French cancellation leaves Swiss in the lurch

Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi's vision for the world exhibition has been consigned to the dustbin.

France has decided to cancel a world exhibition originally planned for 2004.

This content was published on August 8, 2002 - 17:13

The decision will have implications for Switzerland, which was already preparing to take part in the exhibition.

It's also a blow to Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, who had been entrusted by the French government with the overall design of the exhibition.

But French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who inherited the project from his socialist predecessor Lionel Jospin, said the exhibition, at an expected cost to France of €380 million (SFr555 million), was proving too expensive. (And there was apparently little international interest in the exhibition: fewer than ten countries had so far indicated their willingness to participate.)

Swiss disappointment

But Switzerland, which this week reached the half way mark of its own national exhibition, Expo .02, had already planned its pavilion in France. The Swiss government had promised SFr7 million for the project.

Central to the Swiss presence was to have been a piece by the Zurich-based firm of architects Bétrix & Consolascio, who received the commission after competing with 60 other hopefuls.

Hearing the news of the cancellation, architect Marie-Claude Bétrix said she was disappointed at the decision.

"But it's not a complete surprise," Bétrix told swissinfo, "because we knew that [French president] Jacques Chirac had launched an inquiry into the future of the exhibition.

"Still, it's a disappointment," she continued. "We had already put a lot of work into the project."

Image loss

The world exhibition in France was to have had the image as its main theme, with the aim of comparing how different cultures view the image in all its different forms, from the electronic to media to advertising.

The Swiss contribution, called "Archiopixels", was to have been a reflection on the concept of image using the pixel, the element which makes up an electronic image.

Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, who has spent the past year working as chief architect for the overall design of the world exhibition, said he too was disappointed by the decision to cancel.

"It's a missed opportunity," Tschumi told swissinfo. "When you think of how every culture has a different attitude to the concept of image, for example the United States versus the Middle East. To have a debate about this would have been wonderful."

Costly cancellation

Furthermore, the decision to abandon the exhibition is proving costly for those countries, like Switzerland, which had already committed themselves to taking part.

Alessandro Delprete, spokesman for Presence Switzerland, the government body which promotes Switzerland's image internationally, said SFr250,000 had already been spent preparing the Swiss project - money which is now lost.

"It's a great shame," said Delprete swissinfo. "For us this type of exhibition is an important means of showing Switzerland in an original and interesting way to the rest of the world."

"But if we can't do that in Paris, we can do it at the world exhibition in Japan in 2005."

Planning for the exhibition in 2005, which takes place in the Japanese city of Aichi, is already well under way.

Future of big exhibitions in question

Nevertheless, the French decision to cancel raises questions over the future of such large exhibitions. Many cultural observers now regard this kind of event as old fashioned and unlikely to succeed.

The world exhibition in Hanover in 2000 was plagued by financial problems, and Switzerland's own national exhibition, Expo .02, endured a long and difficult planning stage before it finally got off the ground.

Other similarly large events, such as Britain's Millennium Dome, have also failed to achieve the success expected for them.

Architect Bernard Tschumi agreed that the concept of national and world exhibitions does perhaps need a rethink.

"It's worth asking whether the nature of universal exhibitions, as they were conceived in the 19th century, still makes sense," Tschumi said.

"But at the same time," he continued, "in an age when there are so many misunderstandings between civilisations and cultures, an international meeting place is not a bad idea."

"There's not only the soccer world cup you know," he said. "There are other values and ideals worth discussing, and an international exhibition may be the venue for that."

by Imogen Foulkes

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