Comment: Worlds Away

Comment: Worlds Away

In May 1956, a young federal employee named Jack Masey was asked to create a pavilion for an agricultural exposition in Afghanistan. The United States embassy in Kabul had been lobbying for a pavilion ever since it learned that the Soviets and the Chinese were planning large shows of their own. With the fair scheduled to open in August, Masey had just three months to create a pavilion that would help the U.S. outshine its Cold War rivals.

Masey, an army veteran and graduate of Yale’s architecture school, contacted Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. Within days, Fuller had drawn plans for a 110-foot-diameter building, which was fabricated in the U.S. and airlifted to Kabul. There, it was erected by Afghani workers, who, according to Masey, were visibly proud of their involvement. (By contrast, the Soviet and Chinese pavilions were built by imported technicians.) Thousands of Afghans visited the dome, which contained a working TV studio and other displays of American know-how. A photo taken in the pavilion during the fair shows a group of young men in traditional garb, suitably agog.

Masey tells this tale in his new book Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Lars Müller Publishers, 2008). The book, coauthored with Conway Lloyd Morgan, couldn’t be more timely.

Next year, the eyes of the world will be on Shanghai, where the Chinese government will host a world exposition (informally called a world’s fair) from May 1 to October 31. Nearly 200 countries are building pavilions, many by important architects chosen in national competitions. The host city will try to match the showmanship of last summer’s Beijing games, and, unlike the made-for-television Olympics, the expo will likely attract tens of millions of Chinese visitors.

But whether the U.S. will be at the fair is still an open question. Under a misguided 1999 law, the State Department is prohibited from spending money on international expositions. Last year, the department authorized a private group, headed by Washington, D.C. lawyer Ellen Eliasoph and California amusement park executive Nick Winslow, to solicit donations for a privately funded pavilion. Last fall, unable to find sponsors, they abandoned their quest. Now they are trying again, and the Obama administration, according to Winslow, is rallying behind them.

Meanwhile, Clive Grout, a Canadian architect chosen by Winslow and Eliasoph, has designed a U.S. pavilion that may or may not get built. Time is running out. “The U.S. government can only commit to participating in the Shanghai Expo if the necessary funding from the private sector can first be secured,” a spokesman for the U.S. Consul General inShanghai confirmed by email last week.

That the United States wouldn’t attend a giant international gathering, at a time when so much is at stake in U.S.–Chinese relations, seems unimaginable. Sadly, though, it is not unprecedented. The U.S. embarrassed itself with a tacky pavilion at the Seville expo in 1992 (timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, with the U.S. meant to be the guest of honor). It ignored the next expo (in Hannover, Germany, in 2000), insulting a crucial ally. At the insistence of Toyota, whose retired chairman conceived the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan, the U.S. did have a pavilion. But the building’s creators, who had to rely on corporate funding, put more thought into the VIP suite (where those sponsors could entertain clients) than into the main event, a film about Benjamin Franklin.

If the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai gets built, it, too, will have a lavish VIP suite, Winslow said. The exhibition will be by BRC Imagination Arts (the company behind the Franklin movie in Aichi). The building is by Grout, who designed a number of pavilions for the 1986 Vancouver Expo, and went on to masterplan the 2002 Swiss Expo.

According to Grout, the pavilion he has designed for Shanghai—where the theme is “Better City, Better Life”—will be “a celebration of an American metropolis in 2030, focusing on health, sustainability, and community.” The 60,000-square-foot building will employ “a very contemporary vocabulary of metal and glass,” he said. The glass will be covered in a decorative film made by 3M, a sponsor of the pavilion. Grout is waiting to see which other companies give money, so that—if there’s time—he can incorporate their products into the design as well.

As his clients scrounge for handouts, Grout is collaborating with a Chinese architecture and engineering firm, which is creating working drawings even as design development continues. “We are under tremendous pressure,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time to study or investigate. I’m just focused on the fact that this is going to open in May of 2010, and we’ve got to get it into the ground. Until somebody tells me different, that’s my responsibility, to keep it alive.” He added: “We don’t yet know how much money is going to be available. It’s not the way to create a crackerjack pavilion.”

That is a far cry from Masey’s day, when pavilions were symbols of national pride and funded by the government. Masey’s employer, the United States Information Agency (USIA), made its first foray into exhibition diplomacy with barge- and truck-borne displays touting the Marshall Plan, helping to win the hearts and minds of western Europeans, and it participated in hundreds of large expos and small trade fairs over the next five decades. According to Masey, it was the USIA that gave Fuller, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Ivan Chermayeff, and Thomas Geismar their first peacetime commissions.

Among the highlights of Masey’s tenure was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Best known as the site of the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev, the fair attracted 2.7 million visitors during its six-week run. The interest of Soviet citizens was, according to observers, palpable.

Even more poignant is the tale of the 1956 exhibition in Brussels. Though the fair had an atomic energy theme, the U.S. chose to present its human side in a stunning circular building by Edward Durell Stone. (Among other exhibits, there was a fashion show organized by Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee.) A separate building was designed to house an exhibition on race relations in America. The goal was to counter Soviet claims that the United States, with its history of segregation, was in no position to lecture the Soviets on human rights. Called Unfinished Business, it depicted progress being made toward racial equality.

The show created a furor at home, with Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia writing to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the pavilion represented “an unwarranted invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the states of the south,” where “segregated society has proved to be in the best interest of all races concerned.” The exhibit was replaced with one devoted to public health, which Masey calls “an unworthy end to one of the most successful examples of architectural propaganda ever attempted by the United States.”

But there were to be other successful U.S. pavilions, at Montreal in 1967 (a giant Fuller dome) and Osaka in 1970 (a fascinating, inflatable building). Indeed, since at least the 19th century, world’s fairs have produced important architecture, as the assumed temporariness of the structures frees designers to experiment. (Both the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower were built for international expositions.) Recent fairs have been filled with estimable structures, from MVRDV’s startling Dutch pavilion in Hannover to Foreign Office Architects’ Spanish offering in Aichi. In Shanghai, expect great things from Denmark’s BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Italy’s BiCuadro, and Spain’s Miralles Tagliabue EMBT. England’s pavilion was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, chosen in a competition over Zaha Hadid and London Eye designers Marks Barfield.

But the U.S. no longer turns to its top talent. Ironically, Shanghai officials commissioned Yung Ho Chang, head of the architecture program at MIT, and Edwin Schlossberg, a prominent New York exhibition designer, to create their pavilion for Shanghai. Chinese business leaders have chosen American experts to sell themselves on their own home turf. 

Congress should immediately end the ban on public funding for international expositions, and allocate the $100 million or so it will take to build a pavilion worth texting home about. Jack Masey, 85 and still working, might have a few ideas.