Hanover and Over Again!

December 10, 2023

Jason Griffiths visits the derelict 2000 Netherlands Pavilion before it gets redeveloped.


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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

Are we ready for MVRDV to renovate their own work?

In the summer of 2022, I was a visiting professor at Leibnitz University in Hanover, Germany. On my third night there, I saw Sanne van der Burgh of MVRDV present the most recent work from their research wing, NEXT. Someone in the audience asked about their Netherlands Pavilion from the 2000 World Expo in Hannover. The following day, I woke up with COVID-19.

For anyone with a predisposition to go looking for examples of failed optimism, an old expo site is an excellent place to start. Add to this a good dose of COVID-19 and you have a refined ambience of thwarted ambition, isolation, and abandonment that provides the perfect setting to indulge in some full-time architectural self-pity!

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

My other favorites of a faux-futurist ennui might include Olympic villages, fairgrounds, old film lots, and the increasingly abundant dead malls. However, expo sites have a remarkable ability to produce instant modern ruins and seem to get right to it as soon as the gates are closed. Each offers its own unique combination of traveling show ersatz and “slick-tech” disposable culture. Notable among these relics are Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion, Sevilla’s 1992 Ariane IV rocket replica, or any number of pavilions from Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Each passing day seems to add another layer of self-deprecation to these hulking edifices, especially when seen against the generic optimism of their titles: Building The World of Tomorrow (New York, 1939), Man and His World (Montreal, 1967), Progress and Harmony for Mankind (Osaka, 1970), and so on. Each ruin its own unique disavowal of the fleeting hubris that lies in the possibility of the “future.” Gradually, the paint peels, façades delaminate, and cable car gondolas rock gently in the wind. Their last ride is like a roulette wheel to decide which pavilion view they must endure until some disinterested demo crew eventually comes and lets them down. There is a particular cruelty for the abandoned mascots like Haibao (from Shanghai’s 2010 Expo) who was left grinning and waving inanely at a blank wall for many years after the show closed. In Sevilla, the six monorail cars that shuffled visitors around 1992 waited patiently for a benefactor to revive them. Eventually, they suffered the humiliation of being set on fire around 2006.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

I guess if there were to be a guide for postmodern ruin porn tours, expo sites would be mandatory and would probably have their own chapter. Perhaps this guide would begin with a tribute to Mike Davis’s strange brew of horror, emptiness, and distant frivolity when, in his 1990 book City of Quartz, he rediscovered the discarded stone elephants that once guarded the entrance to Selig Zoo in Eastlake (Lincoln) Park in Los Angeles. RIP Mike Davis! Perhaps these broken elephants should guard your grave for eternity!

Unfortunately, lambasting expos for their misguided optimism soon becomes a soft target. It’s easy to ramp up the noir romanticism and forget that for every New York State Pavilion, there is a Festival Hall, and for every Man the Explorer, there is a Fuller Biosphere. Decay is mostly temporary and often quickly removed, although not without the occasional appearance as a post-apocalyptic film set like Quintet and Battlestar Galactica (Montreal Expo 67). Sometimes they disappear entirely, but often, these “future past” monuments sit cheek-by-jowl with adaptive reuse projects for functioning business parks, adapted visitor centers, and sports complexes.

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FINBOX, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

Hannover has its own version. Similar failures sit next to intermittent successes. On Boulevard d. Eu, the smashed-in windows of the Latvian Pavilion sit just down the road from the perfectly intact FINBOX, with its internalized landscape seemingly functioning as an atrium for small offices. It’s not all gloom. There is adaptive reuse in the air!

However, by the time I got to MVRDV’s 2000 World Expo Pavilion, it became clear that I was several years too late. Somehow, the foolish haze of COVID-19 had convinced me that I could make a unique eulogy based on a bit of ruin-porn nostalgia some twenty-two years after the event. However, some belated on-the-fly research revealed Piet Niemann’s first-rate photographic account of a building in Stalker mode1 as it re-emerges through a gothic mist.2

Today, the Netherlands Pavilion has been stripped back to its bare structure, but it still bears the marks of the floor-by-floor collage of “six stacked Dutch landscapes.” Although barely more than structure, it still holds to the collage of diverse structural experiments. Its ascending floors mash-up poured-in-place concrete with steel columns rising to a triple-height space supported by tree trunks with the bark still on. Only the windmills and the top floor couldn’t stand the test of time and had to go. You get the impression that the building has recently gone through a tough-love treatment after years of self-pity and abuse. Now, it’s on the mend, having reached its low point sometime around 2010.

In some ways, this current state of hapless dereliction even helps the process of reflection. It’s true that MVRDV said it “functioned as a laboratory; an experimental landscape” but I would suggest it also allows us to try to understand its importance as a ruin.3 Looking through the skeleton, you can almost see the MVRDV renderings of so much of their later work. Today, it comes across as less of a building and more of a piece of research that sets the tone for MVRDV in the coming years. It’s like an embryonic building or touchstone that would be enlarged, refined, and repeated in future years—a bricolage of six grab-bag samples they would repeatedly return to over the next twenty years. The themes pour out in abundance, all with a knowing nod to the history of experimental utopian architecture. At one moment, there’s some New Babylon (Constant Nieuwenhuys), then a bit of the Sin Palace (Mike Web), followed by Yona Friedman, and so on. On the entrance level, we got a cut-up of Kielser’s Endless House or David Greene’s Living Pod rearranged in a pseudo desert on the ground floor.

