When Prince Albert and the Royal Society of Arts commissioned the first Universal Exhibition in London in 1851 as a showcase for British grandeur, hardly would they have imagined that it would be the first of a series of events that would take place all over the world every five years up until the present day. If the first, focused on industry, was a success, the Exposition Universelle of 1889, held in Paris, gifted the world one of its most praised monuments: the Tour Eiffel. However, while the exhibitions often result in an opportunity for profit and global prestige for the host nation, the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan seems also to aim for a higher purpose: to coordinate efforts from all participants in order to set international directives for developments in nutrition logistics and technology, for a fairer and healthier distribution of food to an exponentially growing world population.

 

Opening on May 1st, and planned to close on October 31st, the Exhibition expects to welcome over 20m visitors from all over the world. Such ambitious attendance figures require accurate planning of the facilities designed to host the event. Architects and engineers of worldwide renown have participated in the building of the monumental complex of the Exposition, which now accommodates exhibits from over 180 countries, either singularly – for the nations with the largest exhibition material and culinary tradition – or in clusters of several countries; for example, most of the Caribbean islands teamed up to form one pavilion. Each and every participant country has demonstrated great effort in promoting its national products, usually with an emphasis on making the pavilions a memorable experience for visitors. The most successful pavilions either provided the visitor with sensory stimuli associated with their culture – the United Kingdom built its pavilion in the shape of a beehive, with a recorded buzz that accompanied the visitors all along their journey – or with a shrewd use of technology that allowed for the interaction with the surrounding environment; very successful in this regard was the Dutch structure, designed to look like an amusement park.

tree of life

The “Tree of Life”, in the Italian pavilion, at night.

As would be expected, the host country, Italy, didn’t miss the opportunity to stand out, and organized its pavilion not in a single building, but in an entire complex of structures and facilities, including what could be considered the landmark of this exposition – the Tree of Life.

The Italian pavilion was designed to offer the visitor a real sight to behold, especially at night, when the light system springs to life. In the four months the Exhibition has been open, the complex has hosted shows, fairs and festivals, while many more such events are planned for the closing months.

While ultimately the overall result was far from disappointing, the organization of the Universal Exposition has not been without its hiccups for Italy, as the event became the epicenter of an intense political debate, which made the outcome uncertain until the very opening of the Exhibition. Hoping to get a deeper insight into the administrative and economic ups and downs of the event, I interviewed Mr. Aldo Giordano, engineer and CEO of the design group Simmetrico, who played a role in the planning of the Exposition and the construction of two major structures: the United States and the Azerbaijani pavilions.

“Our group has been operating in Azerbaijan for years”, said Mr. Giordano, “which is why the Azerbaijani representatives entrusted the planning of their pavilion to us. We received direct funds from the Azerbaijani government, which allowed us to exert a large amount of freedom during our operations. Later on, we were also asked to work on the American pavilion, however the former has always been our primary focus. The idea was to express the diversity in the Azerbaijani environment, which we did by combining a glass “biosphere” and a network of steel, joining design and modern architecture. Inside the pavilion, you can find audio and video clips related to the natural sounds and sights of Azerbaijan, together with interactive apps that allow visitors to explore the hidden treasures of the country. We worked very hard on this project, and I must admit we are utterly satisfied with the result!”

 

padiglione azerbaijan

The Azerbaijani pavilion.

When I made reference to the many issues that have cast doubts and fears over the success of the Exposition – rumors of corruption regarding the contracts used to assign the projects for the pavilions to different firms and private investors who were suspected of significantly delaying the construction works, not to mention the accident that involved the Turkish pavilion and resulted in serious injuries for a visitor – Mr. Giordano shook his head and confidently dismissed the subject.

“I cannot answer for other pavilions, but I believe the Italian media have made much of a fuss about nothing. As it happens, an event which was meant to be a prestigious showcase for our country was manipulated to support the arguments of those who were initially against the Exposition. As far as our group was concerned, there were no repercussions from these so-called ‘scandals’: our work proceeded smoothly and accordingly with our timetables. What I can say is that whenever private interests take part into a project, there is always the risk of corruption and manipulation arising. In our case, our contracts were signed directly through the apposite organs of the Azerbaijani and US governments, which is why there were no such issues in our project.”

It is estimated that the overall expenditure for the organization of the Universal Exposition totaled over 10 billion euros. But will it be worth it?

Apart from the obvious revenues coming from the sale of food in the various stands and pavilions, as well as from the sale of tickets for the several events hosted on site and for the entrance itself, EXPO 2015 set very high expectations concerning its theme, “Feeding the planet, energy for life”. Although the ambiguity of the phrase inspired several interpretations from the participating countries, the Italian and international media have effectively agreed that the aim of this exhibition should be to foster international cooperation in order to make food – specifically healthy natural food – available for everyone. Whether the Exposition has actually accomplished anything in this regard, however, remains a matter of dispute. The most significant step taken by the participants – among which are several international organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – is the so-called Milan Charter, a petition planned to be submitted to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, which states the right to healthy nutrition as a fundamental and undeniable human right (the entire text of the document can be found at carta.milano.it/en). A peculiarity of the Milan Charter is that it is not formulated as a request to the United Nations, but rather as a joint commitment from all of mankind to act in order to ensure lasting resources for future generations. When asked about the Charter, Mr. Giordano smiled and shrugged, expressing some skepticism and, after a thorough read, I find myself unwillingly agreeing: in its present form, the document is little more than a birthday wish; a gathering of politically correct demands without much focus on how to fulfill them. We can all easily agree that the world would be a better place if the production and distribution of food could keep up with the growth of the population and if sustainable energy could became our main instrument, however, submitting a paper to the Secretary General won’t necessarily make it happen. Until there is real evidence of commitment from every participating country and real measures are taken in that direction, we cannot rush into claiming that EXPO 2015 has reached its goal.