A Sorry Spectacle

The uninspiring saga of the United States' World Expo pavilion in Shanghai.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On May 1, Expo 2010, the largest and most expensive world’s fair in history, will open on 2.5 square miles of prime Shanghai riverbank for a six-month run that its hosts hope will help bolster the city’s global reputation. Although largely overlooked by the American public, Expo 2010 has not been overlooked by the U.S. secretary of state’s office: For more than a year, Hillary Clinton has spent considerable time and effort raising private money to pay for the construction of a U.S. pavilion to showcase American technology, culture, and achievement to the event’s expected 90 million international attendees. Unfortunately, this particular effort at public diplomacy has faltered repeatedly; the behind-the-scenes saga may best be remembered for allegations of nepotism, frictions with the Chinese government and Expo organizers, and a mediocre, uninspiring pavilion design.

World Expos, despite the quaint and archaic image they evoke for many Americans, remain for much of the world major events, considered third only to the Olympics and World Cups for viewer interest and as marketing opportunities. They are highly sought-after events, viewed — like the Olympics — as nation-branding exercises for both hosts and guests. And from their origins, pavilion architecture has been the favored means of presenting a country’s technology, wealth, and ingenuity. During the Cold War in particular, U.S. pavilions received elaborate public funding and support and employed some of the country’s best architects and engineers. But in 1994, in the wake of diplomatic spats, congressional loss of interest in public diplomacy, and American loss of interest in Expos, Congress passed a law preventing the (now defunct) United States Information Agency (USIA) from spending any money on Expos without an express authorization and appropriation by Congress. Henceforth, funding for U.S. pavilions had to come from the private sector — an expenditure that few American companies were interested in making (thus, Toyota sponsored the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan). Meanwhile, most other countries continued providing public funding — in some cases, supplemented with private sponsorships.

Despite nearly two decades of U.S. government inattention to Expos, some in the State Department and the U.S. Expo community had hopes that the United States might put on a better show in Shanghai. In November 2006, the State Department, which had taken over the role of managing U.S. participation at Expos from the USIA, published an official "request for proposal" (RFP) to design, build, and fund a U.S. pavilion in Shanghai. Among other provisions, it required a detailed plan for raising a hefty $75 million to $100 million even though most of the national pavilions at Expo 2010 cost less than $30 million and the eventual U.S. pavilion is budgeted at $61 million. Despite this high bar, several groups of designers, architects, and producers submitted detailed proposals, including a proposal that had Frank Gehry as an architect. But the State Department rejected them all, and according to correspondence shared between the department and the last rejected proposal group, the RFP ended in late 2007 without a team in place.

The State Department has refused repeated requests to discuss the RFP and the reasons that the submissions failed. However, at least one of the groups that submitted an unsuccessful bid has raised concerns about the sincerity and fairness of the process and the State Department officials who oversaw it. Moreover, the State Department has a controversial history in administering U.S. Expo involvement since the mid-1990s, including an inspector general’s 1999 finding that well-intentioned State Department employees might have violated the law in their single-minded effort to ensure U.S. participation in a 1998 expo.

In this case, what happened after the unsuccessful RFP process is shrouded in secrecy, which the State Department has refused repeated requests to clear up. Here’s what we do know: In March 2008, months after the close of the competitive bid process, the State Department abruptly announced that it had awarded authorization to design, build, and fundraise a U.S. pavilion to two former Warner Bros. executives. One of those leaders — Ellen Eliasoph, a current partner at Covington & Burling in Beijing — is the wife of a top Commerce Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia Ira Kasoff. Kasoff is a senior U.S. official working on trade access issues between the United States and China; he is also a former Foreign Service officer based in China. Eliasoph and her partner in Expo 2010, Nick Winslow, were, at the time of the authorization, just two private citizens; only after the authorization, and at the official, written, urging of the State Department, did they form a nonprofit, subsequently named Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.

In the spring of 2009, I asked Eliasoph how her group was chosen, and she claimed that the selection process was competitive between "two or three teams," despite the fact that the RFP process had ended months earlier and her group hadn’t been part of it. Meanwhile Winslow, a theme-park consultant perhaps best known for assisting on the special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, gave me a different answer, telling me he had arranged the authorization by meeting with consular officials, State Department officials, and members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

A year after those interviews, Jose Villarreal, appointed in 2009 by Clinton to be the pavilion’s commissioner general — the U.S. government’s diplomatic official who serves as the pavilion’s final decision maker, official liaison, and public face — told me that the pavilion process, prior to his role in it, included "the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there’s been a little bit of all of that." However, on the question of just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was selected, he was less specific, telling me that "a lot of people aren’t there [at the State Department] anymore" and "a lot of what happened is kind of a blur." The State Department’s Office of Inspector General has forwarded a private citizen’s complaint that touches on this selection process directly to the secretary of state’s executive office.

