Few architects have missed news of the Milan Expo 2015 in Italy, the highly publicized international event that runs through the end of October northwest of the city. Not all of the talk has been positive, however. The event’s opening celebration was overshadowed by reports of cost overruns, construction delays, and fiscal corruption, with demonstrators setting cars ablaze on its opening day. Yet the latest iteration of the world’s fair exhibits many of the positive qualities seen in past international expositions, and in particular the exploration of new forms of architecture, landscapes, and exhibition design aligned with an aspirational theme. (This year’s focuses on sustainable food supply chains.)
I visited the expo in late July, long after the demonstrations and opening-day throngs subsided, to investigate architectural approaches for creating meaningful temporary experiences. By then, with the pavilion construction nearly complete and the temporary fencing removed, the fair appeared in its true form.
The exposition reveals a broad spectrum of temporary installation design. Many pavilions, such as those of utility provider Enel and the Republic of Korea, are little more than a hodgepodge of un-synthesized design strategies and superficial messaging. Also dissatisfying are structures designed to be platforms for heavily scripted propaganda or sentimental media experiences, including those by the United Arab Emirates and the United States, as well as the prominent Tree of Life installation at the fair's center. In all of these cases, the design seems forced, as if superficial built forms and the proliferation of electronic media—often colored by commercial and political undertones—can substitute for meaningful physical experience. Yet amid such disappointments are architectural treasures that make a visit to the expo worthwhile. These notable, ephemeral projects offer a fundamental message for building design: Architecture should be memorable no matter its lifespan.
The pavilion's porous construction lacks a conventional façade, conveying a view of human activity—animated crowds floating several meters above the ground—to the expo’s public thoroughfare. One could glean from the design that Brazil is a place where diverse populations share a stimulating common experience, a sentiment that architecture conveys much more effectively than does signage.
Another example is the United Kingdom’s pavilion, nicknamed “the Hive.” Designed by Nottingham, England–based artist Wolfgang Buttress, the ephemeral honeycomb structure hovers above a lush meadow. Its design takes visitors through three stages: First, one enters an outdoor forecourt clad in perforated wood panels with inset infographics detailing the science of bees. Visitors then pass through a threshold to the garden where a luxuriant meadow elevated to chest-height is traversed by circulation paths bounded in corten steel, letting visitors experience the wildflowers from the same perspective as the would-be bees. The experience culminates in the hive itself, a 17-meter-tall (55.8-foot-tall) gossamer enclosure shaped by an aluminum cuboid lattice. Featuring 180,000 custom-machined components manufactured by U.K.–based fabrication consultant Stage One, the hive rises at the far end of the field with an aperture (shown below) at its base that allows visitors to peer up into the spherical void.
A set of stairs leads to the hive’s center, a 9-meter-tall space surrounded by thousands of LED lights and speakers that flicker and hum intermittently as they transmit real-time data from activity at a beehive in Nottingham. Developed by Martin Bencsik, a physicist at Nottingham Trent University, in England, this audiovisual link provides viewers with an intimate, multi-sensory connection to the world of bees while reinforcing the environmental importance of honeybee colonies for pollination and food production.
Punctuated with a circular oculus at its peak, the structure is akin to a space-age Pantheon—a shimmering cloud that pulses with life. “It’s based on the structural integrity of a real hive,” Buttress told the BBC. “It’s incredibly delicate, ethereal.” Although the project has a clear biological precedent, the design avoids literal translation and instead offers a refreshing interpretation of bee life that invites discovery and evokes wonder.
A final example is Breathe.Austria, the national pavilion designed by Graz, Austria–based architect Klaus K. Loenhart and his studio Terrain. Unlike the Brazil and U.K. projects, this example is easy to miss, as it offers only a nondescript façade to pedestrians plying the expo’s axis. Those who do find their way inside are in for a delightful surprise: a verdant forest. The concept is based on the notion that air—like the food sources addressed in the expo’s theme—is also a source of nourishment. To convey the idea of air as the ultimate shared resource, the team transplanted a 560-square-meter (1,837.3-square-foot) swath of Austrian forest to this industrialized region of Italy. According to the designers, the miniature woodland is a photosynthesis collector, with a foliar evaporation area measuring 43,200 square meters (465,000 square feet) and capable of producing 62.5 kilograms (137.8 pounds) of oxygen every hour, enough for roughly 1,800 visitors during that period. It also provides shade and integrates an evaporative cooling apparatus to simulate Austria’s relatively temperate climate. “This replicates an atmosphere that feels like a thick forest in Austria with comparatively natural means using the cooling effect of the evapotranspiration of the plants,” the designers explain on the project’s website.
Experienced, as I did, during a searing 100 F day, the pavilion is effective. One feels refreshed and cleansed despite the roofless environment and lack of air conditioning. Illuminated letters hover below the tree canopy, partially shrouded within the cooling vapor of inconspicuous misting devices, and spell thematic words and phrases like “breathe” and “nature reloaded.” Breathe.Austria’s brilliance is its simplicity: The replenishing micro-timberland is the star of the show and the structured enclosure assumes a deferential role.
These three pavilions demonstrate different solutions to creating indelible architectural experiences attuned to the short-lived expo experience. “There’s a misunderstanding about temporary architecture, as if it should be an imitation of the real thing,” Adam Wildi, a senior project director at Stage One who worked on the U.K. pavilion, told Mark in an interview for the design magazine’s August–September 2015 issue.
While it’s not practical for every building to employ an elevated net for visitor circulation or to devote most of its footprint to a forest, these examples distill strong conceptual direction without the distractions that can arise from competing design elements. Moreover, each concept is fundamentally rooted in meaningful, multi-sensory physical experiences. As a result, expo visitors will doubtless recall their enlivening clamber along a giant net-scape, their immersion in the thrum of a shimmering hive, or their transport to a primeval forest long after memories of encounters with other buildings—temporary or otherwise—have faded.