From the locals I've spoken to, the hands-down most popular country pavilion is Saudi Arabia's. Huh? Saudi Arabia? It's not on the design community's mattering map, but it has the longest lines--sometimes 6 or 7 hours long. In 95-degree heat! Why? In part, because of its high-spectacle 3-D film that wraps around visitors on six sides. But the real reason is its price tag--supposedly $139 million, by far the biggest for any country. In China, that means a lot. Money talks here and big money talks the loudest.
No one mentions it to me, but the contrast with the cheap, hasty, and dull US Pavilion is implicit in a big, bad way. The message is that either America doesn't really care about China or takes it for granted. And the rumor is that nearly half of the US Pavilion's cost was actually paid by Chinese companies instructed by their government to help out the poor Americans. I don't know if that's true, but the perception here is of an America that's either too cheap or broke or clueless to make a good impression.
Other impressions: With his UK Pavilion, Thomas Heatherwick totally rethought the genre--tossing out any notion of representing his country with the usual cultural sampling. Instead he took one idea--a Seed Cathedral--and rendered it as a physically beautiful, technologically fascinating, and metaphorically powerful object. The result is architectural poetry--simple but resonant, non-literal but understandable by all.
EMBT's Spain Pavilion takes a very different approach but with similar results. The wicker-panel-clad building jumps with an infectious energy, both inside and out. While the exhibits serve up samples of Spanish culture--a flamenco dancer, the running of the bulls, and photos of Spanish sites--it's all done through the eyes of three talented film directors. So we experience the country through a trio of artistic perspectives.
In the Urban Best Practices Zone--the educational area on the Puxi side of the Huangpu River--the Vanke Pavilion breaks from the pedantic pack with a building comprising a cluster of inverted cones. Visitors move from one cone to another and watch short films about preserving nature. The films extoll the power of individuals to help save our planet, a message perhaps at odds with China's official communal ideology. To strike a balance with the individualistic focus of the exhibitions, the pavilion itself is called 2049, a nod to the 100th anniversary of the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek. Another smart move was the absence of any sales pitch from Vanke, the largest residential developer in the country. You walk out of the pavilion thinking Vanke is good for the environment and knows how to put on a cool show. That's pretty good branding, if you ask me.
I haven't gotten to the US Pavilion yet, but I hear it's full of commercials for the companies who finally coughed up the dollars for its construction. I doubt such a hard sell is the best way to market either our nation or its corporate overlords.