The World Without Us

The United States can’t afford to snub the 2010 World Expo.

Paris’ Eiffel Tower

When the hoopla surrounding the Beijing Olympics ends in August, China’s attention will turn to a second international extravaganza: the World Expo scheduled to open in Shanghai on May 1, 2010. The Chinese government is sparing no expense for its second giant coming-out party, on a two-square-mile site flanking the Huangpu River.

China understands the power of symbols—something it may have learned from the United States. After all, if the 20th century was the American century, the proof included nearly a dozen world’s fairs in Seattle, San Antonio, and—notably—New York in the 1930s and 1960s. The fairs showcased U.S. cultural and technological prowess.

Now it’s Asia’s turn. In 2005, a fair in Aichi, Japan, attracted 22 million visitors, far more than skeptics had predicted. Given China’s vastly larger population, its expectation that 70 million people will attend the 2010 fair seems reasonable. (After Shanghai, Yeosu, Korea, will host a fair in 2012.)

So far, more than 150 countries have made plans to exhibit in Shanghai, and some are continuing the tradition of using world’s fairs as occasions for architectural experimentation. (Think Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower.) Last year, Great Britain held a design competition in which proposals by Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid and Marks Barfield (whose London Eye is that city’s nonpareil tourist attraction) were rejected in favor of one by rising star Thomas Heatherwick. Canada is collaborating with one of its most popular cultural exports, Cirque du Soleil, on what is bound to be a hit attraction.

So what is the United States planning for Shanghai at a time when the American image abroad needs all the help it can get? Having decided to live with a 1990s congressional directive that no public funds be spent on world’s fairs, the State Department is hoping private enterprise will fill the void. In April, it gave a Washington attorney and a California theme-park executive the go-ahead to begin raising money from individual and corporate donors. Ellen Eliasoph, a lawyer with Covington & Burling, and Nick Winslow, formerly the president of the theme-park division of Warner Bros., need to obtain $70 million to $80 million before the State Department will even commit to attending the Shanghai fair. To raise that money, Winslow said, “We have an enormous mountain to climb, and we have precious little time to do it in.”

And there is no Plan B. As it made clear in a request for proposals published in 2006, “The Department of State is not now authorized, and does not in the future intend to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress, to provide funding for any aspect of the U.S. pavilion/exhibition at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai China.” The privately funded pavilion will be treated as a gift to the U.S. government.

Given those strictures, it’s anybody’s guess whether there will be a pavilion at all, and if there is one, whether it will be badly compromised by commercial entanglements—the fate of the U.S. pavilion in Aichi. That expo was the brainchild of Shoichiro Toyoda, the honorary chairman of his family’s Toyota Motor Corp., which is itself a symbol of Japan-U.S. relations. Clearly, the United States had to be there. So, faced with congressional inaction, the organizers tapped Douglas West, a former Toyota executive, to raise money for a U.S. pavilion. West had to promise sponsors a lavish VIP suite in which they could entertain clients. In the end, the suite, which overlooked the building’s exhibition hall through bulletproof glass but which was invisible to most visitors, was the most interesting part of the pavilion (otherwise devoted largely to a presentation on Benjamin Franklin). The theme of the fair was environmental stewardship, and the Japanese came up with some surprisingly effective ways of making the expo green. Yet the Franklin show argued that to the extent there are environmental problems, technology will make them go away.

But even the Aichi pavilion was an improvement over prior U.S. efforts. In 1992, Spain hosted a world expo timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage. Naturally, the organizers—celebrating connections between new and old worlds—reserved a place of honor for the United States. But Congress refused to provide the $24 million needed to build the pavilion designed by Los Angeles architect Barton Myers after a well-publicized competition. Instead, at the eleventh hour, the State Department salvaged a couple of old geodesic domes—remnants of European trade fairs—and erected them amid cutting-edge European architecture. The Wall Street Journal reported, “Expo watchers are laughing up their sleeves at the cheapo hybrid pavilion.”

In 2000, Hanover, Germany, hosted a fair meant to celebrate the dawning of a new millennium (the theme was “a new world arising”); 181 nations showed up, but the United States wasn’t one of them. Although Americans barely heard a word about it, Germany took it as an affront.

A model of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo site

In Shanghai, site preparations (which have included tearing down factories and—controversially—slums) are nearly complete. Right now, the expo grounds are bare (surrounded by billboards showing Haibao, the fair’s Gumby-like mascot), but it is easy to see what the fair will look like. The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a museum in the center of the city, contains a dazzling scale model of the metropolitan area. The expo grounds are neatly represented, as is the Chinese pavilion (a kind of Modernist take on a pagoda, nearly 200 feet high). At one end of the fairgrounds are models representing the other national pavilions, and there are even tiny flags of the countries that will be attending. But Old Glory isn’t one of them.

Nick Winslow hopes to change that, which means planning the pavilion even as he begins raising funds. “We don’t have time to do a competition,” he said of the choice of architect for the U.S pavilion. Instead, he selected Clive Grout, a Canadian architect with world’s fair experience, as someone who can get the job done quickly. As for the pavilion’s theme, Winslow said, “It uses sports as a metaphor for how we transform our lives and our cities.” He added, “Too many of the other pavilions are going to be very serious and very scientific.”

It is possible that Eliasoph and Winslow will raise the money and get a nonembarrassing pavilion built in time. If they do, it will be a triumph of American ingenuity (exactly what a pavilion should be about). If they don’t, the image of the United States abroad will take another hit—and the government will have done nothing.

The Asian century is starting, with or without us.