Fred A. Bernstein

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Will the U.S. Be at the Shanghai Fair?

Published in Architectural Record, December 5, 2006

With no federal funds available for a U.S. pavilion, the State Department is looking to business to provide the necessary $75-100 million

by Fred A. Bernstein

To prepare for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the Chinese government has been sparing no expense: relocating factories and steel mills from the Huangpu River fairgrounds will cost at least $3 billion. But with Congress refusing to provide funds for a pavilion, whether the U.S. would participate has been an open question.

Now the State Department has taken a tentative first step toward ensuring a U.S. presence. On November 8, it issued a request for proposals for a U.S. pavilion in Shanghai. But the RFP offers little hope for architects without deep pockets. Respondents will be expected to handle design, construction, management, and even disassembly of the pavilion -- with no support from Washington. The estimated cost? Between $75$100 million, which "will be treated as a gift to the U.S. government," according to the RFP. "That's a lot of money, and I hope we do get bids," says James Ogul, a grants officer at the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The State Department, Ogul adds, "has told the Chinese government that our participation is conditional on raising private funds."

At last year's fair, in Aichi, Japan, the $34 million cost of the U.S. pavilion was borne by corporate donors, who were rewarded with a lavish VIP suite. Nearly every other country uses public funds for pavilions, says Alfred Heller, author of the book World's Fairs and the End of Progress. And the U.S. used to do the same. But in 1992, at a Seville fair commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, the U.S. erected a tent taken out of storage after Congress declined to pay for a pavilion designed by Barton Myers, FAIA. Then in 1994, Congress banned the use of federal funds for world expositions. One result: In 2000, the U.S. was absent from the Hannover, Germany fair, the theme of which was "A New World Arising."

At least one organization, Annapolis, Maryland-based The International Historical Watercraft Society, is already pushing a plan for Shanghai 2010. It wants to build a replica of the Sea Witch, a 180-foot-long clipper ship that loaded tea in the Huangpu River 150 years ago. Unlike a land-based pavilion that would have to be demolished, the the ship could visit other ports after the fair.

Responses to the State Department's RFP are due on February 9. In related news, Milan, Italy, and Izmir, Turkey, are bidding to host the next major world expo, in 2015. No other cities submitted bids before the November 3 deadline set by the Bureau of International Expositions, the Paris-based organization that sanctions world's fairs.