U.S. Pavilion Expo Milano 2015

Photography by Saverio Lombardi Vallauri

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In the parlance of world expos, it’s called a pavilion, but at 40,800 square feet, the four-story “American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet” structure is, by anyone else’s count, a large building. Designed by New York–based firm Biber Architects, the U.S. Pavilion for Expo Milano 2015 showcases the American approach to producing food and to feeding populations at home and around the world. This mission is realized not only through a series of exhibitions designed by Thinc Design and a robust calendar of events but also through the building itself. As architect James Biber, FAIA, put it during a walk-through, “it works as a scaffold for any idea that anyone wants to hang on it.”

Biber Architects, which led the team that was selected by the U.S. State Department in response to an RFP, designed the steel-frame pavilion with two floors of exhibition space and a roof deck. The enclosed ground level provides a directed overview of American food, and, on the first floor, a series of kiosks allow visitors to explore the topic in a self-guided way.

On the roof deck, an open plan accommodates gatherings for public programs and informal lounging. Directed by the James Beard Foundation, the International Culinary Center, and the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy, the multitude of programs and talks at American Food 2.0 require different spatial configurations. A small fleet of food trucks adjacent to the pavilion offer a variety of American fare, allowing visitors to sample food in a most American way.

With 145 countries taking part, the expo is expected to draw an audience of 20 million people, so part of Biber’s challenge was to engage as many visitors as possible—without forcing them to wait in an insufferable line. To achieve this, a broad boardwalk links the entrance with the second floor, creating easy, open access to the pavilion’s center.

An edible facade and a digital roof
One of the project’s most distinctive features is its 7,200-square-foot vertical farm. Divided among panels that pivot, it creates a kinetic array of 42 edible specimens, which, as Biber repeatedly notes, “run the length of a football field.” The hydroponics will eventually be harvested for in-house use. In the meantime, visitors can pick off samples. Working with Italian landscape company Peverelli, Biber Architects custom designed this productive vertical garden. “You can’t buy this at a hardware store,” Biber quips. “We had to invent it.” Though it has strong curb appeal, the farm isn’t strictly a visual component. Along with an air-displacement system, the vertical farm helps chill the pavilion’s outdoor spaces. With strict energy quotas designated by the expo, and with Biber’s determination to keep the pavilion open and transparent, it was important to maintain a cool environment.

On the roof deck, where Biber Architects pushed the pavilion’s height to its maximum allowable envelope, a glass canopy allows the space to be actively used in the intense Milanese sun and through the occasional rain shower. Made with panels of Isoclima-manufactured smart glass, the 10,000-square-foot canopy enables the pavilion’s organizers to customize the level of opacity and to harvest daylight. “We wanted to be able to play with it like pixels on a screen,” Biber says. Similar to the bow of a boat, an observation deck juts out from the roof deck at the front of the pavilion, offering sweeping views of the expo’s grounds. It doubles as the American-flag-inspired marquee, designed by the firm Pentagram.

Life beyond the expo
Due to the expo’s six-month life span (open since May, it closes October 31), Biber designed the pavilion to be dismantled and repurposed. The dry-jointed steel frame can be taken apart beam by beam and post by post. The 10,000 square feet of wood decking, salvaged from the wreckage that Superstorm Sandy made of Coney Island’s boardwalk, will be pulled apart—it was installed without screws or nails—and sent back to the supplier, Sawkill Lumber, to repurpose or resell. Other elements, such as the elevators and digital glass, will be returned to their manufacturers. These in-kind materials helped with the financial exigencies of a project that was funded entirely by private donors. As of July, the fate of the vertical farm was the only issue left unresolved. “I’m here looking for a home for the vertical farm,” Biber says, while in Milan.

Even though the pavilion is a complex project with a slate of technologies, Biber’s aspirations are more fundamental. “There’s a simplicity, honesty, and directness to it that is very American,” he explains. “There’s a real honesty in the frame.” Walking through a crowd of people gathered on the roof deck, he adds, “Many pavilions are antisocial. This is different. It’s treated as a social space.”

U.S. Pavilion Expo Milano 2015
Architect: Biber Architects
Client: Friends of the U.S. Pavilion
Where: Milan
What: 40,800 total square feet on four floors
Cost/sf: Withheld at client’s request