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'Being Becoming' project collections
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Archive: 6 collections - 170 images, updated March 2022.

Introduction to 'Being - Becoming'
by Pygmalion Karatzas

The Universal Expositions are organised by the Bureau Internacional de Exposiciones (BIE), taking place every five years over six months during which cultural, social and economic exchanges between countries, institutions, international bodies, NGO's and companies are strengthened. They have an on-going tradition of 160 years. World EXPOs are regarded as the Olympics in the areas of economy, culture, science and technology.


Early events date back in 1851 (London) with the last EXPO in Shanghai in 2010 reaching 73 million visitors. Popular inventions presented in past EXPOs include: the photograph (1878 Paris), the ferris wheel (1893 Chicago), the X-ray machine (1901 Buffalo), electricity (1904 St. Louis), the television set (1939 New York), the mobile phone (1970 Osaka). According to the Protocol of BIE, a world exposition "is an event which, regardless of its name, has a primary purpose of public education, making an inventory of means available to people in order to meet the needs of the civilisation and highlighting current progress or future prospects within one or more areas of human activity".


The theme of the Expo 2015 in Milan is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. This embraces technology, innovation, culture, traditions, and creativity and how they relate to food and diet. Within this broad theme, seven sub-themes were proposed: 1. Science for food safety, security and quality, 2. Innovation in the agro food supply chain, 3. Technology for agriculture and biodiversity, 4. Dietary education, 5. Solidarity and cooperation on Food, 6. Food and better lifestyles, 7. Food in the world’s cultures and ethnic groups. All participating countries were asked to address the problems and opportunities opening up for the agriculture sector in the fields of sustainable development, common well-being and the fight against hunger. 


This six-months global showcase of more than 140 participating countries is estimated to attract 20 million visitors to its 1.1 million sq.m. of exhibition areas and 7,000 events. The site is located near the RHO PERO area, 9 km. north-west of the city centre. An investment of more than 4 billion Euros was estimated for the project (which run up to 13 billion eventually), that, in 5 years will give job to 40,000 people and the participation of 36,000 volunteers.   


Milanese architect and planner Stefano Boeri was originally responsible for coordinating the Expo masterplan. He assembled a team: with Swiss Pritzker Prize recipients Herzog & de Meuron, Rickard Burdett (London Olympics’ chief adviser on architecture and urbanism), William McDonough (who formulated the ‘Hannover Principles’ for the Hanover Expo in 2000 based on his ‘Cradle to Cradle’ design for sustainability theory), and the Spanish architect and planner Joan Busquets (responsible for much of the good that resulted from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992). The development of the Expo plan can be broadly divided into three phases: the initial plan, the concept plan (by Stefano Boeri and his team), and the masterplan (that was submitted and approved by BIE on April 30, 2010). In 2011, the initial planning team of the conceptual masterplan left the project because they felt the plan was being implemented only as an urbanistic and formal pattern, not as an intellectual concept which would have “elided the usual vanity fair of competitive national pride seen at part Expos”. The initial concept was further developed by a group of young architects recently graduated from the Polytechnic University of Milan. In the final plan the idea of providing equal amounts of space for each exhibiting country is abandoned, and instead each has the opportunity to rent areas ranging from 400 to 6,000 sq.m. The buildable areas are reduced to 30% of the area assigned to each exhibitor. 


The site planning is developed along two major thoroughfares based on the structures of Roman cities: the exhibition spaces of the countries (54 independent self-built pavilions and 9 thematic clusters) are laid out along the 1.5 km of the Decumano (stretching along the East-West axis)  - which is meant to be reminiscent of a long dinner table with all countries having an equal front to the main boulevard– and Italy’s exhibition area is along the 350 m. of the Cardo, with municipalities, provinces and regions represented in the Palazzo Italia, stretching along the North-South axis. Conceived as an island, the site is surrounded by a canal of approx. 4.5 km. At the intersection of the two axes is the Piazza Italia and at the four endpoints we find: on the east the Mediterranean Hill (created from the excavation soil of the construction works), on the west the Expo Centre (housing the EXPO’s headquarters and the Media Centre), on the south the Open Air Theatre, and on the north the Lake Area with the landmark of the EXPO – the Tree of Life (the last two being the main event areas of the site). 


