100 Days Out from Expo 2010, and the Critics are Starting to Speak (about the US Pavilion)

Today begins the 100 day countdown to the largest World Expo – or World’s Fair – in history. Lots of reasons to note this moment, but if you’re a US citizen, I suggest three, all related: first, the folks behind the US pavilion haven’t managed to complete fund-raising for the structure; second, the US State Department has yet to respond to a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request for information that includes a breakdown of the pavilion’s budget and disbursements; and third, and most demoralizing, the architecture and design community is beginning to take notice of the US pavilion design, and they don’t like it very much. That design, below:

Let’s work backward through my list, starting with the already scathing reviews of the US pavilion.

The long, sordid history of the US pavilion has been documented on Shanghai Scrap and elsewhere. What hasn’t been discussed, at least not at length, is the banal, shopping mall-like design that the pavilion’s sordid history has produced. That’s beginning to change. In a Tuesday post to Fast Company, William Bostwick, the esteemed New York-based architecture and design writer, suggested that the US and Canadian pavilions are in competition to determine who will be be the biggest jokes at Expo 2010. Having visited the Canadian pavilion, I can tell you that Bostwick is being unkind – to the Canadians (their pavilion is terrific). Of the US pavilion, he writes:

Designed by Clive Grout (a Canadian architect, no less), it’s a mash-up of weird conceits and technological gee-gaws, meant to evoke a Chinese-American woman’s life in 2030 via something called a “4-D multimedia theater.” Okay. Plus, it’s wildly expensive, costing $61 million (the Canadian pavilion, circus theatrics and all, came in at only $28 million), and it had to be funded entirely by private donors.

[Additional, even more damning reviews of the US pavilion, are being discussed at Archinect, here.]

Bostwick gets the cost of the Canadian pavilion wrong (I’m told it’s actually CD$58 million – or roughly US$55 million) [correction: actually, Bostwick gets it right: the cost of the building is CD$28 million, and the total cost of the pavilion project, including programming, is CD$58 million], but he’s right that – for the US$61 million cost – the US is getting much, especially compared to the architecturally significant pavilions being built for significantly less by other countries. Compare, for example, the marvelous and witty Dutch pavilion, built for roughly US$28 million:

To the doubly expensive US$61 pavilion:

If, like me, you can’t quite figure out what the US is getting for more than twice the money, then you wouldn’t be alone: the non-profit running the US pavilion, and the US State Department, have so far refused to release a detailed budget or accounting of how they are spending the tens of millions of dollars that they’ve already raised for the pavilion, much less the millions that they plan to continue raising. Why? Your guess is as good as mine (for the record, I’m aware that programming and operations consume a significant percentage of pavilion budgets – but, in the case of the US, we don’t know how much). But when asked for detailed accounting, the relevant authorities (Obama employees, all) bristle, bluster, and refuse to answer.

My second reason as to why US citizens should care about the 100 day mark: the State Department has so far refused to fulfill a FOIA request for any and all information related to the “Action Plan” that governs how the US pavilion is funded and operated. In addition to a detailed accounting of just how much money  is being spent on the actual pavilion structure (after all, for US$61 million, one can build a fine skyscraper in Shanghai), those documents might also explain the means by which USA Pavilion, Inc, the non-profit organization that operates the US Pavilion, obtained its State Department authorization outside of the official competitive bidding process that the State Department conducted in 2006 and 2007.

Finally, my third reason that US citizens should care about the 100 day mark: the US pavilion is still several million dollars short of its budget. Apologists for the pavilion cite a wide range of excuses for the failed fundraising drive: the Olympics, the 2008 US election, the recession, and Chinese efforts to raise money off US corporations. But what they never acknowledge, but which is undoubtedly true, is that an architecturally significant US pavilion could have been built for one-third the cost of the current monstrosity (see: US$28 million Dutch pavilion), with a significant percentage of the funds coming from the US business community in Shanghai. Alas, the State Department – which selected the current pavilion group in a non-competitive process – had no interest in this kind of option. Meanwhile, several major US companies with real estate experience in China, and serious questions about just how that US$61 million would be spent (they know what US$28 million and US$61 million buys in Shanghai), chose not to contribute to the US pavilion effort.

Why the secrecy? We’ll never know until US State Department bureaucrats finally release the relevant documents. But, thankfully, the FOIA request is scheduled to be fulfilled at some point in 2010, providing journalists and historians with the raw material to answer the question that architecture critics are going to continue asking throughout 2010: Just how did the US end up with such a lousy, over-priced pavilion at Expo 2010?

(the US pavilion as photographed on January 18)


  1. thank you fro finally writing about the big problem and that is the poor quality of the us pavilion design. it is an embarasment. if the foia explains why it is so bad then i support the foia.

  2. Honestly, I can’t imagine what would better represent American culture to the world than an anonymous-looking, shopping-mall like structure. A Ford dealership, perhaps?

  3. How many other pavilions are being built exclusively with private funding? And how many are thus the bespoken property of the corporations that provide such funding?

