Will the U.S. Be at the Fair?
Published in Architecture
August 2004

A world's fair pavilion costs less than an Apache helicopter -- and Shanghai 2010 is approaching


If the next 100 years will be, as some predict, the Chinese Century, one of the harbingers is the world's fair planned for Shanghai in 2010. The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE)—the Paris-based organization that sanctions world's fairs—chose Shanghai over competing cities in Mexico, Russia, Poland, and South Korea.

No U.S. city was even in the running. And no U.S. city is preparing a world's fair bid. Indeed, our country is so uninterested in international exhibitions that it dropped out of the BIE, which has 91 member countries, in 2002. According to Alfred Heller, author of a 1999 book on world's fairs, even if a U.S. city wanted to hold a fair, the BIE would be hard-pressed to approve its bid. "Why would it support a fair in the U.S. when its own members are competing for the same dates?" he asked.

American participation in fairs sponsored by other countries has dropped off precipitously. In 2000, the United States was a no-show at the fair in Hannover, Germany, having decided that building a pavilion wasn't cost-effective. Some 180 nations, from Swaziland to Uzbekistan, managed to find the money.

All of this is heartbreaking to any lover of fairs and their architecture. Ushering in the last century—the American Century—was the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, with its "white city" of classically inspired buildings. (The association of the beaux arts with public architecture flourished soon after.) In New York City, the 1939 World's Fair brought memorable design and technology (including the Trylon and Perisphere) to the masses. Twenty-five years later, an era of optimism brought more gee-whiz pavilions to the same site in Queens.

The 1964 World's Fair was dedicated to "peace through understanding" and, at least in the eyes of this observer (who was eight years old at the time), it went a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Sure, the fair was commercial (with General Motors, IBM, and Pepsi putting on some of the best shows). But with Michelangelo's Pietà in the Vatican pavilion; the works of Goya, El Greco, and Picasso in the Spanish outpost; and an amazing range of foreign foods not then available in the United States, the fair was a showcase for multiculturalism long before that became a catchword. Towering over the fair was Philip Johnson's New York State pavilion, with capsule elevators climbing to a platform from which the Unisphere was visible below. Is it too much of a stretch to see the condition of Johnson's building, which has been rotting away for nearly 40 years, as a statement about "peace through understanding"?

Twelve years ago, the United States Information Agency closed its World's Fair office. Around the same time, Congress failed to appropriate money for a pavilion at Expo '92 in Seville designed by Los Angeles-based architect Barton Myers. Instead, at a fair celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the new world, the United States put up a couple of tents it had in storage, resulting in what was, by all accounts, a national embarrassment. Will any fair ever reserve the best space for the United States again? In 2000, the theme of the Hannover fair was "a new world arising"—and the United States wasn't there. A state department spokesman, Adam Meier, said he didn't know if we would be represented in Shanghai. There is a plan to do something at next year's fair in Aichi, Japan, but Meier said, no government money would be spent on a pavilion.

For architects, world's fair pavilions—which are by definition temporary—provide opportunities to experiment with materials and forms that might seem frivolous in other contexts. For every pavilion by a star architect (Alvar Aalto's Finnish pavilion in Paris in 1937, or Tadao Ando's design for Japan in Seville), there are dozens of others by little-known designers that use temporariness as license to try new things.

But the issues go beyond design. The United States needs an image upgrade, and a pavilion costs far less to build than an Apache helicopter. The world won't be coming to America in 2010; it will be heading to Shanghai, with or without us.

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