O (No) Canada!

It is cherry blossom season in Japan. Spring in Nagoya is the perfect time for both hanami (the art of viewing flowering cherry trees) and Expo 2005 Aichi that opened on March 25 and will close 185 days later in September.

The Expo is situated miles outside Nagoya in the midst of a greenbelt, and the master plan takes into the account the sensitive nature of the site. A meandering raised walkway hovers over the landscape supported by a forest of steel columns underneath. The idea is minimum environmental footprint…this is a green Expo where sustainability is one of the dominant agendas, evident in its official theme Beyond Development: Rediscovering Nature’s Wisdom.

Instead of following previous Expos where architectural pyrotechnics were the order of the day, the national pavilions are confined to the form of a predetermined box consisting of a steel frame with wood infill wall panels. The pavilions are designed to be dismountable and recyclable. This is not the land of the brave, but of the sensible where the PR machine uses the new three Rs–Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Excess of any kind is the enemy–even the most innocent empty bottle or wrapper awaits the hands of eager attendants that sort the garbage into appropriate bins.

Although the philosophical underpinnings are fundamentally different, it is interesting how the usual Expo architecture remains. There is the Ferris wheel, the overhead gondola, the space frames and the train. What really is the distinguishing factor?

Well, to start there is a lot of wood–bamboo and cedar is in abundance. The Japanese pavilion in particular is a bamboo cage that acts as a giant thermal insulator and a bulbous wrapper for the other building nested inside. There is not a lot of glass; most pavilions appear as blank boxes with the shows happening inside. Because of the similarity of the pavilions, there is an overall muted tone to the whole affair–not the most exciting atmosphere in which to bring the world together to celebrate its diversity.

Unfortunately, the Canadian pavilion whose theme is “The Wisdom of Diversity,” has followed all the rules and blends in perfectly. The 1,000-square-metre “recyclable” pavilion and its contents were designed and constructed by a consortium of Canadian companies comprised of Lunny International of Vancouver (with Paul Merrick Architects), Lambert International of Montreal and I-mmersion of Toronto.

Despite the efforts of all involved and under the veil of politeness and good intentions, the Canadian pavilion has really nothing to say, just empty clichs filling the predetermined void. The exterior of the Canadian pavilion is embarrassingly banal–a mute grey wood exterior with a graphic scrim wrapping the pavilion’s front and side. The only moment of “expression” is a curious and distorted red space-frame structure depicting a maple leaf anchored to the ground near the pavilion’s entry, where a live mounted police officer and multi- lingual techno hosts (Teku-Jins) stand on guard. Instead of hiring the best and brightest architects and designers, the Canadian government has hired the safe and the sure. The Canadian identity is reduced to the clichs of maple leaves, mounted police and a layered, multi-media extravaganza celebrating our “cultural diversity.” Those responsible for the Expo vision have covered all the bases, but in the end have forgotten to play the game by taking risks and challenging preconceived notions of our nation.

In contrast to the blandness of Canadian pavilion, the Spanish and Croatian pavilions offer delight to the eye and to the senses. The Croatian pavilion, entitled “A Drop of Water: A Grain of Salt” was designed by 3LHD, an interdisciplinary studio comprised of Sasa Begovic, Marko Dabrovic, Tanja Grozdanic and Silvije Novak that is based in Zagreb. In this pavilion, form and content are inseparable, the entire production based around the idea, the plan and the metaphor of salt pans–a typical feature found in the Croatian landscape and its history.

The exterior of the pavilion is comprised of elongated undulating white ribbons “floating” above a canopy, allowing shade underneath its blue glass ceiling filled with water. Inside, the pavilion’s most striking feature is an enormous white room with a gridded floor of raked salt recalling a Japanese Zen garden. The visitor is led across the floor to the other end of the room–which is, surprisingly, a large platform that elevates the visitor to a mezzanine above. From this vista, the bed of salt is transformed into a single tremendous horizontal screen measuring 15 * 25 metres upon which is projected a bird’s-eye-view video about Croatia. The effect is as if you are flying above the landscape, and above the sea, cities, ships and people of this incredible war-torn country. Its emotional content at points brings tears to the eyes, dropping to the salt beds below.

The spicy bits of the Expo 2005 Aichi are surely found at the Spanish pavilion designed by Alejandro Zaera Polo of FOA. The boxy pavilion is wrapped with a perforated outer skin comprised of hundreds of ceramic hexagons in varied and warm hues of orange, made from Spanish clay. Between the two “skins,” an interstitial space is created that provides a sheltered and shaded transitional zone for the visiting crowds. The faade offers a strong architectural signature and a destination point for the entire Expo.

Although resolutely contemporary, the Spanish pavilion looks to its cultural past for its spatial arrangement. Its plan resembles the design of a cathedral: its five exhibition spaces are the “chapels” that are in turn connected the central “nave” of the plaza. The flat hexagonal geometry of the exterior is translated into a series of three-dimensional honeycomb-like spaces for the pavilion’s interior rooms. There is both a consistency and playfulness evident in the architectural expression. The content is equally exuberant: among them, exhibits on Quixote, explanations about the fiestas and feasts of Spain, and for the peckish, a real tapas bar with, of course, chorizo and cerveza. Concoctions from Spain’s most noted avant-garde chefs are also on the menu.

Sustainability in today’s architectural culture is a loaded word emptied of its meaning through overuse. But surely, to enrich the notion of sustainability and to avoid prescriptive approaches, we must add cultural sustainability to the ecological equation. Sustainability does not mean the safe and the bland. Instead, it should favour exuberance in all its diverse forms. The “sustainable” agenda should not be a foil for the bureaucratic structures that prefer pragmatic and mediocre agendas to the more difficult critical and expressive ones.

The history of Japanese architecture demonstrates that notions of sustainability–how a building breathes, how it is rooted in the landscape, how it is tempered–are not just technical issues. They are embedded in the sensibilities of a culture. If only Expo 2005 had looked more to the poetics of the Imperial Palace of Katsura for lessons instead of the realm of the proven and quantifiable, it surely would have been an architectural feast to sustain both the body and the soul of the most distracted visitor.

Michael Carroll is an adjunct professor at McGill University, a cofounder of atelier BUILD, and the recipient of the 2004 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture.