30 Years On: How Expo 88 created Brisbane’s iconic South Bank Parklands

My mother still has her World Expo 88 T-shirt. It’s white and oversized and woven from a heavy cotton.

Mum has slowly debased its duties over the years. These days, it gets a run for the housework, or maybe an attack on the garden. But other than a loosening of the ribbing around the neck, it’s as crisp and white as the day she bought it, the eye-popping primary colours of its logo still intact. Clearly, it was built to last.

Expo 88 didn’t last, of course. Blowing into what was then known as South Brisbane in April of 1988 and blowing out again in October of the same year, it was the ultimate, winter-long party – six months of cross cultural exchange and food and live entertainment.

When Expo wrapped, the enormous riverside precinct it left behind sat empty. Just the giant shade sails were a ghostly reminder that anything had been there at all. It almost felt like a hangover.

Gone but not forgotten

Expo 88 monorail

Monorail at Expo 88 |John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Expo had managed to leave a permanent mark on Brisbane’s collective brain, one that can still be felt across the city 30 years later – particularly in South Bank, the parkland precinct it helped create.

“It was like a kaleidoscope. There were experiences and entertainment and fun, educational opportunities everywhere,” says Jackie Ryan.

Ryan is the author of a new book, We’ll Show the World: Expo 88, which details the complex story behind World Expo 88’s creation and its long-lasting legacy. A 16-year-old at the time, Ryan remembers how the event fundamentally changed the Queensland capital.

“It was an elite carnival atmosphere,” she says. “It was a cultural experience as well … There wasn’t much for mainstream Brisbane people to do [at the time]. It wasn’t a cultural desert the way it’s often portrayed, but those sort of activities were enjoyed by a narrower band of the population.”

Expo, with its music and international pavilions and theme park and restaurants, democratised culture in Brisbane. After six months of it, day after day, people wanted more.

Expo 88 at night

Expo 88 had a carnival atmosphere | Photo © Brisbane Images, Brisbane City Council

“[Six months] was enough for an expectation of what we should have and this is what we do,” Ryan says. “We go out, we have cultural experiences. We have international quality arts and entertainment. It’s enough to change the psyche.”

So much so that when Expo finished and its riverfront real estate was to be put back in private hands, there was an outcry. Then state premier Mike Ahern, under pressure from the Brisbane City Council, eventually established the South Bank Corporation to redevelop the land for public use.

Hello, South Bank

South Bank opened in 1992 and immediately became Expo’s legacy writ large – 17 hectares of parkland given over to playgrounds, greenways, restaurants and rainforest.

Expo 88 beer hall

German beer hall at Expo 88 | John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

You can still visit some of the original exposition’s major attractions. For years, locals have been gathering at the Plough Inn for lazy Sunday sessions in the shade of its surrounding figs and poincianas; it’s recently been joined by the heritage-listed Allgas Building, converted into the freewheeling Munich Brauhaus.

Walk east towards Grey Street and you’ll find Little Big House, Expo’s popular Spaghetti House restaurant now a midnight magnet for Brisbane’s bright young things. A couple of blocks over is the iconic Ship Inn, which during Expo was a wee hours destination for a pint and some supper.

Streets Beach | Expo 88

Expo’s South Pacific Lagoon may be long gone but in its place was built the winsome Streets Beach. On a spring or summer’s day, with the vertiginous skyscrapers of the CBD in the background, it’s hard to find a spare spot on the sand.

The only remaining international exhibit is the Nepal Peace Pagoda, which was relocated to a prime riverside spot. It remains a popular destination for both tourists and locals.

Still, the Expo effect runs deeper than the remaining exhibits. It’s in South Bank and South Brisbane’s DNA. The parklands are a gathering place, and a great spot to get a snapshot of Brisbane’s cultural milieu – young couples, first generation families, international students – they come from all corners of the city to populate its lawns and restaurants and barbeque areas. Spend an hour or two there and you can quickly feel like a local.

River Quay | Expo 88

“The theme of Expo was leisure and of course it was a cultural event and it was a gathering space, so people were encouraged to gather in their tens of thousands,” Ryan says. “More than the population of Australia visited at the time, and now you get about 10 million a year through South Bank. It’s still a gathering space.”

And on she grows

South Bank would help seed other nearby developments: the apartments and lines of restaurants along Little Stanley and Grey streets; the regeneration of the boardwalk area into the winsome River Quay Green; and the arrival of Griffith University’s Queensland Conservatorium of Music and College of Art in 1996 and 2001, respectively. Tellingly, the ABC also moved its Queensland headquarters to South Bank in 2012.

To the northwest, the adjoining cultural centre has expanded to include a refurbished State Library and the now world-recognised Gallery of Modern Art (or GOMA, as it’s commonly known).

GOMA | Expo 88

Installation view of ‘Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’, GOMA 2017

Across Grey Street is Fish Lane, a quiet South Brisbane byway recently transformed into one of the best food and beverage precincts in town – every night locals pile in for Vietnamese street food at Hello Please, new wave Italian at the rambunctious Julius, and one of the best degustation menus in the country at Gauge.

Perhaps the unsung connection between Expo 88 and South Bank, though, is how both look towards the future. Expo helped redefine for locals what kind of town Brisbane could be. It ramped up an agenda for cultural change that is still rippling through the city 30 years later.

South Bank in 2018 is having a similar effect on urban design, illustrating a walkable, pedestrian-friendly future for Brisbane. And it’s constantly evolving and being improved. Every time you visit you find some new performance space or playground to explore.

Huge and colourful and much loved, it’s a Brisbane icon that feels destined to be around for ever – a little bit like mum’s old T-shirt, perhaps.

Were you at Expo 88? Share your memories with us below.