Century 21 Commission
Yeosu Expo 2012
Yeosu Expo 2012
World's fairs are still happening. This year, a small port city in Korea attempts to do what Seattle did in 1962.
While Seattle celebrates the 50th anniversary of Century 21, there's another small, provincial port city on the other side of the world trying to replicate our success. Yeosu is on South Korea's southern coast on the Korea Strait, which connects the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea; the city is a three-hour fast-train trip from Seoul. Like a half-century-ago Seattle, it is a small coastal town (pop. 300,000) with big ambitions in a beautiful setting. Hundreds of tree-covered islands dot the coastline and the city is nestled among green mountains near national parks. The people here have been working for years to get a fair to help put them, as the Seattle fair organizers once said, "on the map." A goal is to turn the working port of Yeosu into a major tourism hub, or as they say, to make it a "beautiful gateway to the world."
Seattle considered numerous sites for its fair to show off its setting, including on-the-water locations at Duwamish Head, Union Bay, and Sand Point. Planners also considered linking the final fair grounds to the waterfront. That plan would have featured a cruise ship dock right around what is now Olympic Sculpture Park. In Yeosu, fair organizers located the fair right on the waterfront of the city's harbor (or New Port Area) — their main industrial port is located on the other side of town. So, the $2 billion fair has driven a waterfront makeover. Expo 2012 has a scenic setting with the town and mountains behind and a protected bay in front. Walkways link to pavilions built over the water. A jetty connects the town to an offshore island, Odongdo, a beautiful park. It's a wonderful site for an expo.
A cruise ship terminal was constructed. Docked in the harbor now is the vessel Club Harmony, which will eventually bring in tourists (the main markets are China and Japan), but it's currently doubling as a hotel for fairgoers. Seattle did the same thing during C21 when the old Dominion Monarch was docked at Pier 51 as a "boatel" and run by Western Hotels. (Century 21 organizers had also tried hard to land the famous liner Liberte to fill the same role.)
The theme of this fair isn't the Space Age, but rather "The Living Ocean and Coast." That helped justify the construction of a huge aquarium, the biggest in Korea, which has proved to be the star attraction. Lines are long, waits up to three and four hours. People want to see the three beguiling Beluga whales donated by the Russians — they are a first in Korea. The aquarium also features a huge sea tank with a transparent domed viewing platform in the middle. You can stand outside the tank looking in through a giant, two-story glass wall at fish and sharks, or you can get a Nemo-eye view from inside the tank while standing in the dome. It's very cool, but also cleverly makes the fair-goers part of the exhibit.
Walking to the dome through a transparent tunnel with fish swimming over head, I was reminded of sketches in the Paul Thiry papers at the University of Washington that show such an arrangement proposed for the Seattle fair, but never built. Long forgotten is the fact that early planners for our science exposition focused on demonstrating humanity's connections with the sea. One was a lagoon under a pavilion that would represent our emergence from a primordial sea. Another was the idea for an aquarium at Seattle Center with transparent underwater passageways.
If not Space Age, however, many of the Yeosu fair's exhibits reinforce the importance of exploration as well as new sustainable technologies, all in service of the big blue planet. Many of the pavilions feature computer animated films that suggest that the undersea world is a kind of outer space with alien creatures and strange crafts exploring dark worlds.
Exploration of the unknown is both history and the path for the future. For example, Spain's pavilion, which has the theme "Spain Explores," reminds us of the contributions of the country's great navigators, including Columbus, Magellan, and Malaspina. The pavilion exhibits also detail the "Malaspina Project," a 2010 Spanish expedition to collect water and air samples worldwide in order to discover the oceanic and atmospheric genome. It was named after Alessandro Malaspina, who, as you might remember from Northwest history class, came to our part of the world in the late 18th century in search ot the Northwest Passage. He mapped Prince William Sound in Alaska and took up residence for a while on Vancouver Island at Nootka.
The USA Pavilion also brings up exploration by reminding us that oceans take up 70 percent of the planet, while only 5 percent of the ocean bottom has been explored. The pavilion features a National Geographic approach in presenting images of the sea — beautiful to look at — but little of real substance. Various American faces are shown claiming, "It's my ocean," expressing that saving the seas is a personal responsibility. But it also reinforces a kind of American arrogance, of claiming that what is everyone's is ours, overlooking the fact that collective action is needed to accomplish anything significant in terms of climate change, global pollution, acidification, or any other threat to the oceans. Individual responsibility won't clean up Puget Sound, let alone 70 percent of the planet.
The message of caring is also undercut by some of the pavilion's corporate sponsors. America is the only major country in the world that doesn't fund its own pavilions but relies on donations from companies like Boeing or Corning, who get to tout their products and "green" ethics. Coke uses their display to remind expo-goers that they deliver an ocean of beverages (1.7 billing servings per day) around the world, in 200 countries. Coke they say, nobly "fulfills consumers' daily hydration needs." Pay attention, Michael Bloomberg!
The Russians don't rely on the warm and fuzzy to make their case about exploration and the claims that follow. Their pavilion offers a compelling experience of putting visitors on the bridge of an Arctic icebreaker. The Russians recap their history of frigid-zone explorations from Vitus Bering to their pioneering drilling into the depths of Lake Vostok in Antarctica. They show off the power of their icebreaking fleet and their routine use of the Northwest Passage, and they demonstrate their determination to exploit the resources of the north (oil, mineral wealth, trade routes). The Russians, we are told, are self-sacrificng, and know how to endure and deal with the "cruel nature" of the North. (I could find no mention, by the way, of any of the indigenous peoples who have been living well and long in the Arctic before the Russians arrived.) They proclaim, "Our generation has the first chance to fulfill the potential of the Arctic."
You leave the pavilion with the very distinct impression that, unlike the fuzzy prettiness offered by the Americans, the Russians have a clear plan mapped out: The Arctic belongs to us and we know how to exploit it. The folks who launched Sputnik are back, declaring a new and truly cold war with ground zero at the North Pole.
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