It's mid-afternoon on a mist-laden weekday in Shanghai and the vista that stretches to the west, toward the river, is unbelievable. It's not that the mix of drenched air and pollution have combined to create a mirage. The problem - or maybe the word is hallucination - is that this is Shanghai, in China, at the entrance to the 2010 Expo and there are no people.
Actually, that's not quite accurate. There are people, but none are visitors. The humanoids on this part of the planet are all security guards and about 100 are arranged around what look like cattle pens but are actually crowd control barriers. These bright white plastic fences are designed to funnel many thousands of visitors in a zig zag line from gate eight of the expo to the machines that check admission tickets. But there was only me. And I still had to walk the zig-zag - 30 zigs and zags altogether - to get to the security cordon.
So far, so not impressed. Although at least, in this case, gaining access to the US$58 billion site did not entail a fist fight with thousands of others, a fate that befell some visitors on the expo's opening day. The pressing question is whether all that money has created a design spectacle that lives up to the hype. After all, when the gross domestic product of a small country is spent on the pavilions of 83 countries one expects something special for the money.
A walkway beyond the entrance offers an elevated stroll to the first scheduled destination - France. Along the way the Russian, Polish, Serbian and African pavilions can be glimpsed and each one has a few Gehry-esque twirls and a couple of Norman Foster-like exterior gantries. A train made of golfcarts whizzes by and the design aesthetic feels more 1980s theme park than 21st-century cutting edge.
The French pavilion was designed by Jacques Ferrier Architects and it's a simple building with a big-style French garden inside. Surrounded by water it's supposed to look like it's floating. It doesn't. Visitors ascend to the top of the building in order to walk down a ramp that descends via images of France that are projected onto the walls. The ramps are crowded with people from China's provinces taking pictures of their friends and family as they stand in front of a movie of the Eiffel Tower. Close to the exit is an installation by Louis Vuitton that creates the feeling of a Parisian romance.
The Spanish pavilion had a much stronger design buzz, as one might expect from a country that has cradled the talent of Frank Gehry (who designed the Bilbao Guggenheim) and Antoni Gaudi. The pavilion's wicker-basket exterior has a sensual and organic feel and inside visitors can be startled by an eight-metre model of a baby and giant projections of Picasso sketching. Designed by Miralles/Tagliabue - EMBT the pavilion tries to invoke a synthesis of traditional Spanish and Chinese crafts.
After a pause for Belgian pommes frites with mayonnaise (the best part of the Belgian pavilion experience, apart from some gorgeous diamonds and a brilliant movie in the European Union annex of two dancers making a pen and ink drawing) it was on to the British pavilion.
Thomas Hethearwick designed this building and it has been called 'the Seed Cathedral'. Heatherwick is a 40-year-old London-born designer famous for his eccentric designs. For the main building in the British compound he drew on the Kew Gardens' seed repository, located south of the London, in West Sussex. The repository has millions of seed varieties and Heterwick took some of them to embed in 60,000, 10-metre long acrylic rods, which have then been threaded through an enormous box that appears to have spiky hair on the inside and out. The rods move in the wind and daylight shines through from above - at night the light transfer is reversed and the cathedral glows from within, casting a golden glow on the visitors trapped in two-hour long queues (the pavilion has been one of the most popular).
If Heatherwick's design brings a supernatural feel to the British corner of the Expo, the Swiss pavilion is ready to bring everything back down to earth, via a chair lift. According to the architects, they employed two opposing principles of nature - in other words the Chinese pairing of Yin and Yang - to create a combination of technology and nature, with the implied suggestion that these two can live in harmony under the right circumstances.
The structure of the Swiss building consists of a vast planted roof and two load-bearing cylinders. Beneath the roof there is a rough floor where there is noise and constant movement. The planted roof with its gentle undulations is the 'yang' contrast to the urban area below. Harmonious interaction between these two is facilitated by a double-helix system of ramps and a circular chair-lift. It's an interesting design theme but it's not clear how many visitors absorbed the Yin and Yang message. Most were too busy enduring waits of up to three hours so they could enjoy their first ride in a ski-lift, even if there wasn't a flake of snow in sight.
And so to the star of the show, as least as far as Chinese visitors are concerned. According to He Jingtang, the 72-year-old academician from the Chinese Academy of Engineering who is the architect of the Chinese pavilion, the buildings on the site incorporate concepts from Chinese philosophy such as 'Heaven-and-Man Combination', 'Harmony and Symbiosis' and 'Nature is the Most Important Guideline'.
Before arriving at the Expo site visitors glimpse the pavilion as it flashes past. Squatting behind a jostling crowd of new apartment buildings, inside which most of the paint is still wet, the pavilion - also known as 'the Oriental Crown' - looks like an object from outer space. It's mass, colour (Forbidden City red) and base - resembling intergalactic landing gear - suggest an advanced civilisation that has come to conquer the world - which in a sense is appropriate because the pavilion also has a very Chinese appearance.
The China pavilion is one of only five buildings on the Expo site that will be retained when the event comes to an end in October. The design brief specified that the structure be 'green' and have energy saving features such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting. The result is a building that rises into the sky and has a dramatic range of exhibits inside. The exterior looks like blocks that have been piled on top of each other with the shorter pieces holding up the longer beams. The shape and joints of the structure are based on the Dougong principle, a construction process that uses interlocking beams to support the roof of a building.
The pavilion is a striking building and its green features are a nod to the expo's theme of 'Better City/Better Life' but will it become a design icon? The benchmark for answering this is the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889 as the entrance for the World's Fair, the 19th century equivalent of the expo. The tower was described as an 'odious column' and a 'black blot' by the French composer Charles Gounod who organised a letter condemning it. Now it is hailed as a masterpiece of engineering. We may need to wait another 100 years before we can say the same thing about Shanghai's Oriental Crown.