Scribbler in Seville

Expo 92, Take II: shiny surface v ugly underbelly

Exactly a month ago, Seville celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of Expo 92, the global event which brought the world to Seville, and Seville to the world, during six amazing months (20 April – 12 October 1992), changing the city forever.

On the Saturday following this most significant date, free guided tours of the remaining Expo 92 pavilions were organised by the Associacion Legado Expo Sevilla. My fellow Sevillana blogger Kim has just beaten me to it (well, been slightly less tardy) with an excellent post about her experience.

So here’s how it panned out for me. I suggested to a Sevillano friend, Pablo, to come along with me, and he agreed. Pablo was a teenager when Expo opened, and had a pass for the event; he told me about his memories as we waited in the queue to start our tour (a good half hour). A piano teacher at the Conservatory in Seville, Pablo came to the frequent classical concerts, with top international orchestras, as well as some of the film screenings. He remembers seeing Placido Domingo perform.

Pablo’s favourite pavilions were the French, with its 3D “image pool” (more of that later); the Spanish, with its spectacular art display showcasing the finest national artists (Murillo, Goya, Picasso); Navegacion; the Moroccan (pictured above), with its retractable roof which opened at night; the Italian, which also had impressive paintings; and he also had fond memories of the Sony Plaza, with its gigantic screen.

With Pablo’s memories bringing the Expo alive for me (along with my husband’s stories – he worked on the construction of several pavilions, and lived life to the full during those six months, shall we say), we collected our book Los Caminos de Cartuja explaining about the Expo site’s streets (each is named after an important historical discoverer, such as Einstein, Newton and Da Vinci), our luminous yellow wristbands (ingeniously, rulers which curl around in a loop, and then snap out into a straight line), and a list of pavilions we were going to visit.

Then Angel, our guide, introduced himself. A self-confessed Expo 92 nut, he collects memorabilia and is one of those people who is brilliant at communicating his love of the subject with his infectious enthusiasm.

Our guide, Angel: is there anything this guy doesn’t know about Expo 92?

I won’t mention all of them, as there are quite a few, but here are some snapshots of the pavilions I found most interesting.

Our first stop, after the Pabellon de Europa (top of post), where the tour started – you can’t help looking at it with a sense of irony now: the huge excitement and sense of an exciting future felt at the time for this new union – was the French pavilion.

This was all about reflections: one wall was mirrored, offering a view of the Spanish pavilion opposite (the dome seen in the above photo), while the main attraction was a “pozo de los imagenes“, where images on the floor of a 20-metre-deep square “well” were lent a multi-dimensional effect by mirrors all up the wall of their pozo. You saw it all from a walkway in darkness. None of it remains now (no images, anyway), but evidently it was pretty amazing.

The Pabellon de Mexico showed a dose of wry Latino humour – they wanted to remind the españoles that although their country is pronounced Me-hee-co, it is spelt with an X, not a J. So this sculpture formed part of the Mexican pavilion. This was one of the many pavilions, Angel told us, which was intended to be temporary, but ended up staying on.

Next on the tour were Puerto Rico, Korea (curiously, only one pavilion), Rank Xerox (technology played a key role in Expo 92), New Zealand, Turkey and Italy.

For me, very few of the pavilions were striking from the outside; we didn’t see the inside of many, but the Italian one (above) was probably the most impressive inside in terms of scale – plus it had a model (below) of all the pavilions. The British one is one of the two large ones just to the left of the central avenue (Avenida de Europa) with its big cone surrounded by smaller cones.

Next was a pabellon which does stand out for its extraordinary façade, or rather decoration thereof (and reason for). I’ve driven past the Hungarian pavilion countless times, as I live outside the city, and drive through the Expo site to get home. It is built after a rural church, and carries symbols of the country’s seven religions.

But it was Angel’s anecdote about how the Hungarian pavilion’s design carried messages directed at its then-neighbours which really grabbed me. To one side of it used to be the Vatican’s pavilion – with an aggressive Hungarian warrior mask facing it; to the other, Austria’s (also gone) which was offered a “friendly facade”. Who would have known that Hungary and the Holy See were at loggerheads?

The other pavilions we saw were: Finland, Siemens, Fujitsu, ONCE, Canada, Monaco (which I visited recently as part of a water company open day, blog post to come – much more interesting than it sounds), Chile (whose display consisted of an iceberg, the idea being “if we can break up an iceberg, transport it to Spain, reassemble it, and keep it here for six months, we can do anything”. Er, quite.), Kuwait and Morocco.

The tour finished with the interior of the exquisite Moroccan pavilion (pictured further up), now home to the Fundacion Tres Culturas, but Pablo and I had a mutual social engagement to keep, so sadly we had to leave.

