Food for Thought

Food for Thought

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The original master plan was designed by a team consisting of Stefano Boeri, Herzog & de Meuron, Ricky Burdett, and William McDonough—all of whom stepped down from the project after their initial scheme was overturned. Herzog recently told uncube magazine that he expects the show to turn into a “vanity fair” type of happening, where individual pavilions use novel gimmicks and extreme forms that will distract from the important content of the exhibitions. Their 2011 proposal gave each country an equal, linear exhibition space under a large tent, flattening the site in order to minimize nationalistic architectural ambition. Instead, the organizers have scrapped the team’s master plan, opting instead for the old model of large national pavilions with areas for retail, restaurants, bars, exhibitions, education spaces, and performance spaces.

While Herzog has a point that the planned structures are indeed fantastical, it is debatable whether interesting, informative exhibitions and wild pavilion designs are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, innovations in architecture, construction, and urban design are an integral part of how the world will address the food challenges of the 21st century.

Some of the pavilions do, in fact, seem like iconic attention-grabbers reminiscent of the mid-2000s, such as Malaysia’s giant seeds or the UK Pavilion—the first to be completed—with its beehive-like structure serving as a metaphor for how hives affect our ecosystem, a mostly ambivalent approach to sustainable food production.

The German Pavilion most directly confirms what Herzog has claimed, as visitors “can decide either they want to stand in line to visit the whole exhibition or rather go to the roof terrace, to have a picnic and to enjoy the great view over the whole Expo site.” It is literally using the building to reframe architecture as a distraction from the exhibition.

However, there are a handful of designs that stand out as attempts to rethink the way we build and how it relates to modern agriculture and sustainable food production for the next century. Most of the pavilions use sustainable materials and construction methods that utilize national building techniques. Inside, exhibitions—often interactive—showcase the biodiversity, culture, and food traditions of each nation.

Arguably the most radical pavilion is the corporate entry from American farm equipment company New Holland. Designed by Turin-based architects Carlo Ratti Associati, it features a sloped, planted roof that is harvested by a self-driving tractor, an experiment in combining architecture with robotic agricultural technologies that are set to change the way we respond to local terrain conditions.

New York–based Biber Architects designed the USA pavilion. Its east wall is a 7,200-square-foot vertical farm planted with 42 varieties of harvestable crops on rotating louvers. It also features a reclaimed boardwalk, which the team said represents the intersection of food, entertainment, and infrastructure in America. You can almost hear the Bruce Springsteen blaring: The building is clad in an enormous Pentagram-designed American flag with utensils instead of stars.


Several pavilions merge architecture with flora. Vietnam’s rising star, Vo Trong Nghia, has designed a bamboo structure with trees planted in its roof. The sustainable material is abundant in Vietnam, as it grows quickly and, in this case, can also be reused once the expo is over.

Italian grocery giant Coop Italia has presented a space that projects the future of supermarkets. The Future Food District was designed by Ratti and the MIT SENSEable City Lab. Interactive technologies allow “shoppers” to interrogate their role in the consumption process by revealing the food objects’ nutrition information, origins, and history, through information-enhanced tables and augmented labels.

Japan’s pavilion is a relatively simple design architecturally, but it has one of the most robust exhibition designs by Japanese designers teamLab. Visitors move through an immersive, darkened space with a mirror-walled room, full of knee- and waist-high discs, illuminated with the textures of rice patties. Projected images on the discs respond to the movements of exhibition-goers.

While the architecture of the Milan exposition overall continues the recent trends of the “vanity fair,” some fragments exist that might shed light on how architecture can interact with innovations in agriculture and food production in the coming decades. Ideally, this concept would be pushed much further, but for now these will have to serve as examples for future projects.