World Expo 2015 : Milan

Veronica Simpson writes from Expo 2015 in Milan, where she observes there’s no better place to discover the universality of good design.


Words by Veronica Simpson

The World expo 2015 in Milan has opened: a multitextured explosion of cultural and creative diversity, it's also a fascinating reflection of the struggle the Expo nations presumably went through to balance the desire to showcase their region's architectural and design talents in service of the chosen theme (Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life) against the urge for blatant self-promotion.

For many, the struggle appears to have been over fairly quickly, with blatant self-promotion triumphing. Though there was plenty of creativity (if not always originality) in architectural expression and materials, the interiors of many pavilions were little more than an extended advert for the charms of the particular region and/or cuisine. A strong trend was the reliance on immersive but superficial A/V gimmickry over actual content: for example, Korea's arty efforts to promote fermented vegetables as a way of conserving produce probably didn't need a vast hall filled with earthenware jars whose lids pulsed with coloured light. Elsewhere, entire interiors rippled with video screens (Russia's pavilion-cum- nightclub) and exterior walls came festooned with flying carpets of light (yes, Turkmenistan, I'm talking about you).

Is it just because of my British sensibilities that I came away feeling inordinately proud of how well the UK pavilion worked as a showcase for the best in British design integrity, both intellectual and creative? It was a lesson in restraint. An elegant execution of Nottingham based artist Wolfgang Buttress's big idea - the importance of bees to our ecosystem - it tied in nicely with the Expo's overarching theme: more than a third of our food depends on bees as pollinators, and the UK pavilion celebrates the life and talents of the bee while addressing the growing threats to its population.

Visitors are introduced to the topic through succinct text panels in the wood-lined alcoves of the pleasant 'orchard' queuing area (and every Expo visitor will be grateful for some interesting reading while standing in queues for half an hour or more). Then comes a journey through a winding maze of waist-high corten steel banks lush with wild flowers. Mirrored walls create an expanded horizon and intensify the immersive, 'bee's-eye' view of the meadow, as does a soundtrack of birdsong and insect life. Inexorably, we are drawn towards a giant, thrumming hive that hovers at the end of the pavilion's long, narrow site.

Flying carpets and garish lights outside at the Turkmenistan Pavilion Expo 2015 in Milan is open until the end of October
Flying carpets and garish lights outside at the Turkmenistan Pavilion Expo 2015 in Milan is open until the end of October. Photo Credit: Veronica Simpson

Buttress worked closely with York-based creative construction and engineering company Stage One to realise this extraordinary hive, which appears to pulsate with energy, even before you encounter its spine-tingling soundtrack.

Stage One is a vital part of this UK success story. Manufacturing everything in its own workshops, it is responsible for constructing iconic theatrical, sculptural, Expo and also Olympic ceremony structures, including Thomas Heatherwick's 2012 Olympic Cauldron.

Adam Wildi, Stage One director, says: 'When Wolfgang won the competition, we showed him our machinery and customised software and told him we'd produce the hive.

We altered his idea from a welded structure to a component-based one. The whole thing is built by hand.' After eight months in design, a team of eight engineers spent two months constructing the hive on site, using 170,000 individual aluminium components.

Assembled in 32 horizontal layers, the structure is composed of chords, rods and nodes, creating a network of Fibonnaci spirals that give it its unique visual intensity and shape. LED light fittings embedded into the aluminium nodes are synchronised with data from an actual bee hive in Nottingham, where advising expert Dr Martin Bencsik has placed an accelerometer to harvest information about bee activity. The realisation that the gently pulsing lights and low thrumming soundtrack are generated by real bees makes the hive experience all the more affecting. Now that's what I call intelligent and meaningful use of A/V.

But it's not just the big statements that impress about this pavilion - the smaller, more people-centric ones do too. Having built the Shanghai Pavilion (Heatherwick's Seed Cathedral), Wildi knew what a pain the whole queuing experience was for all Expo visitors (queuing times for popular pavilions was more than an hour at Expo 2010 in Shanghai).

'We worked quite hard with a variety of people, including Wolfgang, BDP [which designed the landscaping, and the hospitality and conference areas], and some movement strategists and we talked a lot about how to queue.' The solution was to provide an interesting foyer to convey the science and lay out the theme before entry, combined with a ticketed entry system (there's a 15-minute time slot for entry, with unlimited stay times).

Drinks and snacks can be bought from the ticket booth. The system is working well, says Wildi, even though visitor numbers are higher than expected - around 8,000 a day.

Another impressive pavilion with real design and architectural integrity was Austria's, designed by landscape architect Klaus K Loenhart of Terrain of Graz. A simple structure with a large slab of Austrian forest puncturing its open-roofed centre, the impact of the plants and mature trees in this semi-enclosed space was to generate a deliciously cool atmosphere and about 62.5k of oxygen every hour. Apparently that's enough for 1,800 people. The graphics were simple and inspiring - 'This air-generating station is one solution to 21st-century urban environmental conditions,' declares one panel. Now that's an idea we can try at home....which is probably more than can be said of The Hive.

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