The absence of clarity on just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was chosen has likely had consequences for the U.S. image among Shanghai Expo officials, most of whom are senior Chinese government and Communist Party officials. A senior editor at one state-owned publication in Shanghai, for example, recently told me that "everyone knows Ellen got it because of her family connections." True or not, this isn’t the image that the U.S. pavilion was supposed to embody. Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. has repeatedly declined to answer my questions about the role of Commerce Department officials in the pavilion authorization process. In a recent, unpublished interview with another reporter, Eliasoph has denied any conflict between her husband’s job and her role with the pavilion.

It wouldn’t matter nearly so much if Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. had performed to the level expected of it by the State Department. But the sad fact is that Eliasoph and Winslow raised almost no money from the time they were awarded the pavilion authorization, missed multiple construction deadlines, and, in the process, alienated large segments of the U.S. business community in Shanghai, as well as numerous Expo officials, according to several individuals in close contact with the Expo authorities and the expat business community. Finally, in the spring of 2009, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, concerned and frustrated by the faltering U.S. effort, were forced to make personal appeals to Clinton to fix the situation. Shortly afterward, she appointed Villarreal, a friend and fundraiser from San Antonio, to take control of the situation as the commisioner general — a position that had been previously unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s apparently noncompetitive authorization of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. means that the group’s architect and design weren’t subject to a competitive review, a highly unusual procedure in selecting any $61 million building, much less one meant to represent the United States abroad (most of the other major Expo 2010 pavilions were selected in competition). The result is a dull, metal-clad, two-wing complex that’s supposed to resemble an eagle. Inside, visitors will be subjected to "4-D" screenings of a film depicting the world of 2030 through the eyes of a Chinese-American woman who visited Expo 2010. This film, no surprise, is produced by longtime acquaintances of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.’s Warner Bros. founders.

William Bostwick, an architecture and design writer for Fast Company, commenting to me on the pavilion in light of the long-past era of great U.S. pavilions, such as the iconic, Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome for Expo ‘67 in Montreal, notes: "The building is basically a giant movie theater — the architecture is totally secondary to the so-called ‘4-D multimedia’ display inside." Bostwick’s withering opinion is not an outlier; the U.S. architectural community has begun to take notice and their assessments are even harsher. It didn’t have to be this way, and in fact, it’s likely that — had Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. been subjected to an architectural competition — the unimaginative design favored by the ex-Warner Bros. executives would not have been the choice of a review panel of even middling U.S. architects. Already, it has been eclipsed by better buildings and concepts located throughout the Expo grounds.

In addition, considerable suspicion revolves around how the $61 million — 92 percent of which has already been raised, largely due to the efforts of Clinton and Villarreal — is being spent. Alas, when I asked Villarreal if he would be willing to release the pavilion’s budget, he demurred, telling me that the question would be more properly addressed to the pavilion’s board of directors. In any case, the pavilion seems to have encountered financial problems, requiring, some say, a loan from the Chinese government to stay afloat.

The budget documents, if they exist, would likely go far to illuminate how, precisely, Shanghai Expo 2010 resurrected itself after informing the State Department in October 2008 that it was "shutting down" due to a shortage of "time and money." In two spring 2009 interviews, Nick Winslow informed me that he’d arranged a Chinese government loan for the purpose. Subsequently, the U.S. consul general  in Shanghai informed me that Winslow had been misquoted. Villarreal, when I asked him about the loan last week, said that it may have been a misunderstanding based upon "semantics." "I had heard that the Chinese had done some preparatory foundational work [at the U.S. pavilion site]," he said. "Some might have characterized that as a loan."

Other fundraising questions persist, including a perceived conflict between Eliasoph’s ongoing solicitation of funding from U.S. and Chinese companies while her husband, Kasoff, continues to oversee trade access issues for many of these same companies from the Commerce Department. When I asked the department about Kasoff’s role, the chairman of Shanghai Expo 2010, Frank Lavin, explicitly declined to answer queries. (Villarreal told me he’d seen "no shred" of evidence of Kasoff’s involvement in the pavilion.)

With less than two months until the opening of Expo 2010 and the nearly completed U.S. pavilion, there’s little that anyone can do to rectify the mistakes already made. Hopefully, though, somebody at the State Department will exercise some leadership so that the same kind of debacle doesn’t happen if the United States decides to participate at Expo 2015 in Milan. Villarreal, for one, concedes, "We have to find a better way to do World Expos."

Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai, China. He blogs at Shanghai Scrap.