How Milan’s Expo will get the message to the people

In 1386 when it was time to start building the Dome, Milan’s gothic cathedral, the decision was taken by the city’s citizens – not by bishops, kings, princes or cardinals, as was usually the case.

Now the northern Italian city is hosting the next Expo and, has again come up with a way to avoid a top-down event. The method is called Expo in città – Expo in the city – and officers at the Bureau International des Expositions, the intergovernmental organisation in charge of regulating world exhibitions, are said to be considering its official adoption for the next editions – as early as Dubai 2020. The idea stems from the success of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (Furniture Fair) that takes place each spring in Milan.

While many other fairs have seen their visitors decline, this one, among the world’s largest of its kind, has found a way to widen interest.

How it works is that the fair incorporates events scattered across the whole city, in courtyards, shops, studios and ateliers that open their doors to show the latest trends in furniture design. The fair takes places in its institutional spaces but it also works as a kind of authority by certifying the high quality of these related events. And visitors attend them in massive numbers.

The idea is to replicate the concept for Milan’s food-themed Expo. The use of the logo Expo in città is granted to all events, organised by private and public groups or individuals, that have been approved by the organising committee. There will be an online calendar and, overall, there will be about 7,000 events, including concerts, shows, sport activities, exhibitions.

“It’s something similar to the fringe events that take place during the Edinburgh International Festival,” says Filippo Del Corno, Milan’s culture councillor.

Expo is basically paid for by taxpayers’ money (€900 million out of a €1.3 billion cost), but if the citizens want to visit it, they have to buy a ticket that is now on sale for €32 for a one-day open-date admission for an adult (there are lower prices for students, families, the elderly and for disabled people). More than half of the expected €800m (Dh3.08bn) turnover should come from the sale of 24 million tickets (€460m) as, so far, about a third of them (8 million) have been sold.

As many fear the life of this city, that has 1.3 million people, will be overturned by this flow of tourists, the more citizens can gain out of it, the better.

Yet with only six weeks to go before the Expo opens, there is still a fair bit of work to be done.

At the construction site I was taken to see recently, not much was ready. It doesn’t seem likely that on May 1, the opening day, everything will be up and running, but “the structures that won’t be ready will be very few” said Giuseppe Sala, the Expo commissioner. When it will be all set it’s not too difficult to imagine how appealing it will be: from Daniel Libeskind to Norman Foster, many of the world’s great architects are involved in the project. Mr Foster, for example, has designed the UAE pavilion that covers 4,386 square metres.

Its main space is divided into two parts. The first is contained in a cylinder, which allows the auditorium to rotate, playing with the public’s sense of direction. The texture of the walls comes from a scan taken in the desert, and construction will use materials to represent the different shades of sand across the Emirates. Visitors pass through the second part, dubbed Future Talk, inspired by the Ted Talks phenomenon, where there will be initiatives on global challenges such as nutrition, energy and sustainability. They will then exit via a ramp that leads to a restaurant and, at the end of the ramp, there is an oasis located under and around the auditorium, hosting performances that will take sustainability as their theme.

“Our challenge has been to design for two climates – to create a naturally cool, comfortable space for visitors in Milan, while considering the pavilion’s ultimate reconstruction in the Emirates, where there is a need to provide shade from the intense sun,” Mr Foster explains.

But the UAE will have another presence at Expo – Etihad Airways, which, along with Alitalia, in which it has bought a 49 per cent stake, are the official airline carriers for the event. They will be based at a 1,150 sq metre pavilion, divided into two floors.

“The first floor will include an exclusive lounge, where top Alitalia and Etihad Airways clients and selected guests can relax in a luxurious environment,” said Peter Baumgartner, Etihad’s chief commercial officer. The ground floor, he says, will serve as a social hub, open to all Expo Milano visitors.

“This area will be driven by modern technology, providing guests with full connectivity to delve into the social media world and learn more about the event’s key themes.”

After all the talking was done, it still took more than 500 years to finish the Dome – there’s no Expo delay that could ever match it.

Based in Milan, Jacopo Barigazzi is a former Newsweek contributor and Reuters journalist. This is the last in his series of articles for these pages on the build-up to Expo 2015.

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