What does a country have to do to get the world’s (and the Chinese market's) attention during the biggest international public event ever? Design a no-expenses spared, unforgettable pavilion. The Netherlands’ contribution: Happy Street.
"Soon, visitors can photograph themselves here in a gigantic Gummbah cartoon," laughs John Körmeling (1959), as he points to a plateau in the bizarre structure that he’s designed in Shanghai. The disturbing, almost provocative comics from Dutch cartoonist Gummbah as a crowd-puller for the Dutch pavilion at the World Expo - which expects nearly 100 million visitors to this biggest public event ever?
It sounds crazy but entirely logical if you know that the inventor and creator of the pavilion is John Körmeling. Humour and absurdity play a major role in the work of this architect and artist. His pavilion is actually not even a building, but what then? "A fun-fair," declares Körmeling himself. Which brings us back to the Gummbah cartoon.
Indeed, the pavilion rolls up and down like a rollercoaster. In fact, it’s nothing more than a four hundred meter-long street in the form of an eight, the Chinese lucky number. On this street balanced on columns are strange houses, coloured umbrellas and flashing lights. Like a giant yellow tulip, the VIP-room towers above it all. And befitting a fun-fair attraction, visitors are lured to the pavillion by a sparkling, swirling sign 25 meters high up, flashing the name in thousands of lights: 'Happy Street.'
More than one hundred countries are represented on the five-by-five kilometre wide exhibition site in Shanghai. For six months more, they will present themselves in the carnival parade otherwise known as the World Expo, putting up an architectural mask in the form of a national pavilion. Technocratic, sustainable, cultural, innovative, impressive, or simply delicate - every trade mission is supported with an appropriate advertising campaign. And the Dutch are definitely doing their best to present themselves as the innovative and freethinking people the world knows them to be.
With his 'Happy Street' Körmeling also takes an idiosyncratic interpretation of the theme of World Expo: Better city, better life. "I wanted to show as much of the Netherlands as possible by building a fictitious street with a farm, factory, home, you name it." Twenty eight houses line Happy Street: Körmeling subtly uses this to suggest how the Dutch are accustomed to maximizing the use of space.
The comical houses are inspired by icons of Dutch architectural history such as the Rietveld-Schröder house or an Amsterdam canal facade. "Do you recognize it already?" asks Körmeling pointing to one of the steel houses. After a brief silence: "The Citroen Garage next to the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam! A building by Jan Wils, one of my favourite architects." It requires some thought, but indeed, in this building of just four by four metres, the round windows of the historic car showroom in 1931 can be recognized.
The houses act as showcases for Dutch Technologies in the fields of energy and sustainability. Philips exhibits the Food Probes, futuristic devices for food preparation. One house stages a small exhibition of Dutch design, starting with Rietveld and ending with Droog. One of the artworks exhibited in the house is ‘Het is me wat’, an absurdist painting by Dutch artist and agent provocateur Wim T. Schippers that is on loan from Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. State of the art agricultural innovations from the University of Wageningen are highlighted alongside advanced devices for rainwater purification.
Water management, Philips, space optimisation, Rietveld and well, alright, the free-spirited humour of Gummbah. These are some of the standard representations with which the Netherlands is internationally profiled. "Such a pavilion primarily is also a country promotion tool," says Mels Crouwel who as former Chief Government Architect in 2008 was then responsible for the selection procedure of the Dutch pavillion. He preferred the design of Körmeling above the entries of big-name architecture guns such as Rem Koolhaas’ OMA, UN Studio (Ben van Berkel), Neutelings Riedijk, landscape architects West 8 and product designer Marcel Wanders. "His design has a striking shape that stands out." And in ‘country promotion’ striking is a must. 'Happy Street' is the cheeky wink that puts the architectural powerhouses in perspective at the World Expo.
Alongside 'Happy Street', the city of Rotterdam opens its own pavilion located in Cities district on the World Expo Site. The port and water management are the leading themes of the pavilion which is entitled ‘Water City’. No sign of futuristic technology or ambitious art here, instead, a concrete structure adorned with walls of heavy canvas prints depicting icons of Rotterdam such as the Erasmus bridge, a crane and the Euromast. And water - especially a lot of water.
"With the pavilion, which has been appropriately baptized Water City, Rotterdam profiles itself as a city that is climate proof,” said project architect Tom van Odijk of TomDavid Architects. "Visitors get an experience of life under the surface of the sea. For the coming decades, Shanghai - which like Rotterdam lies on a river delta to the sea - will have to deal with the issue of rising water levels. We want to show that water is not only a problem, but also spurs the challenge to build another, better city."
Once, the phonograph, telephone, electric streetlights and the first cars were the wonders of world fairs. Today, pioneering inventions are few and far between at the World Expo. The event has become an Olympic Games for countries, whereby Architecture & Design is king. No expenses are spared in the constructing of the most extravagant pavilions full of technical ingenuity. In this case, a market of billions of Chinese beckons.
