Mind & Matter


Shanghai Diary: Borrowed Language

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Detail of the Vanke Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010. Photo by Blaine Brownell.


The Shanghai Expo occupies two sides of the Huangpu River—the Pudong (east) side is the larger territory and home to the cultural pavilions, while the Puxi (west) side is the site of commercial and case study pavilions. Vanke, one of the largest property developers in China, has constructed a pavilion in Puxi that is comprised of seven independent, truncated cones. The most striking aspect of the Vanke pavilion is not its form, however, but its clever use of material.

As one approaches the pavilion, one assumes that the great expanse of small-scale, horizontal lines on its façade indicate beige-colored brick. As the distance narrows, one discovers that the “bricks” overlap one another—a relationship that suggests ceramic tile. In reality, however, the Vanke pavilion is clad with tile-size panels made of wheat straw.

This material application demonstrates the extent to which borrowing the common scale and pattern of another material assembly can surprise and delight. Like brick, the narrow wheat straw boards soften the scale of the massive volumes, and impart a pleasing golden color to the façade. Unlike brick, however, the straw panels are incredibly lightweight, and will easily biodegrade after the building is dismantled. They are also comprised of a renewable resource that does not require mining or the same amount of embodied energy as brick.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.