The U.S. pavilion at the Milan expo
Paul Warchol The U.S. pavilion at the Milan expo

“Meet me in St. Louis,” sang Judy Garland in the 1944 movie of the same name, “meet me at the Fair.”

World’s fairs used to be a big deal. The Eiffel Tower was built as part of a world’s fair. So were Jackson Park in Chicago, the Space Needle in Seattle, and Habitat 67 in Montreal. It’s been 50 years since Montreal’s Expo, and during that time world’s fairs have lost their luster—at least in the United States. The 2010 Shanghai fair, the largest ever, barely registered with the American public. Neither did Seville (1992), Hannover (2000), or Milan (2015). Hannover? That year, the U.S. didn’t even bother to participate. What happened?

The answer is the subject of Mina Chow, AIA’s documentary film, Face of a Nation, which was screened in February at the National Building Museum’s Architecture and Design Film Festival. Briefly put, in Montreal and then Osaka three years later, the U.S. put its best foot forward and built imaginative and evocative national pavilions filled with memorable exhibits. These were a spirited representation of a country at the top of its game. Starting with the Seville fair, that changed. American participation in world’s fairs had been a propaganda tool in the Cold War, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, that war was over—we won. Federal funding for the Seville pavilion was drastically reduced at the last minute, leading to a makeshift solution. In 1998, a budget-conscious Congress abolished the United States Information Agency, which among other things oversaw American participation in foreign exhibitions, a responsibility that was transferred to the State Department. Then the George W. Bush administration decided that world’s fair pavilions would be better off without federal funding—since international fairs benefited trade, American corporations should pony up. In short, U.S. world’s fair pavilions were outsourced.

A “Sorry Spectacle”
Chow, an architect who teaches at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, convincingly demonstrates in her film that the result of this shortsighted decision has been a series of national embarrassments. Corporate sponsorship and design-by-committee has resulted in uninspired architecture and mediocre exhibits. Asked about the U.S. pavilion at the Shanghai fair, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “It’s fine.” A half-hearted endorsement—most assessments were less sanguine. The Los Angeles Times reported that “the pavilion is so loaded with corporate logos that the messages are nearly lost to branding by Chevron, General Electric, and others.” Foreign Policy went further and called the U.S. pavilion a “sorry spectacle.” Not that the Chinese public wasn’t interested—there were long lines at the pavilion. In Face of a Nation, Chow interviews some of these Chinese visitors, who appear distinctly underwhelmed, as well as puzzled, that the world’s greatest superpower would put on such a lackluster show.

The U.S. pavilion in Shanghai
Jillian Mitchell The U.S. pavilion in Shanghai

To add insult to injury, the drab U.S. pavilion, which one blog reader described—not unfairly—as resembling a low-end shopping mall, was designed by a Canadian. Clive Grout, of Vancouver-based Grout McTavish Architects, told Fast Company: “We have a very prominent site and it is the USA Pavilion. People will find it. We have not felt the need to do an architectural handstand to get attention.” But surely handstands are precisely what is required at a world’s fair. Especially if you are competing with the likes of Thomas Heatherwick, whose knock-your-socks-off U.K. pavilion in Shanghai was a shimmering mirage consisting of 60,000 projecting acrylic rods. Or EMBT’s ultra-green Spanish pavilion, made mostly out of wicker. Or John Körmeling’s Netherlands pavilion, “Happy Street,” that consisted of a spiral ramp lined with a representative sample of Dutch houses (the theme of the Shanghai fair was “Better City, Better Life,” although you would not have known that from the U.S. pavilion). Cold War–era world’s fairs had been the site of one-on-one confrontations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with the former usually prevailing. No longer. The striking Russian pavilion at Shanghai, designed by Totement/Paper, was a kind of fairy-tale city that combined parametric forms with Russian folk motifs—nothing like a shopping mall.

Heatherwick's U.K. pavilion in Shanghai
Stephane Groleau Heatherwick's U.K. pavilion in Shanghai
The Dutch pavilion in Shanghai
VIEW Pictures Ltd The Dutch pavilion in Shanghai

The next fair, Milan in 2015, exposed another shortcoming of outsourcing. As Politico reported, fundraising fell short of the final cost of the U.S. pavilion, leaving more than $26 million in unpaid bills—and leaving the organizers, Friends of the U.S. Pavilion Milano 2015, to declare bankruptcy. The pavilion, designed by Biber Architects, was a step up from Shanghai, although it paled beside Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA’s United Arab Emirates pavilion, or Jacques Herzog, Hon. FAIA’s quietly monastic wooden pavilion for Slow Food.