However, to place this building in the pantheon of trippy utopian speculative projects is to be deceived by the knowing artifice of its free-thinking credibility. An enduring innocence will forever be owned by the first Glastonbury attendees or the original architectural students at Arcosanti. Those hippies were like some New Age reincarnation of Abbe Laugier’s innocent cherub for their times. However, this building cannot share this innocence because it is so conscious of its forebearers in the same way that the Britpop’s Oasis and Blur of the ’90s cannot deny their legacy of the swinging ’60s.

When it was built, I remember the sense that MVRDV’s clever sleight of hand had started to feel like an appropriation of the “open-ended” discourse of a generation of postwar thinkers. Clearly, they were not the first: Richard Roger’s Beaubourg has its roots in Archigram, and it is hard to imagine DS+R’s Blur without Fujiko Nakaya, or The Line in Saudi Arabia without Superstudio. However, in Hannover, its sources were disguised through the exquisite corpse cut-up technique. It was as if six players had blindly folded together the carnivalesque quality of experimental communities of their elders. By the time the visitors arrived, they seemed strangely compliant in the way the 2000 Netherlands Pavilion exists as a monumental multi-level park that takes on the character of a “happening.”4 In other ways, MVRDV seemed to sample abandoned post-industrial landscapes and reframe them for our consumption. However, if the original “happenings” were an attempt to make spontaneity in the blighted urban landscape, what now? What of Allan Kaprow’s mantra, “how to make a happening” where nothing can be repeated, and nothing staged?5 What now when spontaneity is programmed over six stacked landscapes? In the end, what transpired seemed more set up for a leisurely mass of tourists who could appreciate the depoliticized snippets of ’70s communes like Freetown Christiania or Drop City at a distance. In 2000, Hannover seemed to offer a cleaner generation of nice ravers who could enjoy a benign landscape full of agreeable “alternative” types. By the time we got to Hannover in 2000, no one had to worry about some drugged-up anarcho-hippie nut freaking out about his privacy and attacking you from a pile of old wooden pallets!

In truth, Hannover was never over-reverent of its utopian forebears. The six jump cuts between tropes of utopia stopped us from falling into the complacent “one-world” utopianism of late modernism. With a nod to Superstudio, six-square plans moved us on from the endless repetition of the Metabolists or the Mobius loopiness of Kiesler’s Endless House. Instead, we got a mashup of them all in vibrant juxtaposition, like some architectural tasting menu of futurism, all washed down between courses by scary transitional staircases between levels.

In another way, the Hannover Expo seemed to remonstrate with us about our affection for picturesque nature. It urged us to cast off naive notions of beauty and fully accept that the ecologies that emerge within infrastructure are not a contradiction. Today, this has become a staple ingredient in the MVRDV repertoire, but at the time, it still had the feeling of a “guerilla gardening” experiment. The carefully arranged, resilient nature within concrete infrastructure was presented to us as a brutal environmental health benefit if only we can accept it. In some ways, the building seems to chastise us for our inability to enjoy nature in its most durable form. It seemed to remind us not to give in to our desire for the bucolic setting and instead seek the transcendental message of nature at one with technology.

Regardless, the building was revolutionary at the time and took its place alongside Beaubourg, Arcosanti, and the High Line in the pantheon of postwar “experimental” architecture. Unlike the others, however, it has spent recent years in decline, sadly watching on as its MVRDV progeny grow up and reach global success. So what now as the building re-emerges as a ruin through the mist of Niemann’s photos?

A Three-Part Act

When I visited, the three roads that surrounded the site acted like a three-part play that unfolded before me.

  • The Eastern Side—Act One

Seeing it for the first time from Boulevard Montreal on the east, the building seems a bit naked and even slightly humiliated. Succumbed to time, its old bones have been given a tough love rehab, and everything has been stripped down and cleaned up. All the internal landscape has been pulled out, the skins peeled, and the technology long gone. All that remains of nature are the thirteen roundwood tree trunks that support the steel structure that now forms the top of the building. These trunks still have the bark on them, but they appear to be tagged with fluorescent pink ribbons. This is oddly reminiscent of how diseased trees are tagged for removal in forests. However, in an artificial forest, this may take the simulation a bit far. Does the fake forest have a fake life cycle that then concludes in a simulated forest management performance? What is the next stage of dead wood removal mimicry if you follow the natural consequences of the environmental principles to their natural end?

