Will substance follow the show?

Spain wasted its chance with Expo '92. Portugal wants to avoid that mistake in 1998. Elizabeth Nash in Seville on the hangover after the party
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PERHAPS it was always too fanciful a vision. Could Seville, which used its unsurpassed southern Spanish talent for partying and display to mount a world fair, really have expected any lasting high-tech monument to emerge?

Nearly four years after Expo 92 closed, its site, a reclaimed island between two branches of the Guadalquivir river, has a limp, melancholy air that could not be more alien to Seville's vibrant personality. Mechanical diggers were last week carving into the fine alluvial soil, following the recent approval of the latest scheme to revive the abandoned area: an adventure theme park costing 13bn pesetas (pounds 68m), based on the concept of a "magic island".

It is the last chance to keep the island, known as the Cartuja, alive. Even supporters concede it has been in a catatonic state for more than three years. But it seems a hollow mockery of Expo 92's original bold vision: to forge, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, a humming technopolis of scientific research and development that would modernise the city, revitalise one of Europe's most depressed rural areas and relaunch Spain's traditional trade and cultural links between the Old World, South America and North Africa.

Four years and a world recession later, it is easy to dismiss all this as pompous rhetoric. But Expos are grand gestures. In Lisbon, on the northern shore of the Tagus estuary, diggers are also on the move, preparing for Expo 98. And the rhetoric there is soaring to comparably stratospheric heights.

"Our Expo has the oceans as its theme," Expo 98's director, Antonio Cardoso, said recently. "Unlike Seville, it is not historical but humanistic, facing into the new century. We invite all the countries of the world to pay attention to the framework of the oceans and contribute their ideas for preserving this heritage. Oceans are potentially the democracy of the world."

The cautious Portuguese have been casting a beady eye over Seville's experience, with the intention of doing the opposite. "We are sure to make mistakes," says Mr Cardoso, "but they won't be those of Seville." Lisbon's Expo organisers look rather to Barcelona, whose neglected shoreline was regenerated by the spectacularly successful 1992 Olympics.

"We want to make sure that all our Expo buildings are fully used after the event, and won't put up any building without knowing in advance what it will be used for. And we won't waste money on puffing Lisbon as a tourist centre, as Seville did. Tourism is already well-established here," says Mr Cardoso.

Can Expo-like extravaganzas, such as London's forthcoming Millennium jamboree, expect both to pull in visitors for a one-off spectacular and leave something behind of lasting value? Or are they simply an excuse for a publicly funded orgy of bread and circuses?

In the case of Seville, Spain's socialist government - led by Sevillians - encouraged a fiesta-fever that got out of hand. Public money was showered upon an extravagant show that put the city on the world map and created an impressive transport infrastructure in the region, if not within the city itself. But critics say many opportunities were squandered.

"Expo was a huge public investment that failed because it didn't solve Andalusia's main problems of unemployment, water shortages and poor housing," says Pepe Garcia Rey, an environmental activist in Seville who organised an anti-Expo campaign between 1988 and 1992. "Unemployment was unaffected, except for a short spell during the building works. Many of the hotels and offices remain empty and are being sold off. Few permanent homes were built, and the city's slums remain as bad as ever. We've just come out of a four-year drought. Water gushed during the Expo, but the minute it ended, the authorities rationed water. They hadn't given a thought to investing in new pipes or reservoirs."

Expo 92's expected profit of 18bn pesetas ended up being a loss of a staggering 60bn pesetas, according to Spain's accounts court. Public accounting was slapdash, and investors did not bite. Many preferred to buy plots at the competing technology park in Malaga, rather than rent from the authorities in Seville. Seville's specially built airport will exceed capacity until well into the next century, and many say that Expo 92's most splendid by-product, the high-speed train link with Madrid, should have headed east from the capital, not south-west.

"We weren't disappointed, because we never had any illusions that this project would work," says Pepe Garcia. "But we think Andalusia deserves social investment to lift productivity and solve its environmental problems."

Fewer than half the pavilions where millions flocked for six months that summer remain. Some, like that of Morocco, are splendidly solid; others, like the grandiose Mexican pavilion, are dilapidated, with vast shards of decorative mirror glass slipping from its walls.

The area, pocked by vacant plots where temporary pavilions were long ago cleared away, is criss-crossed by overgrown pergolas whose tangled greenery fails to soften a concrete landscape. At night it is deserted, as remote from common concerns as when Carthusian monks founded a monastery there.

Juan Gomez Puiggros, a spokesman for the follow-up project, Cartuja 93, says it made sense to divide up the site into the technopolis and the theme park, and stresses the importance of having attracted the research and science departments of Seville University. "The Cartuja is oriented to business and high-technology industry, so there are no factories and no homes. Seville is expanding. If we hadn't taken the precaution of keeping the Cartuja in public hands, it could have just become a victim of speculative development."

Mr Garcia, the environmentalist, complains all that was an afterthought, improvised after the event. The entire university - most of which lies outside the city - could have been relocated there, and the Expo site laid out as a park, he says. This would have provided Sevillians with a much-needed green space at a fraction of the cost, if the authorities had only abandoned their obsession with a techno-park as soon as it became clear it was heading for failure.

While Seville's Expo site was virgin territory last developed by medieval monks, in Lisbon the decayed waterfront site of a once great maritime power is more akin to London's Docklands. Lisbon's challenge was to clear away the garbage disposal plant, the old refinery and the arsenal used to supply colonial wars, revitalise the three miles of waterfront and fold it back into the fabric of the capital.

But for the Portuguese, Docklands too is a model to avoid. "We are building a public transport network on an unprecedented scale to make sure the Expo City functions as part of the capital's commercial life," Mr Cardoso says.

Beside the site a massive railway junction, metro station and coach terminus - a stylised forest of steel, concrete and glass - is rising from the sludge. This project, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, offers the most convincing indication that normal life there will continue after 1998. Homes, schools, hospitals and shops are already part of the post-Expo plan, along with a business district and the usual marina, oceanarium and permanent exhibition halls.

There is every prospect that Calatrava's Oriente railway station in Lisbon will prove more useful than his other design: the bridge that links the Cartuja to the rest of Seville. The island, which Sevillians have never taken to their hearts, remains aloof and marginal.

10 things you didn't know about Expos

1 The first truly international trade fair was the Great Exhibition of 1851.

2 New York had its own, complete with crystal palace, in 1853, but it flopped.

3 US President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.

4 Past fairs have been regulated by the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris.

5 Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was a highlight of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

6 Paris staged a World Fair in 1937, featuring a German pavilion designed by Albert Speer.

7 The Brussels World Fair of 1958 was dedicated to the joys of atomic energy and had the "Atomium", as its centrepiece.

8 Seattle built its Space Needle for the 1962 World's Fair, the setting for an Elvis Presley potboiler, It Happened at the World's Fair.

9 A top attraction at the New York World's Fair of 1965 was Michelangelo's "Pieta", in the Vatican pavilion.

10 The Montreal Expo '67 attracted 50 million visitors but still lost $200m.