Dome, and the Expo: International Events and Attractions Abroad
As Nations around the Globe Pursue the Expo Dream, US Should Get Back in the Game
All photos by Urso Chappell © 2008