USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015
8. June 2015
Opening fifteen minutes early might not seem like much when it comes to a building, but when considered as a piece of an Expo – an event that often sees pavilions being worked on after the gates open – it is quite an undertaking. But it is only one among many for the USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, designed by Biber Architects. Previously we covered the pavilion with a review by Fred Bernstein; here we hear from the architect on the design and the process of realizing it.
Entrance to the USA Pavilion
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
The US State Department issued an RFP for teams to submit a proposal. The James Beard Foundation and The International Culinary Institute asked Biber Architects to be part of their team.
Interior view of the USA Pavilion, featuring salvaged lumber from the Coney Island boardwalk
Please provide an overview of the project.
The USA Pavilion for Expo Milano showcases America’s unique role in the future of food and hosts a global conversation about the challenge of feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050. “American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet” tells America’s food story – one of innovation, diversity and entrepreneurship – through topics including food security and policy, international relations, science and technology, nutrition and health, and culinary culture. The USA Pavilion participates in the conversation by embracing and displaying some very American dichotomies: analog and digital, natural and technological, innovative and recycled.
On the extremely long and narrow site, dictated by the unusually urbane Expo masterplan, the pavilion is defined by a service wall (containing elevators, escalators, stairs, mechanical shafts, etc.); a purely digital roof (glazed in SPD-SmartGlass that switches from clear to opaque in a matter of seconds to respond to environmental conditions); a mobile Vertical Farm (employing hybrid hydroponic towers in a motion-driven array); and a promenade rising through the pavilion made from salvaged wood from the Coney Island boardwalk. These four ‘surfaces’ define the pavilion by wrapping the sides, top, and bottom of the structure. The pavilion itself is a scaffolding for ideas: a rethinking of the nature of the Expo pavilion and of America as a force in the food world.
Rear view of the USA Pavilion, featuring a grove of oak trees
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
Designed in response to the closed-box architecture of recent expos, the USA Pavilion is influenced by American architectural iconography and is characterized by openness, transparency, and accessibility. The building itself is inspired by simple, agricultural architecture and advanced technology in a very American amalgam of opposites. An exposed steel frame and wood slab floors have a barn-like directness and honesty. An airplane hangar-sized door opens at the main pedestrian approach – an invitation to enter – where visitors are greeted with a 460 foot-long boardwalk: a distinctly American, food-related design element. The exposed frame references farm industrial buildings, while the moving parts turn the building into an agricultural machine; the moving vertical farm, digital glass roof, and visitors being carried up the escalators (and glass faced elevators) create a dynamic pavilion, transparent to the public.
Partial view of the 7,200 square foot vertical farm
Were there any significant challenges that arose during the project? If so, how did you respond to them?
Construction is always a process of solving difficulties! We had myriad challenges: very little time, highly controlled site access, layers of administrative approvals, a massive site with literally thousands of workers and subcontractors, and delays with the infrastructural work that triggered further delays. But we were working with the best consultants and the finest builder at the Expo, Nussli. We finished on schedule and opened 15 minutes early!
Rooftop of the USA Pavilion, shaded with SPD SmartGlass
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
The USA Pavilion stands at the nexus of technology and sustainability in architecture. In spite of the lifespan of structures built for expos, the design team took a number of measures to make sure that the building complies with as many sustainable standards as possible through carefully selecting building materials, partnering with eco-conscious suppliers, and installing energy-efficient systems—especially with the limited electrical, water, cooling and other resources provided to each pavilion by the Expo.
The focal point of the building is a 7,200 square-foot vertical crop wall – one of the largest installed on a façade – composed of a motion-driven array of 83 large-scale louvers that each hold 18 hybrid hydroponic ZipTowers that, in total, amount to 10,000 plants of 42 varieties of herbs, vegetables, and grains. The hybrid hydroponic system uses not just water, but soil pods as well, drastically reducing the water flow required to sustain the crops; the pods of soil allow nutrients to be added directly to the soil, and retain much more water, which comes from recycled rainwater provided by the Expo. The louvers pivot towards the sun, both maximizing light exposure for the plants while allowing natural light and increased ventilation to the pavilion’s interior. The landscape architects, dlandstudio, devised the gridded form of the farm – representing the panorama of American agriculture – as well as the complex plantings system. With the ability to produce thousands of pounds of food, the façade design is an exemplary proposal for the future of architecture and farming.
