In 2013, Biber Architects was awarded the State Department contract to design the USA Pavilion and to be the creative director for the Pavilion experience at the Milan Expo. I came to the firm ready to turn a 3D concept model into a set of drawings suitable for permit submission. The theme for the Milan EXPO was “Feed the Planet, Energy for Life” and the USA Pavilion “American Food 2.0” presented a range of complex ideas bout global food security, innovation, and culinary diversity in a relatively small and narrow footprint. The overarching concept for the Pavilion was accessibility, openness and transparency. The structure of the Pavilion was a scaffold for ideas. The entire length of the south facade was a vertical farm, each section moving independently in an automated sequence as a display of the past, present, and future of American farming.
Underneath the ground level, never seen by the public, is the “back of house” space that allowed the Pavilion to host exhibits, VIP gatherings, and events while nearly 50,000 daily visitors came though the front hangar doors. During operating hours, pavilions are not allowed to accept deliveries (of food or supplies) and are not allowed to take away trash. This meant that an enormous amount of planning and space was needed to ensure smooth operations throughout the day. Refrigerated trash rooms, walk-in coolers, employee and student ambassador locker rooms, storage space, mechanical systems - nearly everything was underground so that above ground all could appear spacious, open, and effortless.
The financial reality of The USA Pavilion rested largely on private donations, sponsorships and contributions. In order to sell the future success of the Pavilion and build partnerships, inspiring renderings such as this one were developed to communicate our final vision. Each of the renderings represent hundreds of accumulated hours creating a detailed 3D model, lighting and rendering effects, and countless more layers in editing software to create a final image. The fact that the built Pavilion and this rendering look so similar is no accident. We coordinated daily with the architect of record, and general contractor in Milan to ensure the design intent remained clear and true despite the number of challenges that came with highly customized components.
Long sloping steps form the main public approach, offering an invitation to walk on the reclaimed Coney Island boardwalk to the second level. This allowed for one of the Pavilion’s best features - open access. Spanning nearly the entire width of the site and two stories high, the ‘boardwalk level’ is bounded on one side by transparent circulation and on the other by vertical farm that allows fresh air and dappled light to filter in. Instead of hours of waiting in line in the hot sun before marching through a fixed exhibition, people are allowed to come in and visit the core features of the Pavilion without waiting. They can linger in the shade before deciding to head up to the covered roof deck or visit the multimedia exhibit below. Great care was taken at every opportunity to ensure that the experience of transparency was preserved from concept to construction.
While the construction timeline for this project was aggressive given the scale and complexity of the USA Pavilion program, it was completed in time for opening day. The structural design was completed shortly after our permit set was submitted, and a few months later foundations were finished while we were still in Design Development. Construction details and methods had to be anticipated so that our vision wouldn’t be compromised out of necessity later on. Construction Documents by the architect of record were revised daily by issued sketches coordinated between us and the contractor to resolve constructibility details as they were being built. On short notice entire building systems where removed and replaced with different systems that had to be re-integrated into existing conditions.
By all measures the USA Pavilion was a success. It was the most visited pavilion at the Expo with an average of 50,000 people visiting every day, and because of its thoughtful design people waited minutes, not hours, to experience it. It was rewarding and memorable to be part of the design team for a pavilion that was more than a showpiece on a world stage but a functional, interactive building. I learned a great deal collaborating with so many disciplines – exhibition design, lighting design, security and crowd control, structural engineering, landscape design, graphic design, and specialized vendors – bring the vision of a massive vertical farm to life or to provide dynamic shading with an electrochromic glass roof. This project was one of resolve and commitment to the core idea of simplicity and transparency while creating a safe and comfortable experience.
One of the greatest challenges during my time working on this project was turning a concept model into a working building that would meet approval for building permits. Navigating the restrictions of local building code, a scheme was developed by weaving together escalators, fire stairs, offices and meeting rooms into the circulation core running the length of the Pavilion. This core served as an armature for operations connecting to the exhibition space and boardwalk ramps. It was a joy seeing it all come together in such a short time - from concept model to design development to final construction and administration in 18 months.
USA Pavilion for the 2015 Milan Expo
Biber Architects : Milan, Italy : photo credit: Saverio Lombardi Vallauri