New York architect James Biber remembers going to the 1964 World's Fair in Queens as a kid and feeling like he'd stumbled upon a futuristic playground. Videophones, the Ford Mustang, brand-new Belgian waffles — it was a wonderland, a place he and his friends revisited for days. Now, a day before the USA Pavilion he designed opens at the Expo Milano 2015, Biber hopes his work can recapture that kind of magic. An immense yet airy structure with roughly 35,000 square feet of exhibition space based around the theme American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet, it's certainly working on a scale that screams USA; it includes the world's largest vertical farm, a walkway made with salvaged wood from the Coney Island Boardwalk and a huge roof made from smart glass.
"Even though it's open and transparent, it transmits its power through confidence," he says. "My job isn't to express my opinions of America in April 2015, or to mirror what the State Department wants — they were a very positive client and didn't pressure me to design one way or the other. The idea, to me, is to express the best aspirations of America."
Speaking on Thursday from Milan before the opening of the USA Pavilion Friday, right before the final security sweep, Biber discussed a project he'd been thinking about since 2013. Privately funded and under construction since August of last year, the USA Pavilion will be part of the 2015 Milan Expo, which brings together more than 160 countries, corporations and international organizations around the theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. For the architects and designers, it's work on a massive scale.
"I'm really glad that we're doing this project, it's incredibly fun," says Biber. "But the chances are that I'll never do it again. You only do something like this once."
Drawing from the history of expo and pavilion design, from the 1851 Crystal Palace in London to the Buckminster Fuller dome at Expo '67 in Montreal, Biber designed the pavilion to encourage exploration and transparency while maintaining an orderly flow through exhibits and events. The main floor, overlaid with a road built from wood salvaged from the Hurricane Sandy-damaged Coney Island boardwalk, is meant to be more of a fast-track experience that allows visitors to view at their own pace. The Great American Foodscape display built underneath the boardwalk provides a more focused, deliberate viewing space, while the roof, which features 10,000 square feet of dimmable smart glass made by Isoclima that can change from opaque to transparent, provides a place to relax and take in views of Milan.
"It's kind of like magic," he says. "It's an open panorama across the Expo; you can stand on the USA logo and look over the main boulevard."
The highlight, which will be visible from the fairground, is the massive, living wall. Comprised of a grid of rotating hybrid hydroponics panels which include soil to help retain water and nutrients, the vertical farm represents a story of American agriculture, according to Biber, right down to the grids that recalls Thomas Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1785. The ZipGrow towers, landscaped by the team at dlandstudio architects, include 42 varieties of fruits, grains, vegetables and herbs grown in containers made from recycled plastic. Biber said they thought about the roughly 8,000-square-foot field as a spectacle, a Midwestern farmer's field tilted 90 degrees.
"The State Department said very early on that this isn't a science museum," he says. "The pavilion has to instruct in an interesting way, it's public diplomacy."
Biber also view the pavilion design as akin to a industrial machine, a metaphor for the American agriculture. It provides context around one of the main questions being raised at the event; how will we feed the estimated 9 billion people who will be living on Earth in 2050.
"The boardwalk includes a film of President Obama saying that you are 'one in 9 billion,'" says Biber. "That a staggering responsibility. I hope this pavilion can give people a place and a context to help understand they're not just consumers, they do determine how the food system works."