The Netherlands is not the only country to exploit an impressive pavilion as its business card. With country marketing, deliberate clichés are not shunned (in fact the opposite). Denmark recruited its infamous Little Mermaid, Canada shows off the entire Cirque du Soleil via daily performances in an arena that’s more like a hockey stadium. France flew in a Claude Monet painting, displayed in a pavilion whose interior bears resemblance to the hanging gardens of Versailles. Switzerland built an entire Alpine landscape complete with tunnels, chair lifts and avalanche nets incorporated with thousands of LEDs.
Of course there are countries that just completely throw in a wild card. Take England for example. Strictly speaking, it’s not even a pavilion but a sculpture fashioned by English architect/artist Thomas Heatherwick. On an undulating plateau, lies a ball on which 60 000 fiberglass rods are placed. As a whole, it resembles a delicate dandelion fluff about to disperse into the wind. Likely that was the intention – in the 7.5 meter-long rods are seeds intended to be planted in schools across China after the World Expo so as to symbolically strengthen ties between China and Great Britain. By day, these transparent rods transfer daylight into the interior of the pavilion, by night when the pavilion is illuminated from within, light radiates via the rods to the exterior. That wow factor is further enhanced when the bars slightly sway in the wind. Once inside, it can only disappoint: there’s not much more to see than glass rods containing a seed.
Shiny sand dune
In contrast with the conceptual British artwork, the German pavilion is a model of practical utility and functional efficiency. Compared to Happy Street, it almost looks like a bunker. The closed pavilion only unveils its secret once inside. Visitors wander along a harbour via parks, offices, apartments and past an opera where they end up in a factory. It’s a dazzling showcase for innovative technology however this exhibition machine is equally cold as it is impressive. It’s total fussball and Mercedes combined. The Germans simply do what they are best at.
Some countries end up reinforcing existing prejudices of themselves - albeit unintentionally. The United Arab Emirates looked to the highest order, hiring Sir Norman Foster who designed a giant sand dune of gleaming glass and steel; it is the second largest pavilion. So what exactly is Arabic about it? Nothing really. It has the same soulless nature as the slick six-star hotels and shopping malls of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other five emirates.
The largest and most expensive contribution comes of course from host-country China. It is also the only pavilion that will remain after the expo; it is to be converted into a National Historic Museum. In the shape of a traditional Chinese crown, the red building balances 70 meters above the ground on four enormous columns. The structure consists of 56 wooden beams, a number of which refer to the official number of ethnic minorities in China (including Tibet). At night, when this ‘Crown of the East’ literally shines like a red star, it can be recognised even from afar. It is like China itself: through power in numbers, there lacks any human scale.
Of course there are countries that seize the World Expo as an opportunity to completely create a new image. That Norway is also the land of whaling and oil-drilling rigs at sea, is skillfully glossed with a pavilion made from the eco-material bamboo. The roof of the pavilion is covered with solar cells and an ingenious system of air circulation acts as natural air conditioning.
Holland Heineken House
Creative, that's how the Netherlands has profiled itself via the merry parade of homes by John Körmeling. The anarchist desire for freedom (Gummbah) is barely restrained by a Mondrian-like urge for organization (twenty eight houses in a neat row). In this image-building, nothing is left to chance because the Netherlands ended up being the only country with not one, but two official pavilions. Additionally, in a former factory building between the Prada stores and hotels in the fashionable designer district Jing’An, exhibitions and performances will be held over the next six years in the Dutch Culture Centre, the cultural equivalent of 'Happy Street.'
"A World Expo is a competition between countries. Italy shows the Scala performance, Canada the Cirque du Soleil. But we are the only country with two pavilions that are officially recognized. So we’re leading 1-0," said Martijn Sanders, the creator of the Dutch Culture Centre. The program of this culturally correct version of the Holland Heineken House is compiled by independent bodies such as the Van Abbe Museum and Dutch Architecture Institute (NAi).
The international community is flexing its muscles for the biggest World Expo ever. National monuments have been flown in, as well as the cultural elite. No cost cutting or energy saving here. But after the expo, things will return to business as usual. Körmeling recently visited the pavilion that MVRDV designed for the Netherlands for the World Expo in Hanover in 2000. "The building is empty and neglected. It’s terrible that the beautiful architecture there is just rotting away." But he assures that will not happen with his pavilion: if it’s up to the creator, then his 'Happy Street' will be cut into pieces and melted down in October. It is Körmeling who once more puts the entire World Expo and the Dutch effort into perspective with his dry humour: “By cutting it up we also get rid of all this yacking on about sustainability and recycling, haha…"
Main image and images 1-9: 'Happy Street'
Image 10: British Pavilion, photograhy: Daniele Mattioli
Image 11: German Paviiion
Image 12: Danish Pavilion
Image 13: UAE Pavilion
Image 14: Chinese Pavilion
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