What is an Expo?


World’s Fair, World Fair, World Exposition, Universal Exposition or simply Expo.
These displays of national, corporate and cultural hegemony started as commercial fairs more like today’s trade shows (the Automobile Show?) than the theme parks they are today.

London, in 1851, held The Great Exhibition, an exposition of industrial wares in the single most remarkable building of its time: the Crystal Palace. 1851 feet long (cf. Freedom Tower at 1776’ high!) and made of cast iron and glass prefabricated to be entirely assembled and disassembled piece by piece. That Joseph Paxton designed, fabricated and erected it in 9 months would be remarkable even today, but creating a completely manufactured building (as opposed to, say, artisans stacking stone) in 1851, the same year as Singer created the sewing machine, is hard to imagine. It is a vision mostly passed over in the history of architecture as a ‘greenhouse innovator translating his skills to event buildings’. It is much more.

Among my favorite books is one reproducing the entire set of working drawings for the Crystal Palace. Prince Albert’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum was founded based on profits from the 1851 Exposition, and from their originals they created a mini-version with gatefold page after gatefold page. Read as a book the drawings constitute an argument for modern construction: a steel (in this case cast iron) frame with glass infill at a gargantuan scale. 50 years before the Flatiron Building, it’s only equal was Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve, but it lightness and transparency remained unmatched for decades.

While not yet vertical, the 1/3 mile long building was a staggering apparition. It was filled with the entire world of modernity, including Matthew Brady’s daguerreotypes and Colt’s revolver, the world’s largest diamond, the telegraph and vulcanized rubber, as well as other new materials and industrial machines of every type. And it was a true competitive arena with nations competing against nation for the most technologically advanced. Like a steam powered Comdex!

Scale dominated early World’s Fairs including the thousand foot tall Eiffel Tower built nearly 5 decades after the Crystal Palace. 4 years after Paris the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition included the world’s first Ferris wheel, but otherwise displayed none of the overt modernity embraced in London or Paris. The 1893 Chicago fair was dubbed the White City, organized by Daniel Burnham with Frederick Law Olmstead providing planning and landscaping as a classical stage set in a contrived landscape. The 1893 Chicago fair celebrated the 400th Anniversary of the Columbus crossing, and it wasn’t until the fair returned to Chicago in 1933 that modernism was once again embraced in the metal homes, Dymaxion car, streamlined trains, the Graf Zeppelin and Moderne architecture.

That progress, from a single London building to a white Chicago city devolved eventually into what can only be described as an architectural brawl. The buildings began to drop their air of cooperation and became independent follies, each attempting to erase all the others from the visitors’ field of vision. World’s Fairs became confusing jungles of competing offerings to national pride. Urbanity transformed into Suburbia.

Next years Expo returns to the noble precedent of a densely organized urban plan. More like New York than Milan, this Expo sports an orthogonal plan of Roman tradition. A Cardo/Decumanus ‘cross hair’ generates its own grid and the simple quartering of the site: rational, logical, eminently navigable and easy on the visitor.


Americans seem to love the democratic grid more than Italians. Except for one architect who told me he hated the plan, even though it was easily navigable and the narrow lots assured the visitor a fighting chance to see the whole world of country pavilions. As a plus, for me, it discouraged object buildings, where each nation competed ‘in the round’ with every other country. “But I do object buildings!” was his response.
Ah well, you get the next (and every other) Expo.

The USA Pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal was a huge transparent geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller. Since then the pavilions have become opaque, oddly shaped solid boxes filled with technology. It was a sad decline from Montreal to Shanghai.
We are trying to nudge it back in the other direction.

The USA Pavilion is a project sponsored by the US State Department, who issued an RFP in September 2013 for the May 2015 fair. Milan themed it as the ‘food expo’, based on both a global and personal perspective, and stressing sustainability. Joining the James Beard Foundation and the International Culinary Center we created, in just a few weeks, the concept for the pavilion in response to the urban plan, the theme and our highest aspirations for America:
American Food 2.0 is both a declaration of current innovation in food, as well as a clarion call for American solutions for the globe’s future food problems.

The USA Pavilion site is long and narrow permitting only 15 meters (under 50’) of building width, but longer than a football field. Rather than a closed box we countered with a pavilion both visually transparent and accessible without long queues: a large covered ‘forum’ referencing seminally American food icons: the Boardwalk, Food Trucks and the American Barn. With a defined exhibition experience on the ground floor, below the Boardwalk, and an open rooftop terrace, the building moves from the most controlled to the most self-guided as the floors stack up. It is a demonstration of openness and transparency (national ambitions) as well as the meeting of science and nature (combining to help solve food issues). Advanced thin film photovoltaic glass panels top a glass floored roof terrace, and a vertical (and harvestable) farm creates one of the porous facades.

The exposed repetitive structure and ramped wooden floors recall a barn and allow a circuit through the Boardwalk even when not queuing for the media presentation below. A moving sculptural screen dominates the Boardwalk space and a kinetic sculpture in the rear garden demonstrates the carbon cycle with a reinvented clockwork movement. It’s a place to be amazed, be informed and to have fun. And it is a nod to the Crystal Palace in a bolt-together demountable pavilion of steel and glass, wood and concrete, filled with modern technology.

At the end of March 2014 President Obama, while in Rome to meet the Pope, held a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Renzi to announce the US participation in the Milan Expo. That same day Secretary of State Kerry signed the participation agreement officially joining the Expo and exhorting the gathered business representatives to support our efforts (the US participation is entirely privately financed, unique among all the other countries). The sprint to May 2015 has begun, with scarcely more time than Paxton had for his palace!