While Beijing’s urban reinvention for the 2008 Summer Olympics is attracting plenty of attention now, similarly large-scale preparations are under way in Shanghai, China’s largest city, for the 2010 World Expo. Compared to the Olympics, which lasts just a fortnight, this event will extend six months and is expected to attract 70 million visitors, according to the city’s projections.

Given the Expo’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” Shanghai has already started huge infrastructural upgrades, including the construction of four new underground train lines that will nearly double the capacity of its mass-transit system. Work has also begun on a second magnetic levitation train that will connect Shanghai to the neighboring city of Hangzhou. But with the Expo looming just three years in the future, planners have yet to select the architects for several key projects, and other uncertainties remain. Politics is to blame.

Last month the city announced that the East China Architecture Design Institute will design the Expo Center, winning out over Perkins Eastman. But this news was accompanied by word that program changes will cause the 11,000-square-foot building to be split into two smaller structures. Planners also suggested that the Chinese architect collaborate with a foreign firm on a new design.

This somewhat cryptic announcement was only the latest in a series of ambiguous decisions and false starts, played out against a backdrop of political tumult. After China’s president Hu Jintao launched a widespread anticorruption crackdown last year, one of the city’s chief political figures, Chen Liangyu, secretary of the Communist party, was dismissed from his post. With Chen’s indictment on embezzlement charges, many large-scale private and public development projects were placed on hold until additional investigations are complete. The commission for the Expo Center was one victim of the delay; the Expo museum is another.

Xing Tong He, director of Expo planning and research, says that although 2010 is nearing, he is not worried about the remaining architect selections. “We are a smaller operation than the Olympics. And we have time,” he says.

Xing adds that Shanghai planners are seeking designs that offer long-term functionality after the Expo is finished. “We want the architecture and design to be meaningful,” he explains. “We don’t want it to just be ordinary. It’ll be the first Expo to take place in China, and we are considering quality and sustainability.” To this end, the Expo’s star attraction will be Dongtan, an ecosensitive new city district that will house 80,000 people by 2020. 

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