Foreign Office Architects' (FOA) Spanish Pavilion at Aichi 2005, this year's International Expo in Japan, is by far the most festive and expressive contribution to the show.
The flamboyant 3m-high wall that envelops the buildings is inspired by the synthesis of Islamic culture and JudaeoChristian tradition that has dominated the Iberian peninsula for centuries. The crazy-paved facade is a simple device composed of three different types of ceramic hexagons that recall shapes used in Spanish architecture, while also making reference to the local industry of Seto, the centre of Japanese ceramics.
By extending this facade to enclose the pavilion's queuing zone, a shaded, protected entrance space is created using perforated cells; it is a simple idea, extremely well executed. Internally, the geometric motif is reused to create six principal cavernous spaces: a central 'nave' used for the exhibition's multimedia introduction, and five 'chapels' that relate to innovation, food production, the literary influence of Don Quixote, sports figures and Spanish fiestas.
The exhibition is succinct and accessible and is complemented by a clear spatial sequence.
The basic form of the pavilion was pretty much given. Each country was allocated one of a series of modular sheds, loosely distributed in a townscape plan around a series of precincts and courtyards. The sheds were capped at a maximum of five 18 x 18 x 9m-high units, and FOA elected to occupy all of the 1,620m 2 of available space. The decision to introduce a mezzanine to house the administrative functions brings the total floor area to 2,430m 2. Working to such tightly prescribed parameters offered little opportunity for the sort of structural or spatial expression that expositions have traditionally produced and the experimentation that architects such as FOA would surely have preferred to pursue. The design of the pavilion amounts to little more than facade and fit-out. In this framework, FOA has excelled, but the pavilion cannot be judged alongside some of the more holistically conceived pavilions of the recent past.
Talking to leading Japanese architects, there seems to be a consensus that this is symptomatic of the changing nature of expositions. Traditionally seen as unmissable showcases that exhibit emerging architectural tendencies, today the role of the expo is less clear. Is there really any need to travel halfway round the world to see (at best) another variation on the intelligent facade?
Kisho Kurokawa, architect of the iconic plug-in Capsule Tower that encapsulated the spirit of Osaka 1970, considered by many to be the last of the 'great exhibitions', is adamant that expos are obsolete. For Kurokawa, contemporary architecture cannot adequately express the spirit of technical innovation that now resides in the invisible world of information technology.
Tadao Ando agrees, arguing that there have been few significant changes in the material nature of architecture since Osaka. Technology and expression, Ando says, are inseparable, and whereas once technology was a core contributor to architectural shifts, today society expresses technical innovation through IT. Significant changes in lifestyle and social structures have been led predominantly by new virtual networks.
Following this logic, it is hardly surprising that the architecture of recent expositions has done little more than create billboard facades, when a realtime 24/7 expo exists on the web, accessible to all.
But technology is not the only factor to render expos obsolete.
In Europe and Asia, the days of tabula-rasa city planning have long since passed, making it difficult to argue that the expo is a valuable means of exploring planning models. And despite the fact that they represent enormous injections of cash, the fate of our own depressingly underachieving Millennium peninsula casts doubt on the argument that expositions are an effective catalyst for regeneration.
The Spanish pavilion may be a triumph, but the verdict on today's expositions is damning. At best, they have become good day-trip fodder. At worst, they have turned into corporate trade fairs, grossly oversized and impossible to digest.
Rob Gregory is an architect and assistant editor of The Architectural Review