Expo review

Astana Expo

Astana Expo 2017 said goodbye to the last of its four million guests in September. So was it successful? Christian Lachel, creative director for the United States Pavilion, shares his highlights


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Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to Astana in 1998, and embarked on a fiendishly difficult task that has defeated many city planners: building a visionary, futuristic city that incorporates a number of styles and functions into a single cohesive, awe-inspiring whole. The same kind of visionary thinking went into the design of the site for the Astana Expo. The Expo plan fitted snugly in the context of greater Astana: elegant and modern, guided by a design intention to present a “future that works for everyone.”

The brevity of the Expo – three months – and the modest ambitions of the Expo planners (Astana drew 4 million, in contrast to Shanghai’s 73 million in 2010) contributed to its success. Expo participants embraced the challenge of creating entertaining, charismatic pavilions on short schedules with limited budgets. Almost every participant created a solution that contributed to the liveliness and pure fun of this Expo.

Nur Alem Pavilion (The Sphere)

Architect: Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill

The Expo hosts got this one just right. First, the Nur Alem Pavilion was a brilliant icon for the Expo. This dramatic sphere anchored the site and drew people towards it. It shimmered in the sun during the day, and was illuminated with coloured lights during the striking Kazakh sunsets. At night, it came alive with LED lighting featuring signature media. The presentations inside were flawless, from the mythic history of Kazakhstan to the kinds of energy that will power the 21st century.

Shell Pavilion

Design: Shell

This place, one of the few stand-alone corporate pavilions, made a tactical decision to win the hearts of children (and the parents trying to entertain them). Shell invited kids to come inside, engage in fun, interactive activities and ‘Build Your Own Future World.’ Lots of smiling faces emerging from this pavilion.

Germany

Design: Gtp2 Architekten GmbH & Insglück Markeninszenierung

This pavilion combined an elegant, efficient design aesthetic with a clever interactivity strategy to please guests. We were given a ‘smart stick’ geared to our language preference. This stick allowed us to collect information, solutions and ideas on our journey. We were then invited to discover various kinds of emerging energy and a variety of energy products. In the final immersive media space, the energy stick triggered a show that affirmed the need for diverse solutions the world will need to meet our energy needs. Great hospitality complemented this programme of guest engagement.

Austria

Architect: BWM

Austria delivered on an oft-ignored commandment of Expo design: “Expos are supposed to be FUN!” As I entered, I found myself inside a wild and whimsical ‘Power Machine,’ with all the energy supplied by guests. I joined my fellow visitors pedaling a stationary bike and pulling on ropes to power a Willy Wonka style factory of pop art kinetic sculptures. This pavilion put every guest at the centre of the experience.

Monaco

Design: Simmetrico Srl

Great pavilions don’t have to be large and complex. Monaco produced a mesmerising experience that featured undulating mirrored blades that reflected media relating to Monaco’s relationship with its marine environment. The effect, enhanced with a lush soundscape and aromas, was hypnotic. And Monaco also served the best cup of coffee at the Expo, part of its outstanding hospitality programme.

United State

Design: BRC Imagination Arts

The United States Pavilion was all about hospitality and engagement. After a greeting by a friendly ambassador, guests were asked, “What is the source of infinite energy?” An immersive multi-media presentation delivered the answer with a blast of exhilarating music, acrobatic dancing and a cascade of kinetic images. The source of infinite energy is, of course, us! People! Harnessing our ingenuity and innovation can solve all the challenges we face in creating an abundant, sustainable world. This show was followed by an exhibition that included an interactive energy model, interactive video walls, and supporting fun photo opportunities.

Netherlands

Design: Expo Pavilion Group/Gestalt

This exercise in pure fun asked us, “What if the great Dutch painter Piet Mondrian designed a pavilion that showed the world how, for centuries, the Dutch have used boldness and ingenuity to adapt to a hostile environment and climate change?”

Mondrian’s bright and playful graphic design put across the theme ‘Low Land, High Energy’ with simplicity and style. The highlight was a 3D holographic theater. This was a multi-layered visual feast that engaged the Expo theme in a way that was effortless, seamless and memorable.

Great Britain

Design: Asif Khan

Asif Khan’s pavilion was simple, elegant and striking. As we entered, we discovered a living, computer-generated ‘universal landscape’ that cycled through a virtual night and day. At the centre of this landscape was a stylised, immersive yurt-inspired structure composed of transparent spokes that illuminated when touched. Then came a gallery of energy innovations in the UK, and a special display on graphene – a wonder material that is the strongest, thinnest and most permeable material known to man.

 / Design by Asif Khan © Crown copyright
Design by Asif Khan © Crown copyright
 / Photo: Luke Hayes courtesy of DIT
Photo: Luke Hayes courtesy of DIT

UAE

Design: Ralph Appelbaum Associates

This pavilion was the perfect precursor to the UAE hosting the next world Expo in Dubai. This is a country that will provide a gracious, hospitable welcome to the world. The signature experience was an immersive, energetic presentation about how the UAE is building on its past traditions to provide future generations with sustainable and stable sources of energy.

Switzerland

Design: Aterlier Oï

null, Switzerland had a standout pavilion in Milan, and their expression of ‘Flower Power’ in Astana was another winner. Here we entered a world illuminated by a kinetic light sculpture featuring poles with spinning LED lights projecting flowers. We were then invited to enter three narrative ‘chateaux’: energy self-sufficiency, food production and clean water. All this, plus a flexible space to showcase new ideas and hold creative workshops.

Israel

Design: AVS Creative Visual Solutions

A powerful experience can be short and straightforward. The Israel pavilion featured two simple, well-executed five-minute show experiences that delighted guests.