    It seems there is no refuge left in America from corporations and their sycophants: they intrude themselves everywhere, as if they are a gift from heaven. Maybe if they just gave money more people wouldn’t mind — but this is all about CONTROL.

    Corporate control.

    Who wants to bet that that’s the substance of the so-called Action Plan, actually a plan for American government inaction in the face of total corporate fiscal and cultural domination? I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I was a lackey simply facilitating such oppression. But apparently others trained in the art of submission have no problem with it.

  4. William – You’re right, and I’ve made the correction in the text above. Thanks for pointing out the error.

  5. Maybe you should think wheter the vicious libelous sh*t that you write about the pavilion has damaged the fundraising. A**hole.

  6. It looks like a multiplex cinema.

    BTW, Beijing suggested the $61 million USD price as the second highest, as China’s pavilion costs the most at $100 million. Who cares what the world thinks of the US pavilion? We are putting the world to utter and unforgivable shame in Haiti, including the UN and Red Cross. It is the expat community that wears a red face and rightfully so.

  7. “Why the secrecy?” Because what else would anyone expect from a Bush era State Department and Chamber of Commerce? Almost every US government agency, from OPM to USAID, was politicized by the Bush administration over the past eight year GOP reign, characterized by single source nepotism and favoritism and zero tolerence for ethics and truth. They espouse “Free Market”, yet they, the GOP, the Neo-Cons, the Republicans are anything but free market operators…i.e. no bid contracts, no bid competition for delivering the USA Pavilion, on and on for these hipocrits. They hate socialism but boy how dirty they fight for those government contracts. It will take a while, years maybe to clean out the plutocratic cancer and return to a meritocracy bringing good ideas and meaningful design.

  8. Unofficial Timeline of the pavilion of the United States, Shanghai Exposition 2010

    December 3, 2002, 2706 Days Remaining
    The Bureau International des Expositions announced that Shanghai would host Expo 2010. (BIE)

    March 22, 2006, 1501 Days Remaining
    China invited 60 NGO and 192 countries, including the US. (China Daily, 2006-08-12, Miao Qing)

    July 26, 2006, 1375 Days Remaining
    Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, Franklin Lavin, confirmed the United States will participate in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. (Department of State)

    November 8, 2006, 1270 Days Remaining
    U.S. Department Of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs issued Request for Proposals for a U.S. Pavilion/Exhibition at the World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China. (Department of State)

    February 9, 2007, 1177 Days Remaining
    Deadline Date for ECA Request for Proposals (Department of State)

    April 18, 2008, 743 Days Remaining
    The Department of State signed a Letter of Intent to work with “Shanghai Expo 2010,” headed by Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph. (DOS). Presumed that by this time to have secured 500,000USD funding from AnMar International, Connecticut. (Los Angels Times, Jan.17 2009, Don Lee)

    June 26 2008, 674 Days Remaining
    China World Hotel, Beijing, Nicholas Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph gave a presentation on the creative concept for the Pavilion and on special opportunities for private-sector supporters. (AmCham Beijing)

    September 16, 2008, 592 Days Remaining
    Shanghai Center, Shanghai, Nicholas Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph gave a presentation on opportunities for American businesses at the USA Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Their presentations can be found at http://www.uschamber…na/usa_pavilion.

    October 27, 2008, 551 Days Remaining
    Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph announced that they ceased their efforts because they ran out of time and money. (Expomuseum, Urso Chappell), (judithrubin blogspot, Judith Rubin)

    December 19, 2008, 498 Days Remaining
    Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph reported to continue working with the State Department to fund and develop a US national pavilion. (Beijing Today, Huang Daohen)

    February 10, 2009, 445 Days Remaining
    U.S. Consulate Briefing & Update on the revised plans for the U.S. Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010
    (Members Only)

    February 11, 2009, 444 Days Remaining
    A reposting of comments by Nicholas S. Winslow
    “Last year’s Olympics provided vivid confirmation of China’s status as a global economic and cultural leader. Next year Shanghai is hosting a World Exposition that will be the highest attended event in history. Just as the Olympics provided the stage for China to show itself off to the world, the Shanghai Expo represents the opportunity for the nations of the world to showcase themselves to the Chinese people. At present, the United States is about the only nation in the world that has not committed to participating in the Expo. Alone among all nations, the US requires all funding for Expo participation to come from the private sector. Adequate funding for a USA Pavilion may not be possible due to the current economic decline unless the US Government signals the importance of this event to the corporate community with a vested interest in China trade. Many believe a failure to participate would be a slap in the face to the Chinese. Many also believe presenting “Brand America” is very important in this international forum.” ( from the forum at http://www.asiasocie…illary-clinton/ )

    April 30, 2009, 366 Days Remaining
    Presumed the time when Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph really run out of “time” to find underwriting for the pavilion of the United States of America. (Los Angels Times, Jan.17 2009, Don Lee)

    By this time I stopped keeping track of the Winslow-Eliasoph fiasco because of utter disgust. It’s still disgusting. As for $61 Million USD; what do expect from a non-profit that blew through $500,000USD on a couple of trips to Shanghai and a set of schematic drawings? What did you expect?

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