In Niemann’s photos, the stairs are still attached, but even these are now gone, probably to put a halt to the graffiti artistry that seems to have been underway. Everything feels like a critical reduction reflecting what it all meant: a highly edited version of the past through which MVRDV reacquaint themselves with their youth. From here, it seemed suitably vulnerable and even finally accepting of its fate.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

  • The Southern Side—Act Two

For better or worse, MVRDV move things forward. This is the clue to their approach: Endless folding; Endless collaging. Nothing rests, and nothing will be allowed to slide into melancholia.

On the southern side on London Street, you become aware that something is afoot. What was once the forecourt has now been regraded with compacted earth and re-cut berms. Back in 2000, hundreds of people queued in anticipation of this pavilion—throngs packed the paths in awe of the sandwich of “happenings” before them. Today, that anticipation is something completely different. It is anticipatory for sure, but more with a sense of a patch of the earth being prepared for development.

Just for a moment, I imagined how weird it would be for someone to have a spontaneous “happening” in this building today. A new happening in reaction to the nostalgia of the faux happenings twenty years ago—an unplanned performance in an abandoned concrete building that was a reenactment of postwar abandoned concrete buildings—a happening in a ruin of a sampled concrete ruins! But this will probably never happen because something else was happening… and it wasn’t a “happening.”

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

  • The Western Side—Act Three

When I first arrived at the Expo site, I hadn’t gotten around to seeing MVRDV’s proposed rehabilitation of the Expo site. I had just received another positive PCR test, my lecture at Leibnitz had been cancelled, and this visit was as much as my dwindling energy could muster.

The third act opens when you turn right onto Boulevard d. Eu. Here, the scene changes again, and we find ourselves in 2022 with the Expo site in full rehabilitation mode. Here, a functioning city is starting to emerge out of the old master plan. Offices, kindergarten, and tree-lined streets all have the can-do vibe of the Expo promise of future development that had then turned its attention to the Netherlands Pavilion and said, “what about you?”

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

Perhaps in anticipation, Expo 2000 is already on it and has quickly drawn a veil around the site. As with most prominent buildings under construction, you can no longer hide a building site with sheet steel hoardings. Instead, you must provide a semi-transparent scrim mesh banner. This veil is no longer just there to protect but must also promote, especially from the most public viewpoint. From these views, chain-link fencing turns the street into a gallery wall adorned with renderings of the architect’s vision writ large. At this point, any notion of the building as a ruin disappears completely. Standing on Boulevard d. Eu and looking east, we are no longer allowed to see this building as a thing of the past, but instead, we see its future in a pixelated ink coating on a polyester screen.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

I know we are not meant to read too much into this, and I know it was just intended for information, but the irony of this installation simply cannot go unnoticed. It is impossible not to get immersed in a mesmeric conflation of space, time, and representation—between past and present; not to get drawn into the sense of an older building doing an impression of its younger self; of a tired ruin with an anti-aging veil drawn over its face; a veil that does more than conceal age but insists on layering on a fifty per cent transparent image of a youthful visage. If you move in front of it, it seems to animate itself like some sort of real-time CGI makeover of architecture before your eyes. From the right position, everything falls into perspective, and the deep space of the building meshes perfectly with the rendered proposal in the foreground. The 3D computer columns align with the originals, new glazing re-wraps moldy concrete slabs, and strip lights reappear on the ceiling. Everywhere, verdant nature returns and breathes new life.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

After a while, the simultaneity of this image/space collapse starts to take on a new level of significance through a similar renovation of the original program. For example, “the renovated pavilion will house coworking offices and meeting rooms, with particular attention given to maintaining the features of the original design and converting them into office elements.” At this point, it started to occur to me that this screen-printed hoarding had taken on the role of architectural tease, beyond which the “happenings” of the original building had now morphed into a new landscape of office spaces. In this guise, it is not just the building’s image but also its program that is being conflated. This is especially true of the coworking spaces that seem to imply that if you “re-up” examples of ’70s alternative living and flush them through a business model, coworking is the natural outcome. It nudges us to conclude, through the happening, that its inevitable outcome is a monetized version of creative practice. In its current state of incompleteness, it bears witness to this all. Behind the happy façade of the gig economy is a swirling ecosystem of fragments of the past—a decaying past of both its own ambition and a deeper past of sampled postwar utopias. Its new occupants converse, stroll, and collaborate like inkjet renditions of a purposeful version of Ludic Man.6 Now, the whole shimmering vision of the new precariat return within this mash-up megastructure of futuristic architecture.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

In 2022, the Netherlands Pavilion for the 2000 World Expo in Hannover sat poised behind this strange façade that hinted at its optimistic rebirth. I am not sure what’s happened since my COVID-fueled day out that summer, but you have to grab the opportunity to see Expo buildings while you can. Expo buildings allow you to see what the future could be like.


Dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Hill.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

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2000 Netherlands Pavilion, Hanover, 2022. © Jason Griffiths.

1 Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1979).
3 Expo 2000,” MVRDV.
4 Expo 2000,” MVRDV.
5 Allan Kaprow - How to Make a Happening,” YouTube video, 24:51, uploaded September 21, 2013.
6 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (second printing), (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).