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Anti-Expo Milano protests in Milan (photo by FEDRA Studio/Wikimedia Commons)

Though Expo Milano 2015, the enormous fair of national, nonprofit, and corporate pavilions built on the outskirts of Milan, opened as scheduled on May 1, its launch was overshadowed by violent protests, costly delays, and denouncements from one of its original architects and Pope Francis.

In a video address for the opening of Expo — whose theme is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” — the pope said: “In certain ways, the Expo itself is part of this paradox of abundance, it obeys the culture of waste and does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development.” The Vatican is the smallest of the 54 countries that have a national pavilion at the event. Five corporations (including Coca-Cola and New Holland Agriculture) and 16 international or non-governmental organizations (ranging from the European Union to Fairtrade International and the World Wildlife Fund) also have pavilions.

The day before the fair opened and on May 1, thousands took to the streets of Milan to take part in #NoExpo marches. Though the demonstrations on April 30 were peaceful, they turned violent the following day as protesters clashed with police, cars were set ablaze, and storefronts smashed. Police used tear gas and water canons against the protesters, an unknown number of whom were arrested. Eleven police officers were injured.

Anti-Expo Milano demonstrators (photo by Alice Bena/Instagram)

The organizers of Expo Milano, the Bureau International des Expositions — which has been organizing World’s Fair exhibitions since 1931 — anticipate some 20 million visitors will flock to the event. Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, hopes it will provide a boost to the region’s tourism and help the country’s economy bounce back. “The Expo bet,” Renzi said, “has been won.” Others are less optimistic, and see its chosen theme of ecology, environmental awareness, and global food access as poignantly hypocritical.

“The Expo does not aim to resolve the problem of global hunger and does not address the question that many ask: Why do people not have access to food and water?” a #NoExpo organizers going by Luca told the International Business Times. “The Expo does not answer this question because the very same Expo organizers — big corporations — are the reason why people cannot access food and water.”

Architect Jacques Herzog, one half of the internationally renowned firm Herzog & de Meuron, echoed Luca’s sentiments in an interview with the German architecture magazine Uncube. Shortly after Milan was announced as the 2015 Expo host city in 2008, Herzog & de Meuron was invited, along with William McDonough, Ricky Burdett, and Milanese architect Stefano Boeri, to create a master plan for the Expo site.

Anti-Expo Milano protesters (photo by dom.dennis/Instagram)

Their design “proposed encouraging all participants to present their exhibitions as agricultural gardens with only very simple, basic shacks forming sheltered spaces for their exhibitions,” resulting “in all participants having plots of equal size under the same light roof structure, with no big individual pavilions.” Needless to say, their design was radically altered, and by 2011, all the architects had left the project.

“The concept of a ‘World’s Fair’ appears to be very outdated,” Herzog told Uncube. “I have seen a few World’s Fairs. Particularly the last one in Shanghai in 2010 made it clear to me that these Expos have become huge shows designed merely to attract millions of tourists. A giant area filled with enormous pavilions, one always more spectacular than the other, and these unbelievable vast halls for gastronomy, shops and pissoirs. What a bore and a waste of money and resources!”

Though Expo Milano’s vast halls for gastronomy did open to the public on the appointed date, work at the site is not yet complete. Reports in the Italian press suggest that the organizers spent over $1 million concealing unfinished areas. “We’ll be 90 per cent ready,” one Expo official told the Telegraph, while another cautioned: “I’d program a visit for June rather than May, to be on the safe side.”

An anti-Expo Milano sticker (photo by orangeseed87/Instagram)

Damage from anti-Expo Milano protests in Milan (photo by Giornale Il Sette e Mezzo/Instagram)

Anti-Expo Milano stencils on a wall in Florence (photo by claudiacs73/Instagram)

Anti-Expo Milano demonstrators (photo by iliz_po/Instagram)

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...