The Three Lakes region (around the lakes of Neuchatel, Biel and Morat, roughly equidistant from Basel and Geneva) is prosaically described as 'Switzerland's biggest vegetable patch'. Though not a prime tourist destination it is, in fact, visually stunning - a terrain of water, fields and vineyards, set against mountainous backdrops and dotted with small and prosperous historic towns of alternately French and Germanic character.
Switzerland has no equivalent to Gateshead, east Manchester or London's Docklands, so regeneration was hardly an issue when the siting of the country's Expo.02 was discussed - the Pays des Trois Lacs is close to the borders of France and Germany and to major airports. Implicit in the entire operation is a new sense of openness to a wider world - Switzerland recently joined the UN and the debate over EU membership will not go away.
This spirit is reflected in the architectural programme. The Expo is officially the 'Swiss National Exhibition'but, in terms of the landmark structures at least, Swiss architects appeared to have fared badly - no Herzog & de Meuron, Morger Degelo Kerez, Mario Botta, Diener & Diener or Peter Zumthor. (The last was responsible for the Swiss Sound Box at the 2000 Hanover Expo, an event which scored over the Millennium Dome in terms of dullness if not of sheer tawdriness. ) A competition process in 1998-99 - the Expo was officially launched in 1995, after some years of advance planning - resulted in the major buildings going to New York-based Diller & Scofidio, to Jean Nouvel and the French MULTIPACK practice and to Coop Himmelblau from Vienna, with the late Enric Miralles, Ben van Berkel and Lifschutz Davidson (the only shortlisted British practice) among unsuccessful contenders. The jury, chaired by Emilio Ambasz, chose well. Each of the four sites, at Yverdon-les-Bains, Neuchatel, Murten and Bienne, has a distinct theme and focuses on a memorable landmark pavilion, with smaller commissions going to a range of international practices, including some relatively little-known (in international terms) Swiss firms. The competition brief stipulated that the landmark structures should provide a connection between terra firma and water - the lakes should be part of the experience, not just a backcloth.
Diller & Scofidio's Cloud at Yverdon has to be the star of the show. By night, eerily lit, it looks like an alien ship from the X Files , moored in the lake.Set in a landscape by Dutch practice West 8, the 100m long, lightweight steel structure is equipped with 33,000 fine jets spraying water from the lake. Clad in a free plastic raincoat, you walk out into a cloud of moisture which varies in intensity from a fine Irish mist to a wet afternoon in Llandudno, emerging dripping but refreshed (and probably exhilarated). It is a surreal, disorientating experience (especially for anyone wearing glasses) where architecture and nature meet.
The space travel theme re-emerges in MULTIPACK's 'UFOs'at Neuchatel - typical, rather than exceptional, Expo-architecture. (Groupe H's Palais de l'Equilibre is more striking, resembling a timber version of the Foster Reichstag dome, a statement about sustainability - sponsored by the Swiss oil industry. ) At Bienne, the largest of the sites, Coop Himmelblau scores strongly with its soaring group of towers, bridge and pier allegedly illustrating the theme of 'power and freedom' , while the 'Strangers in Paradise'pavilion, sponsored by supermarket chain Migros, provides one of the most entertaining 'rides' in the whole expo (in a supermarket trolley).
Murten (Morat) is the most picturesque of the host towns, a halftimbered William Tell wonderland. The sheds, scaffolds and freight containers that Nouvel has scattered around the town are clearly a challenge to its cosy complacency. His 34m square Monolith of rusting steel, anchored in the lake, provides the most memorable image of Expo.02, though the interior spaces disappoint.
The Expo has, of course, been controversial - they always are. Thanks largely to technical director Ruedi Rast, a potentially disastrous overspend was reined back, with a quoted expenditure on buildings of SF450 million (£198 million) - a third of the total cost of the Expo).Visitor figures so far look good but only the crucial holiday period will confirm the popular success of the project. (Five million visitors are expected, in a country of seven million people. ) With its wholesome catering, wide range of accommodation options, excellent public transport links, consistently good design code and genuine roots in local communities, Expo.02 reminds Brits forcibly of the failings of the Dome, though it is unclear what its long-term impact on the Three Lakes region will be. You can travel there on the restyled SWISS airline, stay in a modular hotel (with cardboard furniture) or a tepee village, and enjoy the key architectural experience of summer 2002.