The greatest show on Earth

This year’s world fair, the Expo 2015 in Milan, explored how to feed the planet while setting the scene for Dubai’s own Expo in five years’ time. Ben East offers a pavilion-by-pavilion snapshot 

As the global extravaganza that is Expo 2015 draws to a close in Milan, there is a real sense that the theme – “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” – has been a genuine inspiration. Participating countries and organisations presented pavilions that intricately explored the ways in which they are planning to meet the challenges of feeding the world, while remaining sustainable and environmentally conscious. 

Yes, the pavilions’ exteriors often looked compelling, but the Instagram photos, tweeted pictures and selfies were largely taken inside, whether that be in Austria’s cooling forest landscape, the UK’s buzzing beehive or China’s virtual wheat field. All these installations married art with technology and the environment, highlighting concerns about the state of the world in 2015 but offering solutions, too. 

Dubai’s own theme for Expo 2020 is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, and focuses on sustainability, mobility and opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation. With the sustainability issue at the forefront at both Milan and Dubai, it will once again be fascinating to see how different nations intend to approach one of the greatest challenges of our times.

Read on for our Milan Expo pavilion-by-pavilion highlights…

UAE

Designed by Foster + Partners, the huge sand-coloured walls mimicking dune ridges are meant to give visitors to the UAE pavilion the sense that they are exploring an ancient desert city. Certainly, walking the canyon-like paths has been one of the unmissable experiences for visitors to Expo Milan 2015 – since May more than half a million people have been drawn to the pavilion. 

But the real success of the UAE effort is that although it refers to the past, inside the pavilion there’s plenty of forward thinking taking place, too. Here, the theme is “Food for Thought: Shaping and Sharing the Future”, with one exhibit exploring how Emirati chef Khulood Atiq has adapted traditional Emirati recipes for the 21st century.

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Sand-coloured walls at the UAE’s pavilion resemble sand dunes

Sustainability, for Emiratis, is not a new construct, and there are films, interactive media displays and exhibits exploring how climate, energy and water have shaped (and will continue to shape) the relationship the UAE has with land, food and technology. 

Indeed, the sustainability theme doesn’t end when the Expo draws to a close in October. The pavilion itself is being dismantled and taken to Masdar City – apt, given that it is the UAE’s ‘future energy’ complex, and a planned car-free city. 

UK

Of all the environmental warnings about our future, one of the most chilling is the impact a declining honey bee population might have on food production. The UK pavilion has presented a structure inspired by the bee, exploring why pollination is so important to the global food chain – of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of food worldwide, 70 are pollinated by bees.

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The meadow at the UK pavilion has been planted with traditional species including heathers, buttercups and sorrel

Its centrepiece is a stunning 14m-high ‘hive’, designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress in collaboration with engineer Tristan Simmonds
and architectural practice BDP. It is inspired by the form of a honeycomb, with visitors greeted by buzzing sounds and pulsing lights whose patterns are linked in real time to an actual hive in the UK. 

The visitor experience begins with an apple orchard (one single bee colony pollinates around 4,000 square metres of fruit trees) and continues with a British wildflower meadow, the plants raised to eye level so visitors can experience them from the perspective of a bee. It’s also a metaphor for how British innovation is cultivating solutions to the challenge of food security: “pollinating” ideas to help “spread prosperity, improve lives and deliver a sustainable future for all”.

China

Surely the most intricate structure at Expo Milan 2015, the Chinese pavilion – named “Land of Hope, Food for Life” – features more than 1,000 bamboo panels that soar and dip to create a representation of both a Beijing skyline and a mountain landscape.

It is a collaboration between Tsinghua University and New York-based practice Studio Link-Arc (whose founder is Chinese), and its intention is to reference both ancient and modern China through architecture. Bamboo might be the traditional material, but here it’s used in intriguing new ways. 

The structure’s base is a continuous landscape of crops, which begins outside with planted beds filled with flowers and continues inside in an extravagant virtual wheat field, aluminium poles merging into a coloured LED light installation. This combination of technology and the natural world aims to underline the Chinese philosophy that “man is part of nature”, and myriad installations highlight that tenet.

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China’s pavilion features 1,000 panels of bamboo, a major food crop

“The Gift of Nature” illustrates crop processes, “Food for Life” shows the production path of foods including China’s eight schools of cuisine and its tea culture, while “Technology and the Future” charts the progress of science, including the hybrid rice of Professor Yuan Longping.

This is the first time that China has built its own pavilion at a World Expo, and it has made quite an impact. It will be fascinating to see what the country comes up with for Expo 2020 in Dubai. 

Austria

Parks and open spaces are often called the “green lungs” of cities, but it is often underestimated just how vital clean air is to the quality of food.

This is the idea Austria has run with at the Expo with its pavilion, “Breathe.Austria”. Klaus K Loenhart of Terrain, an architecture practice based in Graz, has created a small Austrian forest in Milan and it claims that it provides 62.5kg of fresh oxygen every hour, enough for 1,800 people. 

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Austria has created a small forest in a biodome for its pavilion

Inside, the biodome features flora, fauna, and even forest food in the cafe.

There’s a wider point to the magical interior space, too: it underlines the Austrian belief that the use of woodland can offer urban areas opportunities for clean and cooling air.