Photo courtesy Generator Studio

Generator Studio’s Sun Pavilion at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

The curators of Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs 1851-1939 spent years tracking down the 200 objects now on view at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. But as the April opening approached, one key piece of the world’s fair story was missing—pavilion design. Though the objects would be housed in Steven Holl’s 2007 addition to the museum, curator Catherine Futter wanted to capture the feeling of world’s fair architecture with a temporary structure on the museum’s lawn. In January, the museum convened a jury—Holl himself was a member—and chose local firm Generator Studio from 15 that competed for the prize.

Installation view of Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs 1851-1939.

The site was intimidating. The vast lawn includes not just the Museum's 1933 building but Holl's "lenses," the translucent, jewel-like pavilions that emerge into the museum’s sculpture garden. Principals Tom Proebstle and Mike Kress knew they couldn't try compete with perfection, so they went the other way, creating an unruly composition. Their sprawling pavilion consists of metal scaffolding, arranged at odd angles like mutated Tinker Toys, lifting photovoltaic panels skyward. 

The firm realized the so-called Sun Pavilion with an impossible budget of just $20,000. There was also no real program specified—a problem, ironically, for many real world’s fair pavilions—and so the architects invented one: modest displays, including a Louise Nevelson-like artwork composed of objects contributed by the public, and a discussion of the building’s photovoltaic system, which powers track lighting and a small air conditioner inside one of the three shipping containers that form the base of the pavilion.

Above those containers, a nest of scaffolding—which resembles the Big Bambú series of sculptures by artists Mike and Doug Starn—supports about 150 photovoltaic panels. They were donated by Brightergy and are destined to be used elsewhere when the pavilion closes on August 19. But most of the panels aren’t connected to anything. Which is troubling, especially for a firm called Generator Studio, until you realize that using photovoltaics as decorative elements makes an important point. Solar panels don't have to be hidden away, but can compete with the work of Alexander Calder and Roxy Paine (two of the artists represented in the sculpture garden) for jazzy inventiveness. And that’s a point that could influence architects everywhere: design to display, not camoflauge, green features.

Inside the museum proper, at the world's fair show, the scale of the objects—the largest are pieces of furniture—means the exhibition designers were able to crowd a lot into Holl's building without overwhelming it. Futter organized the show, with Jason Busch of the Carnegie Museum of Art, and they included a few knockout works, such as a papier-mâché piano displayed at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 and a pair of panels touting Westinghouse's broadcasting prowess, from the 1933 Chicago fair.  (The exhibitions goes only through 1939, Futter says, because after that, fairs stopped being about the display of objects and started being about larger themes.)

Some of the objects are by architects, including the Savoy vase by Alvar Aalto, which was displayed at the Paris exposition in 1937, and Mies ven der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, which was designed for Germany’s pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona fair. If the Sun Pavilion by Generator Studio doesn’t rise to the level of Mies or Aalto, it does capture their spirit of architectural experimentation and vindicates the studio’s name, as a generator of ideas.