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Summer Previews : Double Exposure : Two European Cities Hope Their Extravagant Summer Expositions Will Draw Tourists from the New World and Old, and Revitalize Their Once-Proud Economies

February 16, 1992|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Meisler, a veteran foreign correspondent, travels frequently in Spain. and

SEVILLE, Spain — Any American visitor to Expo '92, the world's fair opening soon in the heart of Andalusian Spain, is sure to be disappointed--not by the splendor and whirl of the exposition itself, but by the meager look of the American pavilion.

Caught by limited appropriations and a drop in the value of the dollar, the U.S. government has managed to come forth with only two geodesic domes and an ugly box of a building, a complex put to shame at Expo '92 even by the Puerto Rican pavilion.

But once beyond this bit of nationalist gloom, an American visitor is bound to be as delighted as any other visitor, for the Spaniards have tried hard to put together an elegant show for this 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of America by an admiral sailing in the pay of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Expo '92 also will give visitors a chance to see a bit more of Andalusia, the sun-drenched, Arab-influenced Southern region of Spain that has produced such renowned Spaniards as the martyred poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), the 20th-Century composer Manuel de Falla, the old bullfighter Juan Belmonte and the Socialist politician who runs Spain today, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.

Expo '92 will run here, in Spain's third-largest city, from April 20 to Oct. 12 (Easter Monday through Columbus Day), and organizers hope to attract 18 million visitors to its 95 national and thematic pavilions and gardens, its 55,000 performances of opera, theater, symphonic music, jazz, rock and other entertainments and its 96 restaurants, 70 bars and cafes and 150 shops.

Exhibitors at world's fairs, mostly governments, usually like to engage in a good deal of boosterism and propaganda as they show off their wares and culture--and word spreads quickly about the pavilions putting on the most novel or spectacular exhibitions inside and handing out the best freebies.

Unfortunately, my recent tour of the grounds three months before opening--when most pavilions were still going up and none of the exhibitions were ready--offered no help on such practical matters. But the tour did make a few things clear: the enormity of the exhibition grounds, the architectural novelty of some of the pavilions and the exciting extravagance of the plans.

Expo '92 takes up 531 acres (almost a square mile) of the island of Cartuja, about a mile from the Alcazar, the old Moorish-looking royal palace in the center of town that is still used as the royal residence when King Juan Carlos comes to Seville. Although called an island, Cartuja is really the neck of a peninsula formed by the Guadalquivir River and an artificial river channel. It was once an isolated place with only the Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria de las Cuevas and a bunch of agricultural plots. The monastery, where Columbus stayed before some of his voyages to America, has long ceased to function, but a British firm, Pickman, operated a ceramics factory within its walls for more than 100 years until 1971.

Now the monastery is surrounded by a host of cranes and scaffolding and bulldozers and almost-completed pavilions, for Expo covers almost all the peninsula. The city itself is clearly within reach, for the boundaries of the fair reach the shore of the river. In fact, once the fair opens, visitors will be able to walk right into Expo '92 across one of three new bridges or soar over the river by a cable car from the center of Seville or board a boat at the 13th-Century Tower of Gold, a Moorish watchtower that guards the Guadalquivir.

Much like Barcelona in preparation for the Olympics, Seville has taken advantage of Expo '92 to improve itself with long-needed projects. The city has built eight new bridges across the river, laid down more than 40 miles of new roads, added a terminal to the airport, modernized its port facilities and constructed a new railroad terminal. On top of this, the government has set down the lines for a new high-speed train that will move from Madrid to Seville in three hours. When Expo '92 ends, Seville hopes to transform the fairgrounds into a gleaming site for high-tech industry.

According to the official count, 110 countries are taking part in the fair, a record for all fairs sanctioned by the Paris-based International Bureau of Exhibitions, but only 63 are building their own individual pavilions. The Spaniards have put up joint Latin American, Caribbean, African, Arab and South Pacific pavilions for those countries unable to afford a pavilion of their own.

The four-story Japanese pavilion, billed as the largest wooden building in the world, is clearly the most spectacular pavilion--a judgment rendered by most Spaniards who have watched the pavilions go up, and I could see no real rival when I toured the site. It features a sloping facade made up entirely of unpainted iroko wood from Central Africa.

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