Herzog & de Meuron

Stefano Boeri, Herzog & De Meuron, William McDonough and Ricky Burdett were invited to design the masterplan for the Expo 2015 in Milan. By 2011 they had all left the project. In an exclusive interview with uncube, Jacques Herzog explains why.

Florian Heilmeyer: How did you get involved in designing the masterplan for the Expo 2015 in Milano?

Jacques Herzog: We were invited by Stefano Boeri, who is based in Milan and was commissioned to develop the masterplan. His ambitions were to fundamentally rethink the entire Expo format. The concept of a “World’s Fair” appears to be very outdated. It is a model from the last century, and Stefano really wanted to turn it into an exhibition for the 21st century. So he invited us to work together with William McDonough and Ricky Burdett on this masterplan, because he knew we would share his ambition to radically reinvent the idea of a World’s Fair. He also knew he would need a strong team in order to turn this revolutionary ambition into reality.

Florian Heilmeyer: What made you think the Expo in Milan would be interested in such a radical and critical approach?

Jacques Herzog: I have seen a few World’s Fairs. Particularly the last one in Shanghai in 2010 made it clear to me that these Expos have become huge shows designed merely to attract millions of tourists. A giant area filled with enormous pavilions, one always more spectacular than the other, and these unbelievable vast halls for gastronomy, shops and pissoirs. What a bore and a waste of money and resources! We decided only to accept the invitation to design the Milan masterplan if our client would accept a radically new vision for a world exhibition; abandoning these monuments of individual national pride that have turned all Expos since the mid-nineteenth century into obsolete vanity fairs.
Instead we wanted to oblige every participant to channel all their pride into their contribution to the Expo’s theme of “Feeding the Planet”: addressing the important topics of food production, agriculture, water, ecology etc. The content of the exhibitions should make the countries look different, not the size of their pavilions. Also we felt that this expo would be exactly the right place to start focusing on content, because it simply seems embarrassing to address this very important topic and at the same time built enormous, dramatically curved pavilions with facades in wavy plastic or with spectacular waterfalls or whatever. We would much rather know how countries like Kenya, Mexico, China, Laos or Germany are dealing with the question of how to feed their people.

Florian Heilmeyer: How did your masterplan try to disrupt the dominance of the national pavilion architecture?

Jacques Herzog: We suggested a strong basic and generic pattern with two big main axes based on the cardo/decumanus orthogonal grid of the antique Roman city. This would create a grid of extremely long and rather thin plots, with every country having a plot of the same size. We proposed encouraging all participants to present their exhibitions as agricultural gardens with only very simple, basic shacks forming sheltered spaces for their exhibitions. All of this would have been covered by a structure of tent roofs stretching over the entire site, provided by the organisers. This would have resulted in all participants having plots of equal size under the same light roof structure, with no big individual pavilions.

Florian Heilmeyer: This would indeed have turned the Expo as we know it upside down. Did you really think you could get away with these radical ideas?

Jacques Herzog: Our intentions were clear from the very beginning and the organisers understood and supported us. However they were not powerful or courageous enough to convince their own organisation and the responsible politicians to support them.
As a consequence they were reluctant to convey that fundamental message to the participating countries to forgo their individual designs and break with the Expo traditions they have all been following for so long now. It was clear to many people that the themes of this Expo deserved to be treated differently, but they were not prepared to follow our guidelines.

Florian Heilmeyer: So what happened to your masterplan?

Jacques Herzog: It became the official basis for the Expo in Milan – yet only as an urbanistic and formal pattern, not as an intellectual concept. The tent roofs we proposed are now covering the main boulevard in front of the national pavilions, which seems an absurd reversing of our ideas. As I said, we are not involved in the realisation of the Expo anymore. From what I have heard about the coming pavilions and concepts, it seems that this Expo will be the same kind of vanity fair that we’ve seen in the past.

Florian Heilmeyer: What was lacking to have made your concept reality?