The Boardwalk, which runs through the entirety of the pavilion, is made of re-milled Angelique timbers (originally from French Guyana and Surinam in South America) that were salvaged from the Coney Island Boardwalk destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. It is installed with a clip system that allows the planks to be easily removed and reused after the Expo; the planks will be returned to the supplier, Sawkill Lumber, or resold locally.
Aerial view of the USA Pavilion
Passive cooling methods are applied wherever possible. The transparency and openness of the pavilion allows air to move through the space easily, providing primary cooling through ventilation. For instance, the Boardwalk is cooled through heat displacement. The roof is cooled with the shading of the SPD-SmartGlass – the largest installation of the technology to date at over 10,000 square feet. The ceiling is programmed for individual panel adjustment, allowing the glass tint to change from 99.9% opaque to 65% clear in a matter of seconds through the application of tiny amounts of current, and is operated with just 600 watts of power. This installation reduces energy needed for cooling/heating while bringing in more natural light and blocking harmful UV rays. This is assisted by light misting, as well as the open ventilation. At the front of the pavilion, a forecourt is filled with a grid of misting columns to keep the visitors in the entry cool without blocking the view, while the rear court has a grove of oak trees to shade the queue. Full air conditioning is limited to enclosed office spaces and meeting rooms.
A roundup of sustainable highlights includes: using low-energy LED lighting; motion-activated escalators; recycled and recyclable metal cladding which will be dismantled and reused after the Expo; a water-efficient irrigation system; and panels that provide natural light and increased ventilation. Many of these components, including the SmartGlass, boardwalk, elevators, and escalators, will be resold or returned to the manufacturer after the Expo – reusing rather than recycling, as it will not require additional processing.
USA Pavilion exterior front view rendering
How did you approach designing for the Expo Milano and how would you describe the process of working on the project there?
Looking back at the history of World’s Fair/Expo projects, we noted: the honesty and technological innovation of the 1851 Crystal Palace in London; the transparency of Buckminster Fuller’s Expo 1967 dome; the tendency for the US, and other, Pavilions to become closed, opaque boxes with enormous queues outside and regimented exhibitions inside. Our goal was to return to the time of innovation in architecture and reverse the opacity and defensiveness of recent pavilions.
Technology – in our case, mostly analog, given the subject matter – was embedded in the design. Motion, including the moving building, visible movement of people in the building and even digital motion of the SmartGlass canopy, was an expression of the ’farm machine’ and agricultural industrial architecture we admired.
Finally, the masterplan was unusually urbane and provided contextual pressures that helped shape the building. The oddest part was not knowing what would surround us! We designed our pavilion as others did the same and the normal chess game of repsonse and reaction was impossible.
USA Pavilion interior rendering
How would you describe the architecture of Milan/Italy and how does the building relate to it?
Milan is in the midst of a renaissance in building, and it is a city actutely aware of design. The city is being reshaped by towers and large-scale urban projects that are not always among the best the city has to offer. On the other hand, there are a handful of highly considered buildings that set very high benchmarks for designing in Milan. But all of this is remote from the hermetic and self-contained world at Expo. While we all live with the same weather (and our buildng is very much a response to this), the Expo is practically a new city. Whereas in Milan there is virtually nothing that does not have a strong urban context to respond to, the Expo was built all at once, by dozens of different architects. Our building is intentionally at odds with the typical urban fabric in Milan; temporary, open only in the best weather, filled with content and referencing the U.S. much more than Italy, the pavilion is a transparent building in a city of carefully concealed interiors. The most remarkable parts of Milan are hidden; our pavilion is an open book.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.
USA Pavilion exterior rear view rendering
USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 20152015
Friends of the USA Pavilion Milano 2015, USA Department of State
New York, NY, USA
James Biber, FAIA
Steven Grootaert, Jackie Krasnokutskaya, Suzanne Holt, Emaan Farhoud, Suzanne Lettieri, Joshua Jow, Federico Pellegrini, Rawan Muqaddas
Andrea Grassi, Arch. (GLA Genius Loci Architettura S.r.l.)
Tillotson Design Associates
Pentagram (Michael Beirut, Britt Cobb)
Saverio Lombardi Vallauri