Tomorrow, the latest iteration of the world exposition — that strange and exotic hybrid of a state fair, Epcot and an irregular Olympic Games, minus the athletics but not necessarily the corruption — will commence in Milan, Italy, where it will run for a six-month “semester” before wrapping up on Oct. 31.
In total, 145 countries — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — will participate in Expo 2015.
This will be the second time that an international exposition — or the “world’s fair” as your gramps, who still shows off his commemorative Expo 67 button with pride, might refer to it — has been hosted by Milan. The first expo held in the gritty-chic Italian metropolis, 1906’s Milan International, marked the opening of the transalpine Simplon railway tunnel, for decades the longest in the world, and the still-operating Acquario Civico di Milano, ranked as one of the oldest public aquaria in Europe.
Contemporary expos are a decidedly different creature from the futurism-flavored, monument-erecting (the Space Needle, the Tower of the Americas, the Sunsphere, Philip Johnson’s derelict observation towers in Queens et al.) heyday of the world’s fair when the massive events played out like United Nations confabs held in Tomorrowland. Today, they revolve around society-bettering innovation, nation branding, cultural exchange and a big “important” theme that confronts a pressing global issue. With recent expo themes ranging from “Nature’s Wisdom” to “Better City — Better Life,” Expo 2015 is going with a decidedly less obscure theme of food.
Well, slightly less obscure.
“Feeling the Planet, Energy for Life” is Expo 2015’s official theme and, like other recent expo themes, it’s at turns sobering and exciting. And in addition to leaving visitors feeling educated and inspired, it’s looking like Expo 2015 — “a platform for the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on the theme of food, stimulating each country’s creativity and promoting innovation for a sustainable future” – will be appetite-stirring as well.
Yes, food security — how do we safely and successfully feed a multiplying global population without destroying the planet? — plays a central role in the theme of Expo 2015. But pressing issues aside, in the end, the event pretty much sounds like the most amazing pop-up food court ever: “… an opportunity to find out about, and taste, the world’s best dishes, while discovering the best of the agri-food and gastronomic traditions of each of the exhibitor countries.”
If Expo 2015, held several miles outside of Milan’s city center on a reclaimed industrial site, were a food court, each participating countries’ self-built pavilion would serve as an individual stall. And from the looks and sounds of it, USA Pavilion — theme: “American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet” — is one stall that will surely attract a crowd.
Designed by New York City-based Biber Architects (the Harley-Davidson Museum, Muzak corporate headquarters and the set for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”), the USA Pavilion, at 40,000 square feet is big, brash and begging for attention.
It also looks good enough to eat, which you can.
The entire front façade of the barn-inspired structure takes the form of a 7,200-square-foot vertical farm that uses advanced hydroponics (courtesy Wyoming-based Bright Agrotech) to grow 42 different types of veggies, herbs and grains.
The U.S. pavilion’s State Department-selected organizing entity, Friends of the US Pavilion Milano 2015 (a partnership between the James Beard Foundation and the International Culinary Center in association with the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy), explains: “The vertical crop wall tells a story of food production for the future — one that demonstrates sustainable land-use strategies such an intercropping, multi-cropping, companion planting, and contour planting.”
Crops grown on the designed vertical farm will indeed be harvested throughout the run of Expo 2015, although it’s not entirely clear who will be doing the harvesting. A 2014 Washington Post interview with Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center, mentions that it would be tended to by “acrobats and robotics” while Biber architects elaborates that the hydroponic façade, “a didactic display talking about the past, present and future of the American farm, and the American diet,” will serve as the backdrop for a bit of good, old-fashioned razzle-dazzle:
In addition to 'farmers' working the (vertical) fields every day, there will be spectacular performances on the vertical wall; like the Flying Wallendas meet Martha Graham in her ballet for Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring. Graham's 1944 performance, with Merce Cunningham as the Revivalist, was the quintessential expression of the modern American Identity in dance and music. We hope that the harvest ballet will act as this moment's American Food 2.0 identity.
Acrobatic pickers aside, it’s the vertical farm that will stop Expo 2015 visitors dead in their tracks and entice them to experience the USA Pavilion in full. Moving through a grove of oak trees and an airplane hangar-sized entryway into the structure via a walkway crafted from lumber reclaimed from the old Coney Island Boardwalk, inside the pavilion proper visitors will find a “forest of exhibit station that swirl upwards, crowned with growing plants.”
Up on the smart glass-shaded rooftop terrace, there’s a café for light mangiare and mingling alongside an al fresco event space that will host numerous “Terrace Talks” — example talks include: “Growing Food on a Changing Planet: How Space Science Benefits Life on Earth” and “Cooking up Change: The American Food Movement” — throughout the run of the expo.
In addition to interactive exhibits and a packed-full calendar of panels and demos, the USA Pavilion will also be home to a fleet of permanently stationed food trucks serving up a rotating array of “regional American street foods — both traditional and creative interpretations with a nod toward wholesomeness, sustainability and health.” While BBQ sold out of a truck is all good, decidedly more elevated fare can be had offsite at the James Beard American Restaurant in central Milan where an impressive roster of homegrown (visiting) chefs will be on hand to present prix-fixe dinners and Sunday brunches.
As project architect James Biber recently explained to the New York Times, the USA Pavilion was designed, like its neighbors, with the ephemeral nature of the expo in mind. That is, the structure was designed to be easily disassembled; most of its components, right down to the reclaimed boardwalk decking, will be recycled or reused elsewhere. As for the vertical farm, Biber notes that finding a post-Expo 2015 home for the massive living installation is “… kind of my next job.”
In total, Expo 2015’s main drag — Decumano or World Avenue — will be home to 54 national pavilions including the USA’s vegetation-clad rubbernecker. Judging from their architectural renderings, the pavilions presented by the Netherlands (wacky), Austria (sylvan), Japan (gorgeous), Vietnam (even more gorgeous), Italy (naturally) and Hungary, a country that will no doubt shine at an international food exposition, are all early standouts.
Referring to the assemblage of temporary structures as an “identity parade,” Biber tells the Times: “It’s every nation attempting to express itself in a building. It is the very best and very worst of design you’re going to see in its concentrated form.”
Head on over to the official Expo 2015 website for lots more info on the participating countries and additional programming of both the delicious — and deliciously thought-provoking — nature. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in Milan over the next six months, and it’s all kicking off tomorrow with, of course, a performance by Andrea Bocelli.
And, in the event that your future travel plans don’t include the Lombardy region of Italy, Expo 2017 will be here before you know it — so start familiarizing yourself with the city of Astana, Kazakhstan.
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