Mind & Matter


Shanghai Diary: Street Smarts

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Dutch Pavilion by John Kormeling, Shanghai Expo 2010. Photo by Blaine Brownell.


A world exposition presents a fertile environment for studying the various ways in which buildings can address the street. Typical zoning rules limiting blank façades are out, and privacy is hardly an issue for pavilion interiors; however, universal rules concerning visual and physical access and the connection of architecture to public space still apply.

The pavilion that addresses this connection most passionately is the Dutch pavilion, entitled "Happy Street." Designed by John Kormeling, Happy Street is an urban microcosm that appears to be suspended midair, with a collection of playful buildings connected by a gradually ascending promenade. Dr. Seuss would most certainly approve of the sectional entanglement of spaces here, not to mention the surreal kitsch of the architecture. Most importantly, the pavilion does a remarkable job of uniting the building with the urban context, and the pavilion structure operates as a celebratory extension of the street.

Finnish Pavilion by JKMM, Shanghai Expo 2010. Photo by author.


In contrast, the Finnish pavilion is a completely hermetic experience. Separated from the street by a reflecting pool, the monumental, bowl-shaped structure presents an expansive blank façade of white tiles with a minimal number of openings. Given its aloof character, an expo visitor might choose to wait in line for another pavilion that appears to hold more promise. Once inside, however, the Finnish pavilion presents a cavernous space open to the sky, enveloped by a white fabric membrane. This satisfying experience is an unexpected reward for curious expogoers willing to take a peek inside, and provides an impetus to pause before exploring the galleries surrounding the void. I believe, however, that the architects could have employed more apertures to the gallery spaces in order to enliven the building's visual accessibility, without diminishing the surprise of the interior experience.

Beyond expo architecture, most commercial or institutional architectural programs never have the freedom to be as open or closed in their relationship to the street as the Dutch and Finnish pavilions are, respectively. In this way, the expo presents an intriguing testing ground for assessing the range of human responses to such divergent strategies.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.