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A grand vision to radically rethink the lasting value of a World Expo, the Milan Expo in 2015 originated with great ambitions. Recognizing the long history of world expos that have often ravaged public spending and catalyzed urban displacement, the committee behind Milan’s Expo 2015 was determined to deliver a fair that would be a marker of Italy’s strengthening economic position, a conveyer of solutions for tackling the global food crisis and a regenerative ground plan for the stimulation of agricultural activity in Milan, all at once.
In this video interview for urbanNext, Italian architect and urban planner Lorenzo Degli Esposti of Degli Esposti Architetti shows viewers the state of the Expo site in January 2016, three months after the six-month fair came to an end. “You can immediately notice as the place that was chosen for the exhibition, [it] is completely out of everything, it’s nowhere,” says Degli Esposti of the exposition site. The site, surrounded by a network of highways, appears as if sunk in inaccessibly, an isolated island of its own making, unoccupied and revealing signs of decay.
Purchased from private landowners, the former agricultural site had been brokered for the exhibition grounds with hopes that the exhibition design, led by Swiss architect Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron, would provide the necessary infrastructure for the flourishing of urban development once the expo ended. Following the expo’s sustainably minded theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” early plans depicted a proposal to regenerate the agricultural productivity of the area, envisioning a kind of garden city equipped with a series of urban canals for irrigation of the neighboring fields.
Early concepts of the EXPO 2015 Master Plan Advisory committee depict visions of a lush, green expo site and a network of canals for its future; images via William McDonough + Partners
The exhibition master plan was equally ecologically oriented and ordered by a democratizing focus. Jacques Herzog designed a long central axis where each pavilion would have an equal-sized plot of 30 meters (98 feet) wide on each side. “Structures and pavilions were proposed to be demountable and constructed from safe materials designed to return to either biological or technical metabolisms,” say design architects William McDonough + Partners, who were on the master plan advisory committee. Instead, the committee’s plans were said to have been overturned by the committee’s lead designer Stefano Boeri, and the the plot was filled with concrete, aiding the process of development for the expo but barring any future agricultural activity from taking place.
The site as it currently stands during demolition
The Expo’s planning and production had been controversial from start to finish. Riddled by corruption, crippling demands on public funds and displaying such a wealth of hypocrisies as to completely undermine its message, the Expo exposed cracks in its morally motivated veneer from start to finish. “It was a good tool to win,” remarks Degli Esposti, suggesting the Expo’s theme was chosen purely as an act of national showmanship. “Anger at the war on food is very politically correct, very urgent, [it is] very useful to talk about that,” he continues. Unfortunately these intentions appear to have been wildly misguided.
“It was the opportunity to test a new city,” says Degli Esposti gazing over the site from a nearby bridge, instead, “The whole process enlarged the cost of the land so much that no one is going to buy it.” According to an article from the Guardian, the site was at one point surfaced to the market at an asking price of €315 million without any takers. The site remains empty as demolition of the costly and flamboyant pavilions is underway. “In the end, they are expensive temporary pavilions to be destroyed after the event to give room to speculation, which the market today is not supporting,” concludes Degli Esposti, “and so we’ll have … these two main roads waiting for some other occasion.”
In late February of 2016, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi revealed new plans for the Expo Site. The city would not continue looking for new landowners, rather the government has pledged to sink €1.5 billion of public funds into the creation of a new research complex dedicated to the life sciences, the Human Technopole 2040. While many welcome the commitment to nourishing the Italian Science sector, others remain deeply skeptical of the project by the apparent lack of transparency in the plan’s development. Furthermore, many are critical that the government continues to bury its resources most favorably in the nation’s capital. This act feels particularly egregious given that the original purchase of the Expo Site land was made from private developers on a rather misguided land speculation.
Through its various blunderings in the Expo’s aftermath, the Italian government reveals a stark hollowness to the social and humanitarian messaging of the fair that raise serious questions as to the effectiveness of such an event in promoting conscientious global design solutions. If a lesson can be found, it may be that any fair which takes a global issue to task must first and foremost ensure the platform on which it rests is designed sustainably for its ideas to float.
Words by Joanna Kloppenburg
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