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Milan Expo 2015: first reaction from the AJ editor

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There may be organisational issues and local protests over its reliance on volunteers, but this Expo will hook you, says Rory Olcayto

‘They’ve sold 10 million tickets,’ I say to the taxi driver taking me to the airport, after a few hours spent at the just-opened Milan Expo. ‘That’s pretty good isn’t it?’. The taxi driver looks unimpressed. ‘Ten million tickets have been sold to companies,’ he says. ‘Not the public. But if they want it to be a success, they will have to sort out access, parking, all the logistics. It is a mess’. He should know. It’s his city. And the spot where I grabbed his taxi – a lay-by alongside a new block of flats, done in that regen-friendly clad-me-quick style, a few hundred yards from the Expo entrance – did feel a bit ad-hoc. Surely there should be a taxi rank by the front door of this international event? 

But to go down that route, would be wrong. You know, to criticise the Italians, or the Milanese, for not sweeping up every bit of sawdust before the doors opened, or making the Belgian Pavilion wait for its beers a day longer than expected. It’s no great crime. Yes: Milanesi tax drivers have the right to be annoyed but me? No. Not after whizzing around this weird architectural fun-park for a few hours, seeing stuff that will no doubt filter through into the mainstream of building, for better or worse, over the next decade. 

An Expo’s currency is wonderment

When I got there on early May Day morning when the Milan Expo 2015 opened up for the first time, the queues were not big. It could have been because its organisational problems had put people off but I’m going to blame the grey skies and rain. It can’t have been the price: a family ticket for a whole day - for mum, dad and two kids, is €99. That’s a bargain compared to anything remotely similar in the UK. Milan Expo would be a great family day out: what ten year old wouldn’t be buzzed up by seeing all the nations of the world, presenting theirselves in funfair-style buildings arranged along a massive promenade, that’s also dotted with restaurants and theatrical sculptures? An Expo’s currency is wonderment. And if you’re in the right frame of mind, this one will hook you. 

Russia Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

Russia Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

You might wonder why, for example, the Russian pavilion and the Estonian pavilion, slap-bang next to each other, have competing cantilevered roofs. Is this juxtaposition passive? Aggressive? Pure coincidence? You might also wonder why Turkey bothered to show up, given its pavilion – a lattice structure punctured in places by giant bowls and vases mimicking Iznik pottery - is the worst in show by a country mile. You also might wonder at mysterious Iran, which took it’s place on the Expo boulevard as if there is nothing odd at all about a country so long in the cold, and so mistrustful of Europe and the USA, setting out its stall in this most economic of trade fairs. 

Vanke Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

Vanke Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

And you might also wonder at the loveliness of the Austrian pavilion, and its misty interior, it dark wooden walls, and tree-lined pathways, given we’ve not seen much architecturally from this country for a while. I daresay you’d wonder what changed Daniel Libeskind mind in the seven years since he said he wouldn’t work for totalitarian regimes and urged architects to think twice about working in China, when you see that he has designed a pavilion for Vanke, that nation’s - and the world’s – biggest residential real estate company. 

Wandering is as much fun as wondering, in Milan. The Italian pavilion by Roman architects Nemesi, is among those pavilions actually worth going inside. You may well hate it, find it insincere, plasticky, Zaha lite-ish, a bit too Bartlett, but… well I couldn’t help thinking its cavernous interior will inspire countless atria in the next decade.

UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

But really the British pavilion, by the  curiously-monikered Wolfgang Buttress, and the solidly dependable BDP, is the stand-out beauty. You walk though a simple Cor-Ten ‘maze’ filled with wildflowers towards what Buttress, an artist, has described as a bee-hive, with fugue-like pulsing notes vibrating the air around you. Stairs then take you up into the ‘hive’, a 14-metre lattice of many thousands of aluminum and steel pieces bolted together to form a dome-like structure. It turns out too, that the soundscape, a quite beautiful Space Odyssey-style drone, is an electronic response to the movements of bees in a real hive in Nottingham. It’s very weird and properly science-fiction in tone, and properly British too, just as Thomas Heatherwick’s seed cathedral, a clear inspiration here, was, five years ago in Shanghai. Still, as I walked away from it, eyes fixed on its sheer oddness, it came to resemble a swarm of bees, more than an actual hive. 

At that very moment too, as I would find out from my phone in the airport later, thanks to free wi-fi, young Italians were swarming on the streets of Milan, rioting, turning cars upside down, and setting them on fire. The ‘No Expo’ protesters were angry at the show’s reliance – for it’s entire six months duration – on volunteer workers and corporate support from brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s at an event whose theme is ‘Feeding the Planet’. Given that the Expo opened on International Worker’s Day, a national holiday in Italy, it was a point that deserved to be made.

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