For the first time in the history of the Universal Exhibitions, the host country is not represented solely by one building, although Palazzo Italia is still the largest of all the countries’ pavilions, but instead extends along the 350 m. of the Cardo axis, covering the whole area from Lake Arena (on the north side) and the piazza Italia (the intersection between Decumano and Cardo). The main building tells the story of the ‘Nursery Garden of Italy’, a concept developed by Artistic Director Marco Balich and interpreted architecturally by Nemesi & Partners as an urban forest. The route along the Cardo is conceptually organised in four parts and is overall a representation of a model Italian village, alternating between recessed areas, little piazzas, terraces and buildings. In honour of the European Union, the organisers have given an independent pavilion to the EU opposite the Italian Pavilion.


In addition to the independent pavilions EXPO Milan introduced the thematic clusters to house the countries that for various reasons decided not to create their own pavilion. They are communal exhibition spaces placed in various parts of the site and enable the participants to represent their history and culture through the agricultural and food tradition most typical of their country. Some clusters present timeless products – rice, coffee, spices, cocoa and chocolate, fruits and legumes, cereals and tubers – while others are grouped according to territory themes – biomediterranean, islands & sea, arid zones. The Clusters are the result of an International workshop comprising 18 Universities from around the world, 40 professors, 46 tutors and 127 students. Along the site 10 service buildings are also situated with cafes, restaurants, WCs and assistance.


The Expo also hosts thematic areas – uniquely designed exhibitions that explore and interpret the theme of the Expo to involve, transmit knowledge and emotions to the visitors: Pavilion Zero, Biodiversity Park, Slow Food Pavilion, Children’s Park, Future Food District (in partnership with Coop), Arts & Foods (outside the Expo site at the Triennale di Milano). It also includes non-official participants (civil society organisations and firms developing projects of interest in connection to the theme of the Expo): Cascina Triulza, Amity University of India, Caritas International, Don Bosco Network, KIP International School, Save the Children International Italia, World Association of Argonomists and CONAF, World Expo Museum, corporate (China Corporate United, Coca Cola, Federalimente, Vanke), partners (Alitalia/Etihad, Enel, Ferrero, Intesa Sanpaolo, New Holland Agriculture).


In his essay about the history of World Fairs, 'Belief in the Future', Aldo Castellano notes "The most significant change (in the basic nature of these trade fairs) is perhaps in the spirit of competition between individual exhibitors from participating countries." In the early days of modernity, competition was considered a positive and effective way of encouraging the production of quality products. Although, in the following decades studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on food quality and agricultural surpluses, have demonstrated the degredation of current food production practices and the need to move beyond the competitive paradigm.


World Expositions are about many things: showcasing and exchanging ideas in innovation and technology, networking and outreaching among countries and organisations, a celebration of cultures and traditions, an opportunity to reflect upon our state of being and becoming. As with everything else in life, the initial concepts are charged with lofty goals and as time passes, the become not less or more but simply a mirror, a condensed microcosmos mirroring our collective reality.   


The visit took place between the 5th and 14th of May.

Pygmalion Karatzas

May 2015


I would like to thank The Danish Architecture Centre for supporting this project, Jakob Hybel for his editorial help, Giordana Zagami from HK Strategies for providing additional information, Paola Di Marzo and Massimiliano at the Italian Pavilion press office, Roberta Riccio at the Swiss Pavilion press office, Elena Pagano at the German Pavilion press office, Fulvia Zimmitti for the hospitality, and Panos Bazos for his invaluable and continuous support.

Images from this project have received two honorable mentions from the International Photography Awards 2015, and 'Best Picture of the Year 2015' from the Interior Design Magazine. 

Print edition available on

Expo Milan book collections
(click on thumbnail to view full volume)
Virtual samples of framed prints in decoration settings
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