Aaron Betsky recently discussed the design of these pavilions with UNStudio cofounder and principal Ben van Berkel, Hon. FAIA.
Aaron Betsky: There is a tradition of garden expos in Northern Europe that seems to have spread to Asia. What are these expos about?
Ben van Berkel: These expos present new horticultural accomplishments and get the public interested in this topic. Now you are seeing these kinds of exhibitions about new flowering plants, and the culture and technology around growing them, appearing in Asia. It was an interesting topic to work with when it came to designing a full experience—not only the exhibition halls, but also walking around the buildings. How could we innovate by integrating the buildings with the landscape and flowers?
Why did you decide to use a rose as your starting diagram or metaphor?
We started with “What is so fascinating about a rose?,” but also looked at the geometrical pattern of it and the symbolic way that flowers have been used in painting. I was interested in still lifes of flowers; the most beautiful abstract versions can be found in the work of Andy Warhol. So I see the rose here not as a geometrical model alone, but also as a symbol and an element that has such a beautiful history in the way it has been represented.
The landscape draws you in along a series of ramps to the center, where you choose between the four pavilions that make up the Theme Pavilion.
Yes. What is quite nice is that the buildings actually all have an angled plane, so they have a kind of dynamic relationship with their surroundings and the mountains in the landscape beyond. Because of the planar organization of the façades, and how you walk around and ramp into the buildings, you are able to discover the color that we put into the slats of the panels that will give you orientation in the site.
How did you develop the skin, with its series of metal panels that twist and turn as they go around the roughly square contours of the buildings?
This idea of texturizing the façade—we do that so often now in architecture. But I wanted to give it a particular kind of gradient that would have a moiré effect. Inside, these structures contain totally artificial worlds, so the building needed to be closed. Maybe because of the earlier closed buildings, like the electricity stations that we did in the early ’90s, I very much like to do buildings where you have almost no windows; then you have to try very hard to create a kind of window into the façade.
And you have a color scheme that runs the full chromatic spread as it wraps around the building. What does it achieve for you?
In horticulture today, they can introduce almost every color by engineering these flowers, so all of these colors on the building can be found in flowers as well. And we thought: Could that spectrum also guide you a little bit? It became a wayfinding system that deals with memorizing where, and from which angle, the building has which color, because if you go another 5 or 10 meters, you can’t see that color anymore.
You achieved this by putting colored slats into the fold of these metal panels, the folding of which is what creates this continual rise and fall of the façade. Are the panels also structural?
Yes. This whole aspect of the façade also plays with the history of Chinese umbrellas. Those have a structure of folds, they can unfold, and although I didn’t want to mimic the dynamic aspect literally here, I wanted to play with that texture. So it is a skin structure with a very light structural element behind it.
In terms of your work and UNStudio’s work in general, you’ve explored this interest in chromatic shifts on the exterior of buildings as early as the La Defense Offices in Almere, the Netherlands, and inside some of your department stores in South Korea.
In the Almere project, where we played with color, it’s almost as if you can paint with your own eye as you walk through the site. So here, we played with the idea of the dynamics of movement and color at the same time in order to orient, but also to give the building, as an object, a totally different read. Is the building somewhat disappearing? Or is it opening up? Or is it really hiding something behind the building that we don’t know? I like always to play with these ideas but you have to deal with a structure that is quite closed.
You made the building out of metal in very abstract shapes, and its logic is derived from the computer programs that you were among the pioneers in developing. So here you’ve proposed a kind of building development that does not come from the existing landscape and is really part of a much more global and standardized method of architectural production.
I still like the paradox between that which is contextual and that which is autonomous in architecture. I call it a form of light autonomy. I think back to when I saw iPods for the first time. I thought it was a phone, it looked so alien to me, so different than any other object that I had seen. There are a lot of people who don’t believe in the new or the unexpected, but I think that you can sometimes give a bit of surprise with a technological effect, or a cultural effect that is not local. I find it fascinating to play with. But it needs to be mixed. I’ve always been interested in this idea of rethinking the way that one organizes a site. I like to rethink the infrastructure, the way that one sees and discovers things and the way one experiences the site.
What do you hope that people will take away from this building? When people go to these kinds of expos, they usually take away pictures and memories of the flowers, but it seems as if you also wanted to make something iconic that would remain in their memory.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you can create an afterimage like you might have after seeing an interesting film—something that you’d like to come back to it. I tend to give multiple experiences to the visitor, and the coming back experience is very important.
So you want people to be haunted by the colors as they move around, and you want them to be haunted by the building after they leave?
Yes, but haunted also about the thoughts behind the building that they maybe don’t fully grasp, but that they’d like to understand. And to give them an opportunity to rethink the experience. I think architecture can do this, especially with a place that is kind of a dialog of autonomy and context, and in this case a very daunting context. So haunted, yes, but also at the same time, I hope that it creates unexpected readings that keep on fascinating you.
Project Qingdao World Horticultural Expo 2014 Theme Pavilion, Qingdao, China
Client Office of 2014 Qingdao World Horticultural Expo Executive Committee
Architect UNStudio, Amsterdam—Ben van Berkel, Hon. FAIA, Hannes Pfau, Gerard Loozekoot, Markus van Aalderen, Joerg Petri, Milena Stopic, Yu-Chen Liu, Cong Ye, Irina Bogdan, Xing Xiong, Maud van Hees, ShuoJiong Zhang, Philipp Mecke, Maya Alam, Junjie Yan, Gilles Greis, Subhajit Das, Erwin Horstmanshof, Faiz Zohri, Andrew Brown, Patrik Noomé, Amanda Chan, Nanang Santoso
Landscape Architect !melk urban design
Theater Adviser Theateradvies
Structural and M/E/P Engineer Arup
Local Architect and Stuctural and M/E/P Engineer Qingdao Architectural Design Institute
Façade Engineering Shenyang Yuanda Aluminum Industry Engineering
Lighting Tsinghua Tongfang
Size 35,000 square meters (376,736 square feet)