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The U.S. and Canada Fight Over Who’s the Biggest Joke of the 2010 Expo

With pavilions mired in budget controversies, laughable design, and, yes, circus clowns, the US and Canada are set to be the embarrassments of Shanghai 2010.

Canadian Pavilion

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The 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is supposed to showcase great architecture–the theme, after all, is “Better City, Better Life”–and chances are, it will. Norman Foster is cooking up a souffled sand dune for the U.A.E. Giampaolo Imbrighi is building Italy’s pavilion out of transparent concrete. Denmark’s, designed by BIG, is basically a giant bike path (those Danes and their bikes!).

And then…. There’s the U.S. and Canada.

In an editorial last week in the Globe and Mail, architecture critic Lisa Rochon revealed that for its pavilion–at 20,000 square feet, one of the biggest at the Expo–Canada passed over some 8,000 local architects to choose … Johnny Boivin, the artistic director of Cirque du Soleil. Go get ’em, Lisa:

Other nations launch architecture competitions and unveil their designs with much fanfare in what has become a kind of Olympics of architecture and art. Not you, Mr. Canada. You farm out the commission for the Canadian Pavilion at World Expo 2010 in Shanghai to a circus corporation. Oh, Canada. Hewer of wood and drawer of water. You dumb cluck. [I’m assuming that’s an insult.] … Think about it and laugh at the sad clown act we’re offering at the biggest exposition ever staged in the world.

And you know, she’s right. The Canadian pavilion is awful. It’s a half-assed riff on the already stale trend of jagged angles (think Libeskind) covered in tacky, ’70s rec-room-style wood paneling. But then again, at least Canada has a pavilion. The U.S. almost didn’t.

Buckminster Fuller

Historically, when it came to Expo pavilions, the U.S. rocked. Think back: There’s Buckminster Fuller’s epic geodesic dome for Montreal ’67; the wild, inflatable number for Osaka ’70; Edward Durell Stone’s quirky UFO for Brussels ’58. And then, in 1991, the federal government stopped funding pavilions (due to a congressional ruling that might or might not have actually happened). So we got the paltry Seville pavilion in ’92 (a sliver of the original design–it was scaled down to cut costs) and the glorified VIP lounge in Aichi, Japan in ’05. The U.S. didn’t even show up to Hannover ’00. And now this:

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U.S. Pavilion

Designed by Clive Grout (a Canadian architect, no less), it’s a mash-up of weird conceits and technological gee-gaws, meant to evoke a Chinese-American woman’s life in 2030 via something called a “4-D multimedia theater.” Okay. Plus, it’s wildly expensive, costing $61 million (the Canadian pavilion, circus theatrics and all, came in at only $28 million), and it had to be funded entirely by private donors. A private fundraising company ultimately got the money, but barely, thanks to Pepsi, 3M, and GE. So it will be built, but the question remains: With a design like this, should it?