Jacques Herzog: I cannot put the blame on anyone or anything in particular. All the people we discussed our concept with were quite intelligent and understanding – but bound to their employers and/or voters. I still think that everyone involved at Expo agrees with our critical vision of what a World’s Fair should be and that the basic idea behind it should be kept for the next possible occasion. But when if not there, in Milan, with people like Stefano Boeri and Ricky Burdett on our side, could we convince an Expo client to take that risk? An event this big (and expensive) has many forces acting upon it and I am not even sure if there ever was a conscious decision against our concept. Maybe it is rather like a swarm of fish swimming in one direction; we tried to navigate it in the other, but somehow they kept swimming. Maybe we should have initiated a diplomatic mission, sending the very talented “diplomat” Ricky Burdett to every single participant, explaining our concept, and to win them over.
But this was impossible, and we then realised that the organisers would not – or could not – undertake the necessary steps to make these ideas happen. Since 2011 none of the offices are involved anymore – Boeri, McDonough and Burdett got out, and we decided to end our collaboration with the Expo team that was an almost daily exchange until that moment. The Expo team has dealt with the realisation themselves since then.

Florian Heilmeyer: Yet the structure will still be based on your ideas. At least that’s what the Expo office tells us. Do you believe that this Expo will be different from the others, even just a little bit?

Jacques Herzog: I believe that some countries understood our concept and therefore will put more weight on content than on form. Also, as far as I know there will be 13 NGOs like Oxfam and WWF adding some important topics. But they will have small, modest venues compared to the big global companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, New Holland or Agriculture, which will be present with huge shows – and we can expect similar marketing shows from many of the participating countries. So I am afraid that the visitors will again be blinded and distracted rather than informed and made aware of chances and risks, of opportunities and difficulties, of politics and business, etc. There is an amazing variety of global themes that should be tackled and brought to the fore – the conventional format with national pavillons competing for design awards cannot deliver that!

Florian Heilmeyer: Much to your own surprise, you became involved with the Expo once again in 2014 when Carlo Petrini asked you to design the pavilion for the International Slow Food Movement. Why did you decide to work again within the framework of your own failed masterplan?

Jacques Herzog: That was only because of Carlo, who had been working with us on our ideas for the Expo from the very beginning. He was reluctant himself about joining a big show event like this, but had finally agreed to present Slow Food on a very prominent location within our grid: a triangular plot at the eastern end of the central boulevard, which we always imagined to become one of the main public forums. We felt that it would be great to have Carlo and his ideas and convictions being represented, so we couldn’t resist.
I believe that our Slow Food Pavilion will demonstrate how we had imagined all the pavilions of this Expo to be. It is composed of three very simple shacks made of almost archaic wooden structures, like market stalls, which define a triangular courtyard, an open and communal space. After the Expo they will be easily dismantled and reassembled as garden sheds in school gardens around Italy, to be used by Carlo’s Slow Food Movement for their ongoing educative school programme.

Florian Heilmeyer: Do you think that the upcoming Expo editions in Antalya, Astana and Dubai will pick up on the principles of your collective masterplan?

Jacques Herzog: I still believe that most of all we have to overcome this ridiculous system of national pride represented by individual pavilion design. Difference should be real, i.e. based on content, not on architectural design – basta! A World’s Fair must expose common topics and problems, presenting different ways of dealing with these problems in different regions of our world. That would be an amazing and exciting exhibition that I would be eager to visit on the very first day it opens. Yet of course this is much more difficult than to simply stick to the existing model, and that’s why unfortunately it is very unlikely that it’s going to happen anytime soon. I would rather expect the upcoming Expos to be more like the one in Shanghai again, trying to attract an ever-larger crowd of visitors.

Florian Heilmeyer: If you say that so many people were convinced by the ideas inherent in your masterplan, what would it take to make things change in the future?

Jacques Herzog: As long as the Expos are more or less an economic success – at least to promoters of tourism – there will not be any fundamental change, simply because there is no real need to change anything. The Olympic Games are meanwhile viewed very sceptically in many democratic countries, which is at least partially due to the fact that they are a very profitable business for only a very few, and a financial disaster for the hosting city or country. As a consequence such events will increasingly take place in countries where democratic systems are not so well developed and such shows serve as propaganda for the political regime.