Book Review: Expo Architecture 2008

Expo Architecture 2008: Zaragoza, an urban project by Freddy Massad, Alicia Guerrero-Yeste & Jaime Salazar, published by Actar, 2008. Paperback, 240 pages w/DVD. (Amazon)

Not surprisingly, given its site at the confluence of the Ebro, Gallego and Huerva Rivers, the theme of Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain was water. Combined with long-term thinking about the physical and cultural impact of the Expo on the area, the city is attempting to make the rivers into strong cultural attractions, even though the Expo site only engages a small portion of the Ebro west of the city center. The main access to the site within the Ranillas Meander is via a bridge designed by Zaha Hadid. Formally it recalls the waves of moving water, but ironically the enclosed structure -- actually called the Bridge Pavilion -- removes the water from the experience of traversing the Ebro. What this seems to foreshadow about the Expo is that formal innovation takes precedence over theme, at least in the architecture.
This book documents the architecture of Expo 2008 (a separate book looks at its urbanism.) It collects the temporary pavilions, the permanent buildings and the landscapes alongside essays by Jaime Salazar. Lots of color photographs and architectural drawings make for a well-designed document of the Expo. It is highly likely that in the future, when some of the city's ambitious long-term plans come to fruition, the Expo will be remembered as a catalyst for development, much like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Buildings by the likes of Herzog & de Meuron (this week's dose) are already in the works, alongside major transportation and landscape initiatives. The iconic architecture of the Expo goes well beyond the Hadid bridge: Francisco Mangando's Spanish Pavilion and Nieto Sobejano Architects' Auditorium and Convention Center are two notable buildings that will be welcome additions to the city's built fabric as it marches westward.
Like Beijing's boom surrounding the Olympics in the same year, the successes are accompanied by failures, or at least uninspiring or misguided attempts. Overlooking the temporary pavilions, the Aragon Pavilion by Olano y Mendo Arquitectos (an unfortunate melding of Toyo Ito's Mediatheque and a picnic basket) and the Water Tower by Enrique de Teresa (a decent design, but a hollow shell doing no more than standing tall) are respectively ugly and bloated. Ironically these, and the overly busy Fluvial Aquarium by Alvaro Planchuelo, relate to the theme more than the buildings mentioned above in a more positive light. The Aragon Pavilion, Water Tower and Aquarium illustrate the negative aspects of any Expo, namely that iconic architecture must be strived for, in this case when it is handled inadequately. But ultimately it won't be the high or low points of the Expo that will create its lasting presence. It will be the transformation of the large-scale, undulating Participant's Pavilions into Expo Zaragoza Empresarial that will help cohere the competing icons into a functioning part of Zaragoza in the future.