Wednesday 8 July 2015

Milano 2015 - a day at the Expo

I recently visited Milan for the first time and whilst there had the chance to spend a day at Expo Milano 2015, which has chosen Feeding the planet, energy for life as its theme. 145 countries are represented at the Expo, many with their own stand alone pavilion whilst others have grouped together in regional clusters or under particular themes - including coffee and chocolate - each of which have several countries exhibiting on the same theme but showing different approaches to production. What a treat!

Waiting to get into Ecuador's pavilion
The pavilions are set out in a temporary boulevard, 1.5 kilometres long and the whole site covers 1.1 million square metres of exhibition space. 20 million visitors are expected before the Expo ends and there were many thousands of visitors on the day I attended. The gates open at 10 am and I made a point of arriving very early in order not to have to wait. This was a good decision as there were already lengthy queues at the ticket desks half an hour before opening - I bought my ticket in advance!

One of my main reasons to visit was to enjoy the architecture of the pavilions. I was not disappointed. There is an extremely eclectic mix of styles and approaches ranging from the austere modernity of the Sudanese pavilion, to the inventiveness of the Polish structure, and lets be honest, the crassness of some that shall remain nameless!!! It is hard to pick out favourites to feature so what follows are just a few of my the highlights. 

Entering the Expo site one of the very first pavilions visitors come to is that of Brazil. A long queue had already developed here within half an hour of the gates opening. Designed by Arthur Casas and Marko Brajovic, the structure included a netting walkway suspended above the floor of the pavilion, from where visitors can look down at the plants growing below. The accompanying exhibition illustrates Brazil's approach to research in models of consumption and production, combining technology, culture and society. 

Brazil's pavilion
A little further along the boulevard, the Israeli pavilion explored similar themes. The presentation covered Israel's significant contribution to developing sustainable methods of agriculture, particularly in relation to efficient use of scarce water resources which have helped turn many of its dessert areas green. These methods have been shared with other countries as have developments in desalination. The theme of the Israeli pavilion Fields of tomorrow is further demonstrated by the exterior of the building which features a green wall, divided into rectangles and growing different varieties of grasses and crops. The pavilion is the work of accomplished Israeli architect David Knafo who has built a reputation in the field of sustainable architecture having won the Agro Housing competition in Wuhan, China.

Israel's pavilion
I enjoyed the fun approach of Brazil's pavilion and the inventiveness of Israel's, but I have to admit that the Polish pavilion combined both of these elements with a really well thought out response to the theme of the Expo with its apple crate wooden structure, magnificent secret garden, contextual film,  shop and restaurant both of which showcased Polish cuisine and food production.

The pavilion is entered through a narrow alley leading to a staircase which in turn leads visitors to the secret garden with its winding path between the flowers and herbs, reflective walls and gentle music. The peaceful ambience of this very hidden space is a welcome respite from the huge crowds on the boulevard and I enjoyed the very delicate and interesting version version of  Theme from a summer place that was being played as I strolled through. The pavilion was designed by Piotr Musialowski of the 2PM architectural firm. I loved the simplicity of the overall design, the surprise of the garden and yes, even the colours of goods shelved in the shop, Polish pickles, preserves and alcohol. Well done Poland.

The entrance to the Polish pavilion
Poland's secret garden
I had to visit the British pavilion twice before I could get in. On my first attempt the queue for entry was discouragingly long and so I retreated to the coffee cluster - more of which very soon. I am very happy that I returned and managed to get inside on the second attempt. Accessed by a maze, the pavilion is visually stunning - a metal construction that from the distance resembles a huge swarm of bees and which was inspired by the unique role of hives in our ecosystem. The design, which is the work of Wolfgang Buttress combines excellent designs with strong environmental credentials. The accompanying explanations include references to the UK as a hive of industry and standing underneath the pavilion and looking up into the mesh of the "hive" the movement of visitors at the upper level really does resemble bees at work. 

The British pavilion was so popular that stewards were employed to manage the flow of traffic through the heart of the hive, extolling us to keep moving so that more people could enter. As with many of the pavilions, efforts were made to display national cuisine. The Pimms may have been a cliche but the availability of chips was a very nice touch! 

Britain's hive of industry
Which leads me back to coffee. In addition to the stand alone national pavilions,there are also a number of "clusters" based on particular themes. Friends and regular readers will know that my shoes were magnetised to this group of small pavilions which included contributions from Burundi, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kenya, Rwanda, Timor-Leste, Uganda and Yemen. I managed to get a look in just about all of them but lingered in the Ethiopian pavilion where a coffee ceremony was taking place and where it was possible to get a free sip of richly flavoured East African coffee. I spent even more time in the Yemen pavilion where a variety of pieces of "jewellery" were on sale as well as much more interestingly, different types of ground coffee. The aroma of the different blends not only drew me to the pavilion but also resulted in my purchase of half a kilo of Mocha. Happy to pay 15 Euros for my purchase, the salesman attempted to engage me in some good old fashioned middle eastern bartering, assuring me that I wanted to buy three bags for 40 Euros. A kind offer, but I was on Easy Jet with only hand luggage so it was a non-starter. And just so you know I would never fly with them again. Late leaving London and late leaving Milan. No explanations and no apologies. And not even that cheap. There is nothing easy about Easy Jet. The Mocha is delicious in case you are interested and there is also a Lavazza stall in the coffee cluster so it was only polite to enjoy a cup there and a couple of Italian pastries.

Coffee salesmen in Yemen's pavilion
The architecture may have been the main attraction for me but I also enjoyed the surprise and delight of encountering the unexpected. I have already mentioned Poland's secret garden, but add to this some delightful Vietnamese musicians (and the tiny characters on display in the pool outside the Vietnamese pavilion), the floating discs suspended from the ceiling of Brunei's building and the Slovenian swing dancers (and the people in animal costumes who tried to join in, causing some consternation to the dance group). I loved the spectacle of colour that is the exterior of Ecuador's entry, the strange racquet like discs outside the Korean pavilion and the stylish lettering and decorative features of Angola's. I enjoyed the graceful curve of the Uruguayan pavilion and was struck by the huge reflective canopy of Russia's - Big Brother may still be watching us. Oh, and I also liked the Malaysian curry, Israeli ice-cream, Belgian chips, Ethiopian coffee and Italian pastry that helped sustain me throughout the day. 

The Expo runs until October 31st. Is best to buy tickets online in advance to avoid long queues. I managed to combine my visit with two extra days in the city which holds many delights. 

You might also like A Few Days In Milan.

Russia's reflective canopy
Uruguay's pavilion
Korean racquets
Vietnamese figures
Floating discs from Brunei
Stylish lettering from Angola

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