Dust from unfinished construction was in the air when Expo '98 opened in Lisbon last Friday. Portugal secured the hosting of the last big international exhibition of this century in 1990, and has used the event as an opportunity to undertake major civic works.
However, the programme of rejuvenation is badly off schedule and visitors to the Expo site will be struck as much by the scale of work still in progress as by the prestigious, but barely polished exhibition site itself.
Expo '98 occupies 60ha of a 340ha site in the Olivais docks area of eastern Lisbon. The district is being regenerated by Expo Urbe, a subsidiary of parent company ParqueExpo 98. Before clearance started in 1994, the area was a mix of old and under-used warehousing, light industry, oil and gas containment, and low grade housing. Transport links to the area were poor.
The new development, backed by Lisbon Mayor Juan Sores and the Portuguese government, is aimed at raising the profile of Lisbon as a business and commercial centre nationally and internationally.
The core Expo buildings will function - Birmingham NEC-like - as a state of the art conference and exhibition centre after Expo '98 closes in November. There is also a world class aquarium. Lisbon's airport is 10 minutes' drive away, a new rail station and improved rail connections have been introduced and, spanning the River Tagus, the Vasco da Gama bridge gives rapid access to the site by road from the south (NCE 26 March).
The Portuguese authorities hope that private sector investment will add flesh - in the form of new office, leisure and retail space, and housing - to the core elements now almost in place. Completion of the whole scheme is projected for 2009.
Expo 98 has been staged, at least in part, to raise the profile of the whole regeneration project. Some of those at the site fear that efforts to raise private finance for the remaining work could be undermined if Expo is a flop. A low turnout will embarrass the Portuguese government and investors, who have sunk Esc120M (£42.2M) of public funds and £3.87bn in private money into the project.
Three days before the opening ceremony, much of the Expo site was the scene of frenetic round the clock activity as exhibitors attempted to make the deadline. The majority of work on the 118 national pavilions has been contracted to non-Portuguese companies.
Expo claims to have created 8,500 jobs to date, but a member of Guildford-based exhibition contractor Carlton Beck, working on the Macau pavilion, expressed surprise at finding local labour on site relegated almost wholly to low-skill jobs.
As a whole, the exhibition is an interesting meeting of high-tech, flexible architecture and services, and local craft traditions. Under-resourcing is clearly a problem in places, and the interface between disciplines is not always smooth. The scene around the perimeter of Expo 98, meanwhile, is one of broken ground.
UK exhibitions design group The Visual Connection, responsible for Macau's pavilion, has been frustrated by the disorganisation and a lack of comprehensive strategy in Expo organisation. This has hampered work and slowed progress.
As Expo staff came on site to practise multi-lingual hellos, and dancers arrived to go through dance routines, scaffolding was still up and contractors were pouring concrete and surfacing roads.
Expos are very much about image and communication. Those working at the site fear the image Lisbon will project will be one of poor management that has dogged its construction phase, at
least during the opening weeks.
Meanwhile, even if Expo '98 does pull off a miracle with the crowds, it looks likely there will be no room at the inn.
The organisers hope 8.3M people will visit the site in the next six months, but Lisbon's hotels are already stretched. Two ships have been moored in the Tagus to accommodate Expo's immigrant workforce. Of the two new hotels at the site, one will not open on time. Where the rest of the
world will stay, no-one seems to know.