This time, quite literally: INSIDE the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010

After a year of kvetching and moaning about the USA pavilion for Expo 2010 (World’s Fair), this afternoon Shanghai Scrap finally had the opportunity to go inside the nearly complete pavilion, and have a look at how – precisely – the US will be representing itself to China, and the world, beginning May 1. Regular readers will recall this recent post that included images of the pavilion’s exterior, designed by Canadian Clive Grout. With that post, I encouraged readers to compare the US design with those of other countries (such as those featured in this very nice Shanghaiist post by my friend Christine Tan). Alas, very few pavilions have opened their doors to the press (or anyone else) yet,  so, dear readers, you’ll have to evaluate them out of context.

I’m going to keep my comments to a minimum here. For now, my critique will be limited to saying that my prior assessment of the USA pavilion – that it looks like a movie theater – appears factual. That is to say, the USA pavilion is, in fact, a movie theater. Or, rather, a series of movie theaters. The films and videos that will be shown on these screens will constitute the pavilion’s programming. For various reasons (mostly, maintaining an element of surprise), the films weren’t shown to the media today. So, in some sense, it’s a bit unfair to judge the pavilion on the basis of its empty theaters. Then again, that’s what we have, so let’s get to it [all images enlarge with a click].

Above, the lobby of the pavilion (filled with media). On the far wall, the three large rectangles will hold screens showing a video in which Americans – celebrities (Kobe Bryant, for example) and regular folk (a Maine fisherman, we were told) – welcome visitors to the pavilion in Chinese.No doubt, visitors will note the donor walls that enclose them on two sides. In lieu of US government support for the US pavilion, private funds were necessary to pay for the $61 million US pavilion. Thus, prominent play in the lobby – and elsewhere – for the donors.

[UPDATE: Based upon a phone conversation, a few of the comments below, and several emails, I think I may have left the impression that I’m opposed to corporate recognition in the pavilion. I’m not. I think it’s appropriate and warranted. What I don’t like to see is a recognition opportunity turning into a promotional opportunity. It’s fuzzy line, I know, but I think we all know it when we see it. Hopefully, the sponsoring companies, and the pavilion authorities, do, too.]

From the lobby, visitors will be ushered into the first of the pavilion’s theaters for “Act 1: The Spirit of America.” According to materials distributed to the press: “Across three large screens … Americans remind guests of the power of imagination and collaboration.” Below, the three screens.

Then, from here, visitors will be moved into the next movie theater, where they’ll watch an eight minute film, Act 2, “The Garden.” Again, according to the materials distributed to the press:

In this moving urban fairy tale, a little girl with imagination and resolve moves her neighborhood to reinvent itself. Looking out at an abandoned vacant lot, the girl envisions a flourishing garden. Her passion and determination inspire her neighbors … [A]t the end, a city that was once tired and gray becomes a magical vision of what can happen when optimism, innovation and collaboration come together.

The film is projected upon five screens, depicted below, and will be accompanied by 4-D effects (wind, rain, seats that shake).

The final act wasn’t included in the press tour or the press packet, but it was included in an off-site press event on Tuesday, and is mentioned on the pavilion website:

The fourth show is a walk-through exhibit experience to present how Americans are taking practical steps to make “Better City, Better Life” a reality. It will showcase five thematic pillars: Sustainability, Health & Nutrition, Technology, Lifestyle, and Discover America. It will provide a unique opportunity for our guest to experience first-hand how the vision of the future will come to be. Pavilion partners will showcase technologies and ideas that are helping them achieve their goal of “Better City, Better Life”.

What does this mean? According to two reporters who attended yesterday’s briefing, it’s an opportunity for the pavilion’s corporate sponsors to feature themselves, and some of their products – or, at least, their corporate images – to visitors departing “The Garden.”

And that’s it. That’s the USA pavilion for Expo 2010. All $61 million of it.

Again, in fairness, the films weren’t shown. Perhaps they would’ve made a strong impression. Perhaps not. In any event, like several of my colleagues, I left underwhelmed. Rather than experience a USA pavilion that exhibits American ingenuity, creativity, and accomplishment, I saw a pavilion that represents an America that spends too much time watching TV. In that sense, it’s no surprise that visitors will finish their double-theater movie-going experience by exiting via an exhibition hall that serves – for all intents and purposes – as a word from our sponsors.

If you’re at all interested in how the US ended up exhibiting this particular face at the premier public diplomacy opportunity of 2010, you can find a summation of my theories, here, or take a look at some of the source documents, here.

