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State Department Chooses Designer for Milan Expo's U.S. Pavilion

By Fred A. Bernstein
May 13, 2014
Image courtesy Biber Architects
New York architect James Biber is working with Andrea Grassi of the Milan firm Genius Loci and Susannah Drake of Brooklyn’s dlandstudioon the design of the U.S. pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015.

The State Department has chosen a group to design, build, and operate the U.S. pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015. The theme of the Expo is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”; the U.S. pavilion will focus on American food production, says its architect, James Biber, who runs a small firm in Manhattan’s Woolworth Building. 

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Biber, who has designed several restaurants, including New York’s venerable Gotham Bar and Grill, says the site plan for the Expo (created by, among others, Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron) is “the most urban” he has ever seen: lots are only 20 meters wide, but more than 100 meters deep, turning the pavilions into oversized rowhouses. “It’s terrible if you want to build a blob,” he says, referring to the “object buildings” associated with past expos, but good for visitors who want to see numerous pavilions in a day. Biber says that he is determined to avoid the “oddly shaped dark boxes with video screens inside” that so many countries opt for, in favor of a pavilion that is as open, airy, transparent, and accessible as possible.

To that end, he says, he has designed a series of steel frames supporting a boardwalk running the length of the pavilion. (Biber calls the boardwalk “a uniquely American food-related image” and is looking to use wood from Coney Island or Atlantic City.) Inside, exhibits will “showcase American leadership and innovation in global food security, agriculture, and cuisine,” according to a press release. Shielding the boardwalk will be a vertical farm, set into panels that follow the motion of the sun, developed in part by Susannah Drake of Brooklyn’s dlandstudio. “Every pavilion at the fair will have a green wall, so we wanted to do something different,” says Biber, who adds, “Vertical farmers will access the vertical farm from catwalks.” Beneath the harvestable plants, food trucks will offer samples of American cuisine.

Biber has made half a dozen trips to Milan, where he is working with a local architect, Andrea Grassi of the firm Genius Loci. Biber says construction is budgeted at about $14 million, which will stretch further than usual because the building—which will be open from May 1 to October 31—won’t need a heating system, or even a curtain wall. About one quarter of the roof deck will be reserved for VIPs; the rest of the roof will be open to the public. It will be shaded by a canopy of electrochromic, photovoltaic glass. Biber hopes to borrow that glass and other buildings products from their manufacturers for the duration of the fair. “An environmentally themed fair that comes down after six months is an oxymoron,” he says.

Biber said the group—officially Friends of the U.S. Pavilion Milano 2015—still needs to raise most of the funds for the building, which, under law, cannot receive federal funding. He says he is taking a risk by having his staff design a pavilion that has not yet been paid for, but that if all goes well he will earn “more than a bare-bones fee.”

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