Today is the 20th anniversary of the opening day of the Exposicion Universal 1992.
I wasn’t here for this momentous six-month event in Sevilla, a global cultural fiesta which welcomed representations from 111 countries, but I sure as hell wish I had been. Many of these nations built pabellones (pavilions) in Isla Cartuja, the site where the Expo was held, to show a microcosm of their culture and architecture, including the UK, the US and Japan. Each autonomous community of Spain also had its own pavilion.
This video (I’d start watching at 0:24) will give you an idea of the scale of Expo 92. The exhibition opened its doors to the public on 20 April 1992, closing on 12 October, Dia de Colon (Columbus Day).
The total number of visits to the Expo 92 was a staggering 42 million (41,814571 to be precise). Many Sevillanos met and married foreigners who had come to work at the Expo, returning to their native countries with them, and many extranjeros ended up staying here for good, including friends of mine.
You can’t overstate the importance of the Expo in Seville’s development, economic and social. Before 1992, Seville was a charming, old-fashioned city in backwards Andalucia. It took four hours to drive 95km to the beach, ten to travel the 500km to Madrid by car, along single-carriageway roads. In social terms, to quote one veteran English resident, “Seville was still in the 1960s, as far as rights and respect for women and foreigners went.”
Thanks to the exhibition, the city’s infrastructure, and that of the entire region, was dragged into the late 20th century, with motorways, a new airport, new bus and train stations, and a high-speed rail service (the AVE) halving the journey time to Madrid. Six new bridges were built crossing the Guadalquivir. The attention of the world was focused on Seville, and the minds of its residents were opened up by the cultural mix that the Expo brought.
During the Expo itself, my husband always tells me (he worked on the construction of the Canadian, French and Thai pabellones, and in restaurants during the event itself), the atmosphere was amazing – a mix of nationalities never before seen in Seville. He had hordes of people camping in the garden of his house (where we live now), with all-night parties which used to piss the neighbours off no end. He says it was like being at university again.
So what’s left of Expo these days? The Pabellon de Navegacion on the river
was an important part of the Expo, celebrating Seville’s part in the Discovery of America – the year of the Expo was no accident. It was 500 years after Columbus found America, and the theme of the exhibition was “The Age of Discovery”. This pavilion was a nautical-themed building, with replicas of the three ships of Colon, now resident in a dock near Huelva city. A tower next to the pabellon provided panoramic views of the Expo site, and the city. Both have been refurbished, and were re-inaugurated in January 2012.
And the 15th-century monastery Santa Maria de las Cuevas, on Isla Cartuja, as the headquarters of the Expo, was where Columbus stayed – it all ties in very neatly. La Cartuja, as the monastery is known, now houses an art centre, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo.
Two sites which have been restored are adjoining riverside gardens, the Jardines del Guadalquivir and the Jardin Americano. They reopened two years ago, but are not very much visited and thus provide a haven of tranquility close the city centre. Although they’re not as well maintained as they could be.
Tomorrow there are guided tours of the remaining pavilions from the Expo. They leave every half hour from 10am-12.30 and 4-4.30pm, from the Pabellon de Europa. I’m familiar with some of them, but am hoping to go on the tour to get the full picture.