How much money is the Eiffel Tower worth? It is an answerless question, but one that many have nevertheless posed, and a few have tried to resolve. One recent estimate claimed €435 billion—but the price of air travel and entry tickets, evidently, cannot encompass the tower’s worth in the cultural imagination, so why would anyone ever bother? One possible reason: the Eiffel Tower is the great survivor of the 1889 World’s Fair and stands as a barometer, however unrealistic, of the future potential of all such expositions.
World’s fairs bring together participating nations into architecturally elaborate pavilions that display whatever each guest nation wishes to broadcast, in theory according to the fair’s topical theme du jour. These connections can be tenuous. At San Francisco’s fair of 1915, you might learn of agricultural practices in New Zealand, forest products in Honduras, or the palatial architectural of Japan. Architecture has always been a heavily promoted feature of the fairs, and they have helped to introduce Beaux-Arts, art deco, and Brazilian modernism (among other styles) to new audiences. Critics have routinely met such architectural novelties with disdain, given that the common palette is surfeit, expense, and transience. Apart from the handful of structures that have legs, and outlive the fair—organizers never know when they might wind up with another Ferris wheel (Chicago) or Space Needle (Seattle)—a world’s fair is an ephemeral event, never built to last.
What is more, the common wisdom holds that almost all of them lose money. Accordingly, the thousands of protesters at the May Day opening of the most recent iteration of the world’s fair, Expo Milano, could reasonably demand why the central government of a country that has been in and out of recession since 2008 should spend an estimated €10 billion on a historically bad bet, this one devoted to the theme of “food.” The aims of the “NoExpo” protesters were characteristically mixed, a patchwork of green, anarchist, and labor concerns. Nevertheless, the groups could all critically point to the graft and fraudulence of the Expo’s organizers, some of whom were arrested; they could point to the curious presence of “national” pavilions for Coca-Cola and McDonalds; and they could point to Milan’s last world’s fair, in 1906, which left behind a single building, an aquarium.
In any case, Expo Milano has come to pass (it continues until October), and although built for the world, it has come to pass chiefly for the Milanese, its principal attendees and employees. They are there as families, ignoring the many food offerings in favor of their own picnics, and they are there in the various national pavilions, many of which have only a small number of delegates from the visiting nation and are otherwise staffed by Italians. As a make-work project to supply summer jobs for locals, the Expo is a success: young men learning to make momo dumplings in the kitchen of the Nepalese pavilion, stealing cigarette breaks during the Cirque du Soleil show, and hatching summer romances with the women staffing the Czech exhibits.
For the rest of us, the contract of the fair is carrot and stick. Carrot: above all, the food and drink, including well-known dishes of more than a hundred nations, wines from more than a thousand Italian vineyards, and culinary coinages that aim to fuse national tastes, such as the mozzarella and prosciutto “sushi” at the Japanese pavilion. The trope that has tempted any number of American journalists has been to call this world’s fair the “world’s food court.” It is half right: there is a sense of comestible choice and plenty but also one of celebration and carnival. Not merely in the self-presentation of national food cultures but in various displays of new media. World’s fairs have often been the place where the public first met with a new technology, from the telephone to IMAX, and Expo Milano is in this regard no different. Oculus Rifts are to be found here and there alongside countless mobile video screens and projection technologies that may well, someday, become commonplace. Although the long-term success of individual technologies is of course impossible to predict, Milan continues the world’s fair tradition of futurist speculation.
Stick: the over-workshopped, occasionally blatant nonsense of the various countries’ public service announcements. The bargain of the fair is: come into our pavilion, have a little snack, use an interesting new technology, and watch our (without exception) terrible educational video. The official theme of the expo is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” which was apparently taken as a call for the minor bureaucrats of the world’s nations to produce a cut-up of the Wednesday New York Times’ food section. Emblematic national taglines include:
Go Organic for Better Life / From the Purest Sources / United to Feed the Planet / Feeding the World with Solutions / Harmonious Diversity / Shaping and Sharing the Future / Journey to the Center of Life / Healthy with Every Bite!
Cumulatively, the various rhetorical angles the nations take are barely distinguishable from one another. The factoids are austere and forgettable (the average German eats 17kg of fish each year), whereas the technological delivery and the food are both excessive and memorable. This uneasy divide between austerity and excess is in keeping with the history of world’s fairs, which have seldom been about what they are ostensibly about. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, presently celebrating its centenary in San Francisco, was superficially about the opening of the Panama Canal, but for the punter, it was about a light show and a first fortune cookie. The worried-over balance has always been between the sensate and the cerebral: come for the Ferris wheel, stay for the moralizing.
The historical record suggests that your average fairgoer took home the fun more than the lesson. This remains the case. The most famous surviving world’s fair structures tend to be known for the panoramic views that they provide; they offer a thrill along with a display of engineering ingenuity. While there are many innovative buildings at Expo Milano—the shashka-curved, mirrored roof of the Russian pavilion, the digital riff on a geodesic dome at the UK pavilion—there is no abiding monument here. A few “Technogyms,” small transparent rooms containing treadmills, are scattered around the convention site. They provide the opportunity to publicly work off your lunch of risotto Milanese. They sit entirely unused. The expo’s mascot, meanwhile, is officially the Disney-designed “Foody,” an Arcimboldo fruit portrait with googly eyes. Spiritually, though, it is Rabelais—in a reluctant hair shirt.