And when you’re done with those, I hope you’ll leave a comment or two for the USA pavilion and State Department officials (often, one and the same) and employees who follow this blog (discussed with several of them in recent days). Over the last year I’ve been highly critical of many of them  – deservedly so, too – but it’s also the case that State has many good people who’d like to do better next time (if there is a next time) – among them, Commissioner General Villarreal, a gentleman. So let’s hear it. What do you think? Is this how you want the US represented? Or, if you’re not a US citizen, does this make any difference in how you view the US? Comments are officially RE-opened.


  1. Well based upon everything you’ve written this is about what I would expect. Mediocrity is what you get when there isn’t a competition or oversight. America isn’t a country of mediocrity. We either fail or succeed spectacularly. Very uncharacteristic this thing. I hate it. I think you are too easy on the State Department. They @#$% up.

  2. it is a dead and bankrupt country anyway, has been for a long time, why would one expect more?

  3. Funny, there’s a similar display (different content, of course, and more historically engaging) at the Tycho Brahe museum on the island of Hven, off Sweden. You can visit and be amazed for $5.00.

    Inside is a wonderful, interactive environment within walls of glass looking out on lovely nature and the restored foundations of the Uranaborg Castle. Very Swedish. No basketball stars performing free throws. No one needs to apologize for being dependent on Walmart, Cargill, Monsanto, and the other despoilers of the world’s environment and societies. And the cafe serves only wonderful dark coffee with hand-made smorgasbord, not KFC, Taco Bell, and “Giant Colas!”

    The total cost to build and operate the Tycho Brahe museum is about 0.10% of what is being spent in Shanghai.

    (At the Expo, go to the Danish Pavilion and see how beauty, elegance, and cleverness that can be combined to make a national statement that’s memorable for half what the American nothing cost.)

    In the end, is _this_ what America adds up to? My god. How small, as befits a supplicant nation.

  4. Adam, you weren’t in the US to hear Villarreal claim on national public television — and I quote — “We rely entirely on private sector funding for our pavilion. Federal law does not permit the use of Federal funds for the building of a pavilion or participation in any world expo.”

    This is a blatant lie as you’ve exposed in your articles and on your blog. Plus the guy has yet to report on the US Pavilion as the law _does_ require. So no kudos for this character, please, until he delivers. Charm isn’t courage.

  5. I actually found your critique of the US pavilion compelling until I saw the bevy of the other truly surrealistic pavilions. I now think that the staid US Pavilion stands out for its gravitas. (Of course, I’m not there to see it in place).

    I’m also can’t understand a concern about corporate sponsorship. Whenever I don’t have to fund, as a taxpayer – anything – that I haven’t signed on to, I’m all for someone else paying.

  6. It really does look like a movie theater. Whether you like it or not depends on whether or not you agree with this: “Rather than experience a USA pavilion that exhibits American ingenuity, creativity, and accomplishment, I saw a pavilion that represents an America that spends too much time watching TV.” America can do better but this is a pretty good representation of who we are.

  7. Movie theater! If Junior Mints and Raisenets are not listed as MAJOR sponsors somebody seriously dropped the ball here. Also there should be an exhibit on the history of nachos.

  8. Hey Adam, I think I saw you at the Australia Pavilion yesterday morning – should’ve introduced myself. I didn’t stick around for the US Pavilion.

    How do I want to be represented? Rock ‘n Roll, microbrews, hip hop, pop art, California cuisine,Redwood forests, Times Square, barbecue, apple pie, Broadway kitsch. Not an all-inclusive list, but American culture is so influential the world over, we should embrace that and our pavilion should too. I don’t know how you plug the business promotion element into all that. I leave that to the State Department folks.

  9. Microbrews would be way cool. Why don’t we have the rock n roll hall of fame send over some stuff? This is just boring. It doesn’t show any of the reaons why so many Chinese want to go to school in the US. The movie stuff is lazy and other pavilions are going to kick our ass.

  10. I forgot what it was called but I remember a 360 degree movie at Disneyland and one of the two movies it used to run was a tour through America. It was pretty epic for its time, for the immersion. It is pretty disappointing that the US Pavilion will amount to little more than several short films shown in succession, even with little gee-whiz effects in the seats. Sounds like Universal Studios.

  11. The comments and criticisms leveled here are much too restrained and kindly, and do no true justice to the sorry sight that is the US pavilion.

