Expos are strange creatures. I’ve worked on several over the years, and visited others, and I have mixed feelings about them. The truth is that they are usually aimed primarily at the local population wherever they are held, so the experience of an international visitor is quite different to that of the main audience. Local residents can visit as often as they like over the six months that they run, discovering different things each time they visit, and enjoying the atmosphere, the entertainment and the many restaurants and bars, whereas as an international visitor there is a pressure to try to see everything that is best in just a short visit, and this is almost impossible to do. Many pavilions take time - both to queue to get in, but then to absorb and enjoy the content – and if you are trying to see all of the highlights on a schedule this can cause some frustration.
Your enjoyment will also depend to some extent on your interest in the theme of the Expo, as you will find yourself being told the same things a number of times to varying levels of detail, particularly if the organisers have not exercised much editorial influence.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Milan, and managed to see about 50 pavilions over two trips, and in talking about them with others I’ve discovered just how different people’s reactions can be to what they experience.
Some people get inspired by the architecture, and some by the interior design. Some get excited by the use of technology, others by simplicity. Some get absorbed in the content, whilst others just skim the surface as they tick off their list of visits.
Expo 2015 runs until the end of October, so there’s still time to visit. My advice would be not to be too ambitious. It’s hot, it’s tiring, and if you rush around you won’t really enjoy it. You won’t see all of it unless you stay for a week, so don’t even try.
The easy thing to do would be to list my top 10 pavilions, but I’ve realised that my top 10 just won’t be everyone else’s. So instead here’s a “Best for” guide, and I leave it to you to decide which ones sound appealing.
There are several country pavilions that I didn’t get to, and a series of ‘clusters’ that are groups of small country pavilions linked to particular food types, but I haven’t included these in this article.
So here’s my personal guide to help you to get the most from a short visit to Expo 2015 Milan…
Best for introducing the theme
Pavilion Zero. It’s right at the entrance. It really is a thorough introduction to the theme of the expo, and puts the rest into context. The queue might look off-putting, but it’s huge inside and the throughput is high. It’s something of a showcase for a number of Italian designers and content-creators, and uses a range of techniques. You need to read the text panels, and you will come out in the right mindset for what everyone else is going to tell you.
Best for interactive technology…and cheesy songs…and being a bit too long
Germany has way too much information, but told in really interesting ways. As you arrive, you’re given a plain square card, which turns into a simple interactive device in conjunction with some very clever intelligent projection, and the content is based around a series of hosts to guide you through their story. In marked contrast, the experience ends in a theatre with a live interactive beatbox performance that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but illustrates the range of techniques that can be described as ‘interactive’.
Japan has a long queue and is slow to get through, but has a series of interesting spaces using a variety of techniques including an unusual app that does a few clever things including image collection and simultaneous translation. However, just when you think you’ve seen the whole thing, you find yourself waiting to enter a theatre for another live song and dance show, this time with interactive chopsticks…
Best for weird
Czech Republic. Hard to know what to say about this, but if you are intrigued by the bizarre sculpture outside (a combination of car, bird and plane) then there is more of the same inside…
Best for Black and White
South Korea’s food philosophy places great emphasis on colour, and to highlight this the entire pavilion is black and white, creating maximum impact from the colour in the food imagery. A pair of choreographed robots and several other interesting techniques bring their story to life.
Best for a breath of fresh air
Bahrain is a beautifully simple pavilion. It has modular architecture that will be rebuilt in Bahrain after the expo, and houses a series of outdoor gardens showcasing a variety of plants that flourish there. It only takes a few minutes to explore, but is an oasis of calm.
Austria has a wonderful atmosphere, and is proud of it! The main theme of the pavilion is air quality, and the trees in their inner space generate enough oxygen for 1800 people. It’s an experience that transports you from the buzz of the expo very effectively.
Best for long queues
Italy. As the host country, it’s bound to be a popular pavilion, and its cost-overruns and late opening have added to the interest. I joined the queue on my first visit then discovered how long the wait was and thought I’d try again when the pavilion was fully opened. I tried again on my second visit, but they closed it down for a VIP visit by Prince Albert of Monaco, so I gave up again and ran out of time for a third attempt… hopefully it’s worth the wait.
Best for content imagery
Expos have always produced beautiful content, and these pavilions, whilst very different, are good examples of the art of visually compelling content.
Argentina draws you in with vibrant imagery on an overhead LED conveyor belt, and once you have made your way upstairs, you find yourself inside a series of silos, whose inner curved walls become projection surfaces carrying expansive imagery celebrating Argentina’s position as a major producer and exporter of produce.
Vanke is a Chinese property developer – one of a handful of corporates to have invested in their own pavilions. The striking Daniel Liebskind-designed structure houses a lovely calm space, with an 8 minute film shown on 200 screens, celebrating a day in the life of China, with a wonderful final scene that brings friends and family together in a shared love of food.
Best for learning about Expos
If this is your first Expo, then the Expo Museum is an interesting short interlude that gives you a bit of background into their history from the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Best for hanging out
Holland has the feel of an open-air festival, with plenty of spaces to relax and enjoy some unusual food (including seaweed burgers) from a variety of food trucks, whilst listening to DJs or bands. But it also has small tent structures with some intriguing content.
