The future, 25 years ago

Space rockets, tons of concrete and glass, trains in the air, a united Europe and religious tolerance – that’s what the future looked like (almost) 25 years ago. Today one may wonder whether the organisers and participants of Seville Expo 92 simply got it all wrong or their vision was just set further ahead in time.

Humanity’s collective concept of the future constantly changes. And while movies often showcase that evolving concept, they rarely try to draw a truly realistic picture of it. On the other hand, architecture and Universal Expositions in particular can offer a good glimpse into the foreseeable future or at least into our aspirations for it. Under the optimistic ´The Age of Discovery´ title, this is what Seville Expo 92 was about. However, the future that Spain outlined could last only 6 months and was soon forgotten.

Forgotten but not destroyed. Although national pavilions at Expos should be dismantled after the event, this is rarely the case. In Seville, an entire neighbourhood not far from the city centre remains a ghostly relic of the glorious event. The situation in other cities that hosted Expos is hardly different, with the faith of Milan Expo 15 site currently raising many questions.

Nowadays World Expos happen every 5 years, overwriting past futures and building new ones. The next Expo will be held in 2020 in Dubai and will be quite a big one, however not the biggest.  This is honestly surprising given Dubai´s obsession with breaking construction records (even if they belong to them in the case of the newly planned Calatrava tower). It would be interesting to see the visitor numbers that Dubai will achieve on their proposed Expo site of 438 hectares, given that on 200 hectares, the Expos in Seville and Milan had 40 million and 22 million visitors respectively (the numbers for Seville vary from 20m to 42m depending on the source). However, what is far more interesting and important is whether any Expo host city will manage to overcome the trend of going from millions of visitors to nearly none in less than a year.

There is an ironic contradiction between the ideals Expos are trying to project and their physical planning. In theory, Global Expositions are platforms for discussion of potential solutions to global issues, of recent innovations and technologies, of progress. By employing the broad scope of architecture and using buildings as a medium of communication, they explore not simply aesthetic notions but also political, humanitarian, technological and even religious ones. Their themes and aspirations, materialized in built form, can leave one truly hopeful about the future values of humanity. But ironically, what is pessimistic about Expos is the lack of values behind their architecture and planning: show-off architecture on excessive scale; short-term vision and no viable long-term strategy, relentlessly international character largely disrespectful of the context, etc.

Surely, none of these problems is new or exclusive to Expos. In fact, Expos pose the very same questions that we have been asking ever since we began making big plans. The same questions that we contemplate with every Olympics, World Cup, etc. The pros and cons of large-scale planning and building from scratch have been a topic of discussion ever since Ebenezer Howard proposed his Garden City vision. Through the years Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and numerous other professionals have actively engaged with the subject (these are my favourite ones). Surely, creating new neighbourhoods is not an easy job and planning one that has to hold a major event and then be re-purposed is an even harder one. But is it impossible? Why is a 6-month event imagining the future always on top of the agenda, instead of the actual future?

Maybe if Expos look at the past for once, they will actually conceive better futures.


[1] Bureau International des Expositions Website
[2] World Expo 92 Website
[3] Expo 2020 Dubai Website

Featured image by Daniel Villafruela found on Wikimedia Commons.


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