Still in China

    Dear Reader, 
        Yes, I'm still enjoying Shanghai and the World Expo 2010.  What particularly interests me are the millions of Chinese people here from the provinces who are "seeing the world" for the first time.  These are mainly people with no passports, who have seen few westerners.  This gives me some sense of what that aspect of Chicago's 1893 fair might have been like, at a start of America's great boom and migrations and industrialization.  I don't envy Milano, Italy having to follow China with a fair in five years!  No way they'll top this one.  And the visitors will have less of that wonderful curiosity that goes along with seeing a new world for the first time.   
         The UK pavilion sends me.  It's "emptiness" in which you can re-find your Self is valuable after a busy day at the Expo, walking miles and being bombarded by messages and propaganda from all over the world and flashing lights, video monitors, music, food etc.  In this architecture is also a message to the Chinese, as they build up their cities with more and more pizzazz.  Thomas Heatherwick and his studio - designers of the U.K. Pavilion only filled part of the site.  The rest they left as open space, also for contemplation, or relaxation or for kids to play in.  The message is of - balance.  The effect is powerful, you'll in photos - because you've never seen on object like the spiky U.K. pavilion at its size.  It's an enlarged sea anemone.  The spikes are acrylic tubes some twenty-five feet long.  Each one has seeds at the end.  Seeds threatened with extinction, seeds showing bio-diversity.  The architect calls this a "Seed Cathedral."  The Gothic cathedrals with their pointed arch roofs resembled grown trees leaning together.  Now we are back to seeds.  A new beginning.  When you spend time in China that is how it feels.  The modern era is a new era, life has changed drastically for so many hundreds of millions of people who knew otherwise for centuries.  It's good to include art in the design of the new world.  Thank you United Kingdom.  The building feels organic, with curves, and the landscape its in is angular, of folded planes.  This catches you off guard.  You've left the earth you know for a moment.  Then reality returns but your perceptions are altered.  Your sensory receptors are heightened.  You experience something new and yet familiar - because ultimately what you experience is your Self.  You return a bit to who you are.  This is not a normal pavilion of distraction and presenting a message.  Its message, if written out, would be, London was one of the first cities to bring nature and parks into the city in a deliberate way.  That urban balance is important for internal balance in the citizens.

         I will compare the U.K. pavilion to Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building and plaza.  It's "simplicity" and "empty" plaza are also a great act of resistance, as America went whole hog into commodification, commercialism and consumerism after World War II.  My message to the Chinese - enjoy this moment.  When you replace Confucianism with too much consumerism the result will be decadence. 
         Am I the only one who doesn't swoon at the Spanish Pavilion?  I see too much ersatz Gehry in it, - and while I like the idea of the wicker, I find it too dark and mottled and pasted on.  And inside - what about that giant blue-eyed baby!?  I found Finland to be very powerful - a Pantheon-like open air courtyard defined by curving white walls and an anvil and a boulder in the middle.  But then, the Finns tend to have a lot that is worthwhile to say, quietly; and to understand how to convey profound meanings in architecture, don't they?  The Danish pavilion - a Möbius strip or double-helix rising and descending stairway includes bicycle paths!  A strong message here where not long ago that's how people got around.  It's interesting here how many pavilions use circulation spirals with atria and oculi that seem to spring from Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim.

         The U.S.A. Pavilion is my least favorite at the fair.  Forget about the bland, suburban, corporate, grey building.  The worst of it is that the Chinese are herded through it in groups, disallowing individual freedom - the very thing that makes America great - and they are shown Americans as corporate entities, spokespeople for corporations; not the creative, clever, risk-taking, liberty-loving people we are. The films inside are poorly conceived, acted and/or produced; many of the Chinese stumble out of our pavilion deadened.  As if they had seen nothing they could connect to.  I spoke with many Chinese people leaving the U.S.A. pavilion who seemed dumbfounded.  "Surely the USA is greater than that?" they correctly asked and I answered, "yes, by far.  I hope you can visit some day."  

         I regret that visitors to the fair must queue three to five and sometimes up to nine hours to visit the most popular pavilions, such as the one from Saudi Arabia.  Yes the Chinese are patient, but there must be a better way, particularly in the raging heat here, and also so they can make better use of their limited time at the fair and see and learn more.  Better designs for circulation and passage are needed, but then, how to have an meaningful encounter with anything inside?            

         I'll post photos when I return in a few weeks.  This blog is blocked from China.  Is it something I said?  Dunno, I'm quite fond of this country and it's people.  They have an honor and a spirit for the collective good that the west could use more of.  Thank a clerk in the U.S. for helping you and you get, "No problem."  Thank a clerk in China and you hear, "It's my pleasure."  I did see women pulling weeds in the lovely city of Suzhou - eight hours of back-break in terribly hot and humid weather for about fifty cents an hour.  That is nobody's pleasure.  Even though the China People's Daily newspaper just ran a story about a traffic cop who loves her job, says it's the best job in the world, standing in the middle of traffic directing cars, bikes, buses and every kind of moped.  Because the town used to be disorderly she said, but she is helping to bring order to it, and to help the town, and China, develop.

         And what of the workers who built this fair?  Many are migrant laborers, traveling from one building site to another, living in containers or the like.  They left the site when the fair opened, probably only to return to tear it down.  Underpaid, poorly housed, hard labor.  They are the unseen heroes of this exhibition.  And they're not even here to to see it. 

         Despite low incomes for most people in this country a most wonderful thing here is that you feel safe.  I can walk down and got lost in any maze of tiny narrow lanes, with housing like hutches, and poor ventilation and hardly a ray of natural light.  Quarters subdivided so family members share what they have.  And as I walk by I get smiles, invitations to dinner, laughter and attempts to connect and to communicate.  Most Chinese seem to love at least the idea of America.  I met a young woman yesterday whose favorite book is "Walden Lake."  With small living quarters and a developed social sense and a homogenous population much of life here is lived in the street and it's pleasant.  I'm reminded of bygone idyllic America, whether New England square or post-war suburb, when Americans too lived more with each other and liked and trusted one another, spent more time outdoors. That all adds to life and I soak it up here.  We from the States crave community in ways we don't even know.    

         Summer in Shanghai is terribly hot and humid and the Expo fairgrounds can be almost unbearable.  Water is plentiful and some awnings and misters to cool you down and even sometimes huge ice-blocks are set at stations.  On one day too hot to be outside I went in to the giant flying saucer-like (think pumped-up Oscar NiemeyerExpo Culture Center.  Inside was a stage show innocent in a US 1950's sort of way.  It reminded me of nothing more than the old Jackie Gleason television show with the dancers and simple singing.  I had to leave when one of the Chinese actors started in that discordant fashion.   

         Luckily we have some days of blue skies here - these are really rather rare in Shanghai.  The fair looks even better then, even though it's still in the upper 90's and drenchingly humid and you must walk along wide open concrete expanses.  On one of those beautiful days I made it a point to visit the old Yu Yuan Gardens by the old city.  Being there, in the beauty, with the wooden pavilions, the landscape and the shade trees, made Expo's theme of "Better City, Better City" seem like, well, a slogan.  

    All my best, 

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