EXPO Milano 2015
Expos (or World’s Fairs, World Expos, International Expositions, etc.) occur about every 5 years and started in 1851 with the Crystal Palace in London. The Shanghai Expo in 2010 featured a USA Pavilion that was a closed, opaque oddly shaped building filled with video monitors, advertising and entered via a legendarily long queue of 8-10 hours! Our design for the Expo Milano 2015 Expo was a response to the previous US pavilions and a gesture of openness, transparency and accessibility.
The Expo was themed “Feed the Planet, Energy for Life”, devoted to food; global, local and personal. Our USA Pavilion, named “American Food 2.0” demonstrated how engaged the US is in global food security, food innovation and how it has become a center for the best food on the planet. An admittedly complex set of ideas for a relatively small pavilion to convey.
The pavilion opened its airplane hangar-sized door to the main pedestrian approach, like an invitation to enter, and was as open, airy and breezy as a building can be. The Boardwalk (made of recycled lumber from the Coney Island boardwalk) rose to the second level, covering an exhibition hall below and was the main forum for self-guided viewing. The rooftop terrace featured a variable SmartGlass canopy, adjustable in response to the sun. The terrace became the daily party for rooftop-craving Italian crowds.
But the main architectural feature was a football-field-length “Vertical Farm” featuring a variety of harvestable crops in a vertical array. It was as though a typical horizontal agricultural field was rotated 90˚ to clad the side of a building. It’s not a proposal for serious urban or vertical farming, (usually indoors) but a didactic display talking about the past, present and future of the American farm, and the American diet. Michelle Obama christened it "awesome", others called it "delicious".
The pavilion itself was, and will continue to be in its new location, a scaffolding for ideas, a rethinking of the nature of the Expo pavilion and of America as a force in the food world.
At the end of the Milan Expo, October 31, 2015, there were more than 6 million visitors that had passed through the USA Pavilion, twice the estimated crowd, and representing 30% of all Expo visitors. The USA Pavilion was the most visited pavilion at the Expo. On the day of its record attendance more than 65,000 people visited the pavilion, enough to fill a large football stadium. By the end of the Expo more than 50,000 people were visiting on an average day. There was never a queue of more than a few minutes to enter (a lesson from the Shanghai Expo) in contrast to the 8-hour line at the Japan pavilion next door.
The pavilion is being reconstructed in Hamburg Germany as a Tech Hub "Hammerbrooklyn". As the Expo was dubbed the “Italian Miracle” we are tempted to call the relocation its “Resurrection"! The pavilion would be one of a very few with a useful afterlife. Most of the Expo has been demolished, a remarkably oxymoronic end to a “sustainable” Expo.
The USA Pavilion was not a success as a financial enterprise, with the sponsors owning more than $20M at the end of the fair. Having declared bankruptcy small businesses (like ours) are shouldering the outrageous burden of having unwillingly paid for a US State Department effort out of our own pockets. The unconscionable behavior of Friends of the US Pavilion (the group chosen by the US State Dept to design, build and operate the pavilion) and the US Government has left dozens of designers, architects, builders, consultants, suppliers and others unpaid. All this while Friends fully paid some (including some of the Board members) and left others to suffer.
In Italy it is a felony to increase the indebtedness of an insolvent corporation, a crime from which the operators escaped prosecution only because the District Attorney decided not to get involved in Expo affairs.
It is the very sad, and very painful, end to an enterprise that, as Ambassador David Thorne of the State Department said was "the best Public Diplomacy in the past 5 years".
For the US to participate in any further Expo's without fully resolving the catastrophic results of the 2015 Expo would continue the shameful behavior of both the US State Department and the Directors of the Friends of the US Pavilion. We can't let that happen!