And now to the other topic of this post.

April was a busy month here in Seville, with Semana Santa and then Feria. At the beginning of the month a film came out which was set in the months leading up to Expo 92. Grupo 7 is about a special police division which was charged with clearing Seville of its many drug dealers and making it fit to host this huge exhibition.

As always happens before major international events, during which visitors will be coming from all over the world to stay in a city, and the global press pack will be present, Seville underwent a major facelift before Expo 92.

The Alameda, now the centre of bohemian Seville, with its “aromatic” cigarettes and shabby-chic cafes, was then awash with hookers and drug addicts (as my friends who rented flats there in the early 90s have told me; some still looked upon the area with suspicion when I arrived nearly nine years ago, telling me to avoid it at all costs).

In this violent and shocking film, we see a virtually unrecognisable Barrio Santa Cruz – the pretty tourist area of whitewashed houses and plazas is another place entirely, with rubbish in the streets, unpainted buildings, looking scruffy and rundown. I could spot various churches and palaces dotted about Seville, in the Macarena and San Bernardo, used in these sequences as the policemen jump from roof to roof chasing down their quarry.

The police group is seen hauling in known drug users and petty criminals and, depending on their seriousness of their crimes and the potential hazard to smooth running of the Expo, either running them out of town or beating them senseless. The group operates more or less as it wishes, its members making up the rules as they go along, and largely with impunity.

This serious and depressing subject is portrayed in appropriately muted colours on screen – grey, dark blue, brown; all a far cry from the vibrant colours with which Seville is usually associated – red, yellow, pink.

You see aerial shots (real documentary footage) of La Cartuja monastery, the Expo’s headquarters, being restored, San Pablo airport being built; and, at the risk of sounding facetious amidst such a serious topic, all the period details are fascinating (remember, this is the 1990s): dial telephones, TVs, clocks, radios, fridges – they’re all from two decades earlier.

As always with cop movies, the protagonists have dysfunctional relationships, like their booze – and smoke like chimneys. One of their favourite hangouts is the Semana Santa-themed bar Garlochi, with its candles, flowers, religious statues and lugubrious music. Some things haven’t changed.

One of the main characters metamorphoses as the film goes on, becoming increasingly macho, brutal and mad-eyed. It’s depressing, and my moral compass went haywire at the end when these vicious lawmen are roundly humiliated by residents of the blocks they had targeted. It’s the bad getting their own back on the equally bad. So should we be glad? Whose side are we on? None of the characters are sympathetic, there’s little light relief (at social get-togethers, they tell homophobic stories), and the police are no better than those criminals they target.

I saw it as much as an indictment of the corruption endemic in today’s police force, who are often in the headlines for beating prisoners, stealing drugs and otherwise breaking the laws they are paid to uphold, as it was a criticism of how these men carried out their duties in the time immediately before Expo 92.

So there you go – a view of Expo 92 from two very different angles: the international, modern, forward-thinking city, and the (then) rundown old barrios being purged of their unsightly lowlifes by corrupt fist and trigger-happy law-enforcement officers.

11 thoughts on “Expo 92, Take II: shiny surface v ugly underbelly

  1. Mad Dog

    Thanks Fiona, that was very interesting. Your description of the film reminds me of the police cleaning up Barcelona for the Olympics. I’ll look out for it, it sounds like it might be worth seeing 😉

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      It’s pretty hardcore, and I happened to see it just after another violent Spanish cop movie, No Hay Paz Para Los Malvados. So I probably found it even more repellant than I normally would have done. Check out the trailer, in any case.

      1. Mad Dog

        Shame – I was hoping for something more thoughtful. It reminds me of the police pushing a machine gun in my back and shoving me up against a wall, for giving someone a cigarette in Plaça Reial – they thought it was a heroin deal! They didn’t appreciate me laughing 😉

      2. Mad Dog

        It was 1991 and Plaça Reial was the place to go for heroin. I lived next to the plaça and the whole area was seedy. There were half a dozen military police with guns and a couple of plain clothes officers. They were very disappointed not to get a bust.
        It wouldn’t happen now as the area has been cleaned up and I no longer smoke.

  2. Pablo Lago

    Hi Fiona! I love the way you describe things! Your writing style is sharp and polished. Thanks for featuring me in your blog. I’m flattered! Hug, Pablo.

  3. Narda

    Hi Fiona, Wow, my husband who is from Seville told me about the “cleanup”. We met in Seville during Expo, and your post brought back some fabulous memories.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Hi Narda, thanks for your comment – I take it you don’t live here in Seville any more? The 20th anniversary Expo events have been interesting for someone who wasn’t there (ie me), but it’s always great to hear from people who were there.

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