The Rise of Nation Branding
World’s fairs have always been architectural beauty contests. I remember visiting Expo 67 in Montreal. There were many runner-up, forgettable pavilions such as the U.K. pavilion, designed by Basil Spence—the ’60s was not a great decade for British architecture—and the self-consciously arty French pavilion, designed by Jean Faugeron. The swooping roof of the Soviet pavilion, designed by a team led by Mikhail Posokhin, owed a lot to Eero Saarinen’s Washington Dulles International Airport, but its clumsy structure paled beside Frei Otto’s West German pavilion, a graceful and featherlight tent, all cables and stretched fabric. The spectacular U.S. pavilion was a 20-story-tall, transparent geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao, AIA. The exhibit designer, Cambridge Seven Associates, decided to show only actual objects: an Apollo space capsule, its bottom charred from re-entry and attached to parachutes suspended from the dome; a lunar landing vehicle; a chariot from the movie Ben-Hur; Elvis Presley’s guitar; a collection of Raggedy Ann dolls; a Checker cab. The controversial exhibit was unserious and ironic, even campy; Life magazine called it a “soft-sell,” President Lyndon Johnson hated it.

The U.S. pavilion in Milan
Saverio Lombardi Vallauri The U.S. pavilion in Milan

The fey U.S. exhibit in Montreal was light years away from the original mid-19th century world’s fairs, which were chiefly industrial exhibitions that featured steam power and electricity, and all sorts of machinery. The link between the fair and architecture was there from the beginning, however: consider Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and Ferdinand Dutert and Victor Contamin’s imposing Galerie des machines, which was the centerpiece of Paris’ 1889 Exposition Universelle. The international presence expanded, as more and more participating countries competed to display their wares. Over time, the emphasis in the national pavilions shifted from simply exhibiting products to putting the nation itself on display. This was particularly true of smaller countries. The Alvar Aalto–designed Finnish pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair was one example, the Czech pavilion in Montreal was another. Cultural exchange is still part of a country’s participation in a fair, but national pavilions have increasingly become an exercise in public diplomacy. Crudely put, this is nation-branding: not just this is what we make, but this is how we live, this is what we believe in, and this is who we are.

The UAE pavilion in Milan
Eugenio Marongiu The UAE pavilion in Milan
The Slow Food pavilion in Milan
The Slow Food pavilion in Milan

Should the U.S. Even Participate?
Chow’s documentary, which covers some of this history, occasionally strays, and what could have been a punchy 60 Minutes–type exposé is stretched out to an hour. She begins the film by devoting a lot of time to her immigrant parents’ experience of the 1964–65 New York fair, which seems like a roundabout way to get to her subject, especially as her chief argument is that the message of world’s fair pavilions is directed outward at a foreign audience. Chow herself is occasionally an intrusive presence, and there are too many talking heads in the Ken Burns mode. On the other hand, the film comes alive when Jack Masey is interviewed. A Yale-trained architect and designer, Masey spent three decades with the United States Information Agency, where, as director of design, he brought in figures such as George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Ivan Chermayeff, and Buckminster Fuller, and was responsible for both the Montreal and Osaka pavilions. Masey, who died in 2016, is also remembered for organizing the model American kitchen display in a 1959 Moscow exhibition that was the setting for the so-called Kitchen Debate, a famous Cold War confrontation between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev.

Masey’s view of world’s fair pavilions is blunt: “These buildings are seen by the world. They need to be the best.” His advice to the State Department is to stop outsourcing and request Congress to appropriate the necessary funds, and to tell the politicians, “Either you fund us or we’re not participating.” (Despite occasional press reports to the contrary, there is no law against using federal funds for world’s fair pavilions.) But Masey’s recommendation doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Last month, the State Department published a Request for Proposals in the Federal Register for the fundraising, project management, design, construction, operation, and disassembly and removal of a U.S. Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. “The design of the USA Pavilion should be spectacular, and worthy of carrying the name of the United States,” instructs the RFP. “The applicant should describe how they plan to create a design that is inspiring, while remaining cost-efficient.” Good luck with that.

The Moscow model kitchen where Nixon and Khrushchev famously debated
Glasshouse Images The Moscow model kitchen where Nixon and Khrushchev famously debated

Perhaps it no longer makes sense for the U.S. to even phone it in. The unanswered question that hangs over Face of a Nation is: Do we really need world’s fairs anymore? In a globally interconnected world of instantly accessible information, what is the purpose of an American world’s fair pavilion? Technological innovations such as self-driving cars and drone delivery already get wide publicity. Hollywood already does a good job showing global audiences how Americans live. American products are universally known, or at least universally advertised—Coca-Cola had its own pavilion at the Milan fair. Thanks to global media, America’s role in the world is endlessly discussed and dissected. Moreover, the tenor of the times has changed. The historical high points of the world’s fair were the late 19th century and the post–World War II decades, both periods when optimism about technology and the future ran high. The “world of tomorrow” was the underlying ethos. Optimism has been replaced by anxiety—about rogue nations, terrorism, resource depletion, and global warming. Not exactly something for Judy Garland to sing about.