At Oval exhibit, concealed commercialism

Visitors take in an installation on the Parkway by Saint-Gobain, a French construction-material firm.

Warm weather and tourists have arrived in Philadelphia, and that means the season of the big, corporate-sponsored event is upon us.

Saturday, it was the much ballyhooed "Future Sensations," which has set up camp amid the towering London Plane trees in Eakins Oval and will offer a week of free sound-and-light shows in a cluster of architecturally varied pavilions.

Billed in the media kit as "a never-before-seen experiential journey of science, storytelling and art," the event might be more accurately described as a massive promotional plug for Saint-Gobain, a French company that manufactures building materials, and has its North American headquarters in Valley Forge. At least, the company is paying the city $100,000 to lease the space for the publicity gambit, which runs through Saturday.

The commercial nature of Saint-Gobain's installation on the Parkway may not be immediately evident to everyone who strolls into the Oval. There are none of the banners you see at music festivals, blatantly touting beer and gadgets. Saint-Gobain's attempt to capture the public's eyeballs, and increase its brand-awareness, is more like a convention-center products expo, but ratcheted up with a few Disney World touches.

The event was conceived, according to Saint-Gobain spokesman Carmen Ferrigno, as a way to celebrate the company's 350th anniversary. To highlight its diverse product range, which includes everything from the high-performing glass used in skyscrapers to faux cedar roof tiles, Saint-Gobain decided to commission four pavilions made from its products, and send them on a round-the-world tour.

There's a dark glass cube embedded with a lattice of tubular lights, a white cube pimpled with what looks bubble wrap for giants, a carousel made of colored glass panels, and a fanned-out stack of white stairs covered in the same high-strength fabric used on the roof of the Denver airport.

Intrigued by the unusual structures, visitors waited in long lines in the hot sun Saturday to enter the pavilions. But the two-minute "shows" were even less interesting than the exteriors.

The most entertaining, a spooky series of flashing lights housed inside the glass cube, called to mind the bumpy, confused spaceship ride made by the Starchild in the penultimate scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because the floor, ceiling, and walls are all made from the same dark glass - which does sort of resemble the movie's gray monolith - the reflections gave the impression that you were floating across the vast infiniteness of outer space, a trick used in the more recent galactic blockbuster Interstellar.

But it was downhill from there. The show inside the bubble-wrap cube was intended to illustrate the material's soundproofing capabilities by blasting recordings of aircraft engines and backfiring car motors. That noise is indeed inaudible - but only to those waiting in line outside the pavilion.

At the end of each presentation, a narrator repeats the same phrase: Saint-Gobain, he promises, offers "350 reasons to believe in the future." But unlike the great World's Fairs, which made us giddy for the next technological discovery, Saint-Gobain does little to enlighten us about science behind its products.

While Saint-Gobain boasts $42 billion in sales worldwide, it does only $6.2 billion worth of business in North America. That's a situation the company hopes to rectify, Ferrigno said, and one reason for the Philadelphia stop. But he denied that Future Sensations' main goal is to raise the company's profile. "If there is any promotional component to it, it's behind the scenes," he said.

Yet, in a fifth pavilion, which Saint-Gobain rented for the Philadelphia event, visitors are subjected to a lengthy video history of the company, starting with its founding as the glassmaker for Versailles' famous Hall of Mirrors. No one is allowed to leave the room until the film is over.

"It's odd that they keep you trapped in there for what is essentially a promotional ad for their product," complained Peter McCauley, a West Philadelphia resident who went to see the show with his wife. "I'd never heard of Saint-Gobain before."

Just because Saint-Gobain isn't overly selling anything doesn't mean it isn't selling something.


 This is a corrected version of an earlier story.