The Pavilion Wars

The upcoming World's Fair should offer the chance to build a showpiece U.S. pavilion. But thanks to behind-the-scenes maneuverings and State Department incompetence, we may end up with a Chinese-funded pavilion—or no pavilion at all

One mile downriver from downtown Shanghai, tractors and construction crews are busy clearing land and erecting national pavilions for the 2010 World Expo – or World’s Fair. At one end, the massive $200 million Chinese pavilion has already emerged from the riverbanks to tower over dozens of others, a fitting symbol of China’s signal role in organizing what will be the biggest Expo in history, and the most anticipated since the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Meanwhile, at the other end, the 60,000 square-foot plot of land that the Chinese government has designated for a United States pavilion remains empty, its future, and the question of U.S. participation altogether, tied up in behind-the-scenes maneuverings and State Department incompetence.

“National pavilions are supposed to represent who we are as a nation and a culture,” explains Barry Howard, a California designer who has been involved with Expos and pavilions for over four decades. “They tell a story of whom we’ve become and who we’ll be.” So far, the story of the U.S. pavilion for the 2010 World Expo has not been flattering for the United States. And on April 15—the deadline day for the U.S. to sign an Expo participation agreement—it may become an outright embarrassment.

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The empty plot where the U.S. pavilion is intended to go

If Expo 2010 were being held anywhere else – say, Amsterdam – there wouldn’t be any pressing need for a U.S presence. But just as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (better known as the World Columbian Exposition) signaled the ascendance of the U.S. as a major industrial power, and the 1964 New York World’s Fair suggested U.S. technological superiority, 2010 seems primed to represent the rise of Chinese economic and political power in the 21st century. A no-show by the U.S. would convey as much about America’s diminished place in this new geopolitical order as does its ongoing run-up of Chinese-owned debt. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has indicated that a no-show might be taken as a snub. Though few Americans are paying attention now, come May 1, 2010, when the expo opens, surely many would wonder why the U.S. is not represented among the gleaming, architecturally significant pavilions on the Shanghai riverbanks.

In November 2006, the Bush State Department published its request for Shanghai pavilion proposals, and by the fall of 2007, the State Department had whittled the proposals down to one: a plan submitted by Barry Howard and Leonard Levitan (BH&L Group) – an expo partnership with more than 40 Expo pavilions to its credit. Impressively, they had secured Frank Gehry, America’s most renowned living architect, as the consulting architect. If sophisticated architecture were the only requisite for authorization, BH&L would have undoubtedly won the bid. But because of a 1991 law prohibiting the use of federal government funds for international Expos, the State Department required that they also submit a viable plan for raising $75 to $100 million, including a list of companies from whom BH&L planned to solicit. It was here that the bid fell short. In November 2007, State told BH&L that its fundraising and “design concept” were inadequate and ceased discussions. “I couldn’t start raising money if I didn’t have a [State Department] letter authorizing me to do it,” Howard of BH&L later complained.

Enter Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., a non-profit partnership formed by two politically-connected former Warner Brothers executives. (One of the partners, Ellen Eliasoph, runs the China legal practice for the Washington, D.C. power firm, Covington & Burling). In March 2008, more than a year after the competitive bidding process had closed, the State Department awarded Shanghai Expo 2010 the elusive pavilion authorization, and they began design and fundraising work. But while the former task went reasonably well, the latter was seriously impacted by the Beijing Olympics and a recessionary economy. By Fall of 2008, Shanghai Expo 2010 was out of cash, and informed the State Department that it was “shutting down.”

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Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.'s proposed design

Desperate to have a U.S. presence at Expo 2010, the Shanghai organizers and their government patrons began to explore the possibility of extending a loan to pay for the U.S. pavilion. But many Americans, especially among the expatriate business community in Shanghai, were dismayed by the symbolism of such a loan at a time when China has become a major purchaser of U.S. government debt. Barry Howard of BH&L, who has long claimed that his group can build a pavilion without Chinese help, said he wanted no part of it, arguing, “If the U.S. is going to show properly and respectably in Shanghai, then we have to fund it ourselves.”

But Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. opted to take the money: according to Nick Winslow, one of the group’s partners, the Shanghai government resuscitated their pavilion effort in December 2008 with a loan to support “technical aspects of the [pavilion] structure,” including site survey and preparation work, to be repaid with corporate sponsorship money, once they have it. In two interviews from Pasadena, Winslow assured me that this previously undisclosed loan is legal, and that the State Department has been apprised of it, though he would not reveal its value, or its terms. He explained, “We have to pay them [the Shanghai Organizing Committee] back if we raise the money.” Shanghai Expo 2010’s position has been further strengthened by a March 30 letter from Secretary of State Clinton to the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, reaffirming State Department support for Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc’s proposal. That letter doesn’t come with money, however, and the State Department is quite clear that it won’t sign a participation agreement with Expo organizers until it’s satisfied that the group in question has sufficient funds to actually build a pavilion. As of mid-April, Shanghai Expo 2010 has only one corporate sponsor (3M), though the partners assure me that more are imminent.

Meanwhile, BH&L has come forward with a new proposal (minus Frank Gehry), that, at $20 million, they believe makes it a more viable option than the $61 million Shanghai Expo 2010 design. In the event that the plan is not accepted, they’ve also said they would agree to join a proposed three-way collaboration with members of the American Chamber of Commerce and Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. This latter option may be the best hope for raising sufficient funds—assuring a broad base of affluent, well-connected support from within the U.S. business community in Shanghai (the group most likely to benefit from a strong U.S. showing) – and securing the necessary design and building expertise to pull off a pavilion in less than a year. But, understandably, given their State Department-authorized status, Shanghai Expo 2010 isn’t interested in adding members to the team.

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The BH&L team's new alternate proposed design, by architect Jeremy Metz

Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is assured: somebody is going to build a pavilion on that prime piece of riverbank real estate reserved for the U.S. The Chinese prefer that it be an American pavilion, and they’ll likely extend the participation deadline in the hope of securing it. But if, for whatever reason, the State Department’s authorized team can’t raise the money, the U.S. will be faced with two unpalatable, and equally symbolic choices: a Chinese-funded pavilion, or no pavilion at all.