The first room, ‘Energy Country,’ was an infinity room that plunged us into all aspects of Israeli culture, powered by alternative forms of energy. The second room presented a live dancer supported by 360-degree video projections and an LED sphere hovering above the stage. This was a dynamic fusion of art, dance, science and technology.

 / Photo: Yevgeniya Gorobets
Photo: Yevgeniya Gorobets

Russia

Commissioner: Georgy Kalamanov

RussiaCommissioner: Georgy Kalamanov
This pavilion was very well executed and quite impressive. Russia chose to focus its narrative firepower on the story of icebreakers finding energy under the Arctic. Here Russia showcased its technology and expertise about finding energy in treacherous environments to power the near future. Guests found themselves under the ice in the Arctic and in an ice cave. We were even invited to touch a giant chunk of Arctic ice.

Japan

Commissioner general: Tomiyasu Nakamura

Once again, Japan delivered an extraordinary experience with great narrative power. Zone 1 presented the challenges Japan (and the world) faces in the 21st century and beyond. Zone 2 presented a super wide screen immersive show experience that reassured us that a bountiful future of clean energy can be realised by the wise use of emerging technologies. Zone 3 invited guests to interact with these technologies. I was happy to see Morzio and Kiccoio, the mascots from Expo 2005, here.

South Korea

Design: Sigong Tech Co. Ltd

What do I want in an Expo pavilion? Beauty, engagement, the opportunity to learn through enchantment, and meaningful interaction. The South Korean pavilion had all that, and one thing more: love. The first room was an animation theater featuring an artist who drew vignettes from the history of energy in Korea. These vignettes then came to life, and formed a portrait of Korea as an energy powerhouse. The second room was the love story, featuring projections on slits of cloth, facilitating the entrances and exits of live actors. In the third room, every guest was given a Samsung mini tablet and invited to create a ‘future world of energy’.

Singapore

Design: Design: Zarch Collaboratives Pte Ltd & Pico Art International Pte Ltd


‘Small City, Big Ideas.’ The Singapore Pavilion invited us to step into a giant terrarium, a metaphor for Singapore as a Garden City. Here we could linger in this refreshing, entertaining environment and discover exhibits on the specific ways that Singapore is responding to the need to create a sustainable energy future. This pavilion demonstrated that a non-narrative, environmental storytelling approach can be successful with a sufficiently bold design commitment.

Thailand

Design: Index Creative Village Public Co. Ltd.

Who knew that an ear of corn could make such an engaging host? Pa-Lang was the corn mascot of the Thailand Pavilion, one of my favourites at Expo 2017 in Astana. The creators of this pavilion knew that the best (and only effective) way to educate an audience is through light-hearted, delightful entertainment. We moved from a traditional introductory gallery featuring Pa-Lang to a 3-D animation theatre highlighting the role that agriculture plays in the development of sustainable, renewable bio-energy. The final hall was an Energy Creation Lab, where we found multimedia presentations, videos and interactives that invited us to explore Thai-style biomass energy solutions. It even got the social media element right with one of the more active outreach and engagement strategies.

Malaysia

Design: Malaysia Green Technology Corp.

This simple pavilion, done on a budget, proved to be very popular with guests. Everyone called it ‘The Butterfly Pavilion.’ The centerpiece was a floor-to-ceiling full immersion rainforest room. Here we found ourselves twirling amidst thousands of butterflies…and the occasional tiger that would emerge from the foliage. The Malaysians were very clever about using social media to build the buzz for this pavilion, boosting it into the top 10 in popularity.

Three other experiences of note:

ARTISTS AND ROBOTS
In the Upper Exhibit area of the Arts Pavilion, I enjoyed a fascinating exhibit about how artists and robots were working together to create unique expressions of art. There were entire immersive rooms of art created by robots programmed by artists. Another part of this exhibit featured three robots sketching and drawing an object in real time, using their eye sensor. Each robot saw and drew something different depending on its point of view.

THEMED PAVILION SHOWS
BALL SCULPTURE SHOW
This show combined balls with LED light and lighting effects to take us through every type of energy. No narrative story here, but a very beautiful show combining sculpture, art and media.

SMART GRID SHOW
This was another highly imaginative, abstract use of media. LED screens introduced this show, and then gave way to a physical, illuminated cube of light. This show used music, light and sculpture to captivate guests.

Artists and Robots was curated by Miguel Chevalier and Jérôme Neutres
Artists and Robots was curated by Miguel Chevalier and Jérôme Neutres

WAS THIS EXPO SUCCESSFUL?

Christian Lache
Christian Lache

Visitors loved this Expo. I saw happy, enthusiastic Expo visitors enjoying themselves. And the people who came to the Expo to share their expertise and learn from others also helped make it a success. Here the global community came together in a programme of symposiums to engage in lively discussions about how to create a sustainable energy future. This was a big stage for central Asia, and Kazakhstan used it to their advantage: making friends, influencing guests, and winning hearts.

Many pavilion producers were fellow members of the group that produced some of the most memorable pavilions for the Aichi Japan Expo in 2005. Many of us met again in Shanghai, producing pavilions for Expo 2010 (and again in 2015 in Milan).

I hope we meet yet again in Dubai in 2020, because Expos offer people like us a unique opportunity to make the world a better place. They are defiant beacons of optimism and courage that exist in a magic space beyond the walls and borders countries erect to fight off the rest of the world.

ABOUT CHRISTIAN LACHEL
Christian Lachel is vice president and executive creative director at BRC Imagination Arts.

Astana was his sixth Expo as a creative director/producer, beginning with Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan.

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