Best for trying food
Russia has a large imposing pavilion with one of the best ‘selfie’ opportunities in the form of an enormous cantilevered mirrored roof over the entrance. It is very spacious inside, but is reliant on the food demonstrations and tastings to bring it to life. Check the app for timings, as these are really the only times when it is worth visiting.
Best for style over substance
As with everything else this is subjective, but there always seem to be a few pavilions where the designers get carried away and the content doesn’t quite live up to the surroundings.
France looks beautiful - the whole interior is like a huge art installation inspired by food and cooking, but the majority of the content, on large screens placed on agricultural trailers, feels like an afterthought.
China takes you on a journey through a series of spaces, but it doesn’t hang together as a story. A large central space is taken up by a field of LED that is just a bit too low-res to be effective, and a very long wait for an animated film and dance performance that are OK, but don’t really justify the wait.
Slovenia also looks striking, and is beautifully fitted-out, but just doesn’t have much to say, except that Slovenia contains the word love…
United Kingdom is a striking design – a representation of a bee colony, and the whole pavilion is linked up to a working hive in the UK. I’m reliably informed that if you get a guided tour then it’s a fascinating pavilion to visit, but without that explanation it is a very underwhelming experience.
Best for avoiding if you have vertigo
Brazil is entered via a huge tensioned rope net that you walk across, over a garden below. It’s fun and unusual, and not to be attempted in high heels. The rest of the pavilion has a light fresh feel and interesting content, but quite a lot of this is delivered by underpowered projection that is washed out by the lightness of the space.
Best for unusual presentation formats
Qatar is an interesting pavilion with a lot of relevant content told in a variety of ways. The centre piece (which looks like a giant basket from outside) is a three storey spiralling walkway around a central projection-mapped feature. Slightly more style than substance, but no lack of effort!
Romania is a strange little pavilion, and the first time I’ve ever seen bi-fold doors made out of LED!
Best for splitting opinion
USA has a huge pavilion that’s supposed to look like a giant food truck. It’s impressive to be greeted by President Obama on video, and there’s some interesting content, but the main ‘show’ is a walk-through pulsed environment with a series of projected stories that to me just feel low budget and low effort. I hope they’ve worked out an alternative to the gaffer-taped arrows that were on the carpet when we visited…
Best for a sense of pride
The UAE pavilion is one of the largest pavilions in the EXPO, although you can’t tell that at first glance. It tends to have a long queue, and uses a range of presentation techniques including miniature Pepper’s Ghosts, Augmented Reality and a 4D cinema experience, as well as a huge Musion show, making it one of the most technically complex pavilions in the whole expo. The experience that we have created for Expo 2020 Dubai is at the heart of the pavilion following the main UAE story. Its main audience is VIP groups, at which point it gets closed to the public, but at all other times it’s a fascinating glimpse into Dubai’s plans for 2020. We won the project against some stiff competition, and had a fascinating six months developing and producing the content.
Best hidden gem
The European Union pavilion is tucked away among the Italian regions. Its main content is told through an animated film, which is very well made. For me it is just the right length, tells its story well, and has a few ‘4D’ effects for added enjoyment.
Best of the rest
These are all well presented pavilions in the tradition of Expos – interesting content told using a variety of techniques, telling you things about a country that you didn’t already know (or at least that I didn’t already know!)
Belgium is well designed, and takes you on an interesting journey, with demonstrations of hydroponics and discussion of the viability of insects as a sustainable source of protein.
Azerbaijan is also well designed, with some intriguing interactive elements, a variety of unusual video formats, good use of sound domes, and a lot of information about a country you may not know much about.
Monaco, is not to everyone’s taste, as it doesn’t play to stereotype, but for me this makes its message all the more effective, especially since the structure will be relocated to Burkina Faso to be used by the Red Cross after Expo.
Kazakhstan is a pulsed pavilion, so always has a queue, but there is an outdoor stage to attract and entertain. Once inside, the experience begins with a live sand artist illustrating a brief history of the country. In marked contrast, the rest of the pavilion is a combination of effective multi-media installations which highlight the fact that Kazakhstan will be host to the next regional Expo in 2017.
Kuwait is also a pulsed pavilion, with a range of interesting content and some dramatic moments.
Best for food
I had the opportunity to enjoy food from Holland, Indonesia, South Korea, China, Spain, Thailand, Slovenia, Japan, Italy, Chile and the future food piazza, and there are plenty of other great restaurants to choose from!
Best evening entertainment
There was a Cirque du Soleil show that ran through the summer. It wasn’t the most spectacular Cirque show, and a shame that they simply bought in a name rather than creating an original concept, but it was an energetic show themed around food that was an enjoyable way to round off your day. There is also a ‘Tree of Life’ next to the Italian pavilion and designed by the same creative team, which runs shows through the day and slightly more spectacular shows once it gets dark, combining LED, projection, water, lasers and pyro.