Expo98 sails into the eco-future

Big business and environmental concerns are behindLisbon's aquatic world fair. Elizabeth Nash reports
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The Independent Online
YOU can marvel at sharks, skate on ice or walk on water at this year's Expo '98, which opens in Lisbon today. For those who have the stamina to brave the queues in the Portuguese sunshine, a host of cultural experiences from around the world are on offer.

The theme for this year's Expo, the last before the millennium, is the heritage of our oceans, and it is inspired by India's history. This year marks the 500th anniversary since the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama pioneered the sea-route to India. His feat revolutionised Europe's commercial history.

The oceans theme reflects the predatory legacy of global expansion but is muted by an eco-friendly message of protecting the world's seas. The Expo site occupies perhaps the finest river-front in Europe: a five-kilometre stretch of Tagus shoreline triumphantly reclaimed from a stinking wasteland. The transformation into an ensemble of world-class buildings, a mosaic riverside promenade suffused with pearly sunshine, and a battery of virtual- reality technology is one of Portugal's most ambitious achievements. Like Barcelona during the 1992 Olympics, Lisbon decided the pounds 1.5bn Expo would put Portugal on the map and rejuvenate the capital's abandoned maritime heart. Flats, offices, conference centres and concert halls, gardens and galleries point to the formation of a real urban community after the fair ends on 30 September.

Displays from 150 countries are housed in modest hangar-like pavilions supplied by the Portuguese. Half will be dismantled, while the rest will become a permanent exhibition space for trade fairs. The pavilions' uniformity has prompted invention by exhibitors. The Finns have an icebreaker carving through an icy expanse in which mobile phones, beer bottles and other Finnish products are trapped. Skates will be provided. The Croatian exhibit sends you walking on water, as waves ripple beneath the glass under your feet.

As the 1900 Paris exhibition launched the escalator, Expo '98 offers the latest in virtual-reality technology. Portugal's Futures Pavilion has a multi-media video of the world's oceans through the eyes of a child. The message is simple eco-correctness: we must protect our aquatic heritage from exhaust fumes and acid rain.

The jewel in Expo's crown is the Oceanarium, the biggest in Europe. Grouped around a tank 7m high and 35m square, the world's principal marine habitats - the Atlantic, Indian, Antarctic and Pacific - have been re-created and stocked with 250 species of animals. The rocks are cement and the coral is fake, but the sharks are real.

"The big challenge was to put the four oceans in one tank," says Peter Chermayeff, an American architect, "to separate the habitats by invisible acrylic walls and bring them together visually in the centre. There's a poetic licence that makes the point about the unity of the global system."

Those who cannot make it to Expo '98 can take heart that the best may survive beyond September.