  12. On this blog somebody wrote that the US pavilion shows that the USA isn’t serious about Expo to the Chinese people. I think that’s true. This pavilion shows that the US doesn’t care at all. Chinese people will understand it very well.

  13. This is what we built? We defined global architecture for a century and we build a suburban multiplex for a pavilion? Is this some kind of joke?

  14. Thanks so much for this sneak peek, Adam. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but hey, at least it’s up. Gotta see the silver lining, right?

  15. Exacerbation –
    You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. For the record, Villarreal filed his interim Commissioner General report several months ago. Perhaps you should employ more exacting research practices. Moreover, under the current legislative constuct, unless congress specifically appropriates funding for such a purpose, federal funds cannot be used to fund a U.S. Pavilion. The law is clear.

    Your condescension in referring to Mr. Villarreal disdainfully as “this character” seems a bit infantile. This is a serious matter worthy of sober discussion.


  16. Until the trenchant questions posed by the sole journalist trying to uncover how this US pavilion came into being are fully answered it can only remain an object of ridicule and not “a serious matter worthy of sober discussion.”

  17. Since you don’t welcome comments to your previous Expo Post I’ll comment here. For someone that doesn’t hesitate to call people liars I would think it would be even more important to get your facts straight. The US Commerce Dept doesn’t have any control over the USA Expo exhibit. That was run entirely by the State Dept. Commerce didn’t pick the organizers and didn’t control any aspect of it.

  18. Jay –

    Always a pleasure to hear from you. Perhaps you’d be willing to man-up, turn off the VPN, use your real name, and give those comments to me on-record, along with a detailed description of how the USA pavilion team was chosen, and just who made the selection? Funny, isn’t it, that after so long, nobody at State has the courage to even hand over the names of who selected Ellen Eliasoph and Nick Winslow. The thing is, we know precisely who judged in the selection of the Chinese pavilion; so is it really the case that the US State Department is less transparent when it comes to the Expo than the Chinese Foreign Ministry? In any case, until that very basic info comes around – on record – I think I’ll just report what the State Department documents clearly state. Awaiting your on-record response – otherwise, please don’t bother.

  19. Good one Adam. Let’s see if Jay does in fact “man up” and go on record. Eagerly awaiting his courageous reply.

  20. I am headed to Shanghai to serve as a “student ambassador” for the US pavilion, and frankly, I agree wholeheartedly with the author that the US pavilion is a joke. From my limited interaction with them, they have been unresponsive and unknowledgeable to say the least. The biggest joke is the pre-departure pack they sent the students to “prepare us” for our jobs (which they have given us almost no details about)–it is poorly formatted, has grammatical mistakes, and includes a laughably inappropriate and muddled list of suggested readings that seems to have been thrown together by searching “China” on Amazon.

    Thusfar, my impression of the program is that is unprofessional; the whole deal reeks of something that has been thrown together at the last minute, and I am not surprised at all by Mr. Minter’s underwhelmed reactions.

  21. Disappointed –

    I’ve just sent an email to the address you used with your comment. If you don’t receive it, you can reach me – confidentially – through the blog Contact Form.

  22. @PuxDweller: okay, where’s Villarreal’s “interim report”? Is this another secret document that requires a year-long Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy? Why isn’t it simply published on the State Department website? And will the second one be done in June, as required, and published?

    As for your loony statement that the State Department couldn’t spend money on the US Pavilion (or for the Expo generally) except as appropriated by the Congress — do you know of any agency that can spend money that’s not appropriated by the Congress? Your point is meaningless.

    And what does it take to get an appropriation? A heavenly edict? No, you simply ask for it, which neither the Bush nor the Obama Administrations did. Like they say, if you don’t play, you can’t win. In this case, the politicos didn’t play and the American people lost.

    However, the State Department did spend money on the Expo without appropriation: the considerable time, energy, and diplomatic machinations of the Shanghai Consulate used to get the ball rolling and then to bail out the pavilion producers not just once but at least four times during 2008-2009. Where was the Congressional appropriation for that?

  23. I hear the 8-minute film cost 1/3 the price of the pavilion. That would be…hmmm…$2.5 million a minute. Not bad work if you can cop it.

  24. I am an.. ‘American’.. whatever ~ it is a piece of sh*t. And the US is rotting away in wooden.. old-fashioned, gauche, gaudy.. post-modern.. sigh…

  25. Finally after the closing of the Expo I read something about it, and that doesn’t please me, but then look at EXPO in Canada. A great building but only silly stuff and guitars inside – and then going to Russia and German pavilions and be overwhelmed.

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