Work completed on Thomas Heatherwick's UK Pavilion for Shanghai World Expo 2010
On Saturday, the doors to the Shanghai World Expo 2010 will open, and the first of an estimated 70 million visitors will flood in to visit the 239 pavilions on display. From Japan’s pink marshmallow-like dome to Germany’s ‘three-dimensional walk-through sculpture’, each exhibiting country is fighting to be among the top five pavilions on show. Throughout the run up to the much anticipated World Expo 2010, the UK’s Pavilion has maintained its place in this much contested list, holding its own against structures designed by some of the world’s finest architects.
Renowned London architect Thomas Heatherwick, whose previous designed have been featured in Knightsbridge department store Harvey Nichols, the Longchamp’s New York flagship store and the Wellcome Trust’s London headquarters, created the UK Pavilion. Working in collaboration with exhibition designers Eva Rucki and Sebastien Noel of Troika, Heatherwick’s pavilion has been nicknamed locally as ‘Pu Gong Ying’, Chinese for ‘The Dandelion’ due to its unusual appearance. The architect admits that an early scene in the 1985 film ‘Witness’ inspired him, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, in which a field of crops are blown in beautiful curving geometric patterns by the fluctuating wind. The UK Pavilion has henceforth been created as a ball of 60,000 7.5m acrylic rods, extending outwards from a central exhibition space – from a distance resembling a curled-up hedgehog or heavily used pincushion.
Embedded within each acrylic rod are a number of seeds, a nod to London’s ranking as one of the world’s greenest cities. Heatherwick’s design shies away from traditional clichés of London and other British cities, such as bowler hats and foggy lamp-lit streets. In its place is a fresh new image that the UK can be proud of – a green nation, which incorporates nature and greenery into everyday life. Many of the 60,000 different types of seeds used in the pavilion are from plants, which have specific functional uses, whether medicinal, food manufacture or use as building materials. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens played a large part in this project, sourcing the seeds as part of its Millennium Seed Bank Project – the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world. In line with Heatherwick’s eco-friendly plan to source all materials within 300km of the 5.28 sq km World Expo site, a partner in Kew’s project, China’s Kunming Institute of Botany, donated the seeds.
With all of the rods in place, Heatherwick’s vision has come into focus. As the breeze wafts across the structure’s surface, so the rods move in circular patterns. In correlation to this, due to the transparent nature of the acrylic beams, light from outside permeates to the inner exhibition area, and as clouds move across the sky, so the light inside the structure is altered in response. When night falls, fibre optic elements inside the seed rods alight, and the whole pavilion emanates with a soft glow.
Alongside its nickname ‘The Dandelion’, the UK Pavilion has also taken on the name of ‘The Seed Cathedral’. When questioned on his choice of name, Heatherwick relates that it has nothing to do with any religious connotations. Instead, he passionately explains that when holding the seeds that make up the outer shell of the structure, he was struck by how significant and yet how paradoxically insignificant the tiny kernels were. As such, he said he felt that the pavilion needed an equally paradoxical title and, having toyed with ‘Bank’ and ‘Temple’ and found them notwithstanding, decided that ‘Cathedral’ best suited his design. It seems however that ‘The Dandelion’ is the most fitting title for this ambitious project, as post-expo each of the 60,000 rods are to be ‘blown’ across the UK and China to individual schools as keepsakes and inspirational tools – a reminder of the UK’s continuous and intimate relationship with nature, inspiring new traditions and customs for Britain to be identified with.
It was imperative for Heatherwick that not only did the interior and exterior of the ‘building’ itself work as one, but that the surrounding area (the same size as a football pitch) also echoed the pavilion’s structure. With this in mind, Heatherwick Studio worked with an Astroturf manufacturer to replicate the texture of the pavilion into a floor covering for the open outside space. As a result, the ground takes on a velvety appearance, reflecting the red and silver colouration of the pavilion and acting as a reflection of the exhibition space. This innovative coating covers a large area which resembles an expanse of unfolded wrapping paper – a partially folded, wrinkled form which caresses the circular pavilion and acts as an overhead structure for under-floor conference and meeting centres. Throughout the six-month term of World Expo 2010, the British Council will be staging a daily entertainment programme in this space, including music from the London Symphony Orchestra, performances from the English National Ballet and entertainment from The National Youth Theatre.
Alongside these shows and performances are three thought-provoking exhibitions created by art and design studio Troika. Following the theme of the expo, ‘Better City, Better Life’, Troika’s three-part exhibition is created as a learning experience to be enjoyed in partnership with the pavilion itself. The first section of the display is titled ‘Green City’, where an aerial map of London is projected onto the underside of the folded, velvety groundwork of the pavilion area. In order to express the sheer extent of London’s relationship with nature, all of the urbanisation of the city has been removed so that only the parks, trees, bushes and natural elements remain. So extensive is the use of greenery in England’s capital that one can still see the basic outline of London’s urban model – its streets, squares, plazas and major industrial centres – outlined in natural foliage. The second section, ‘Open City’, is designed to give visitors a feel of what it is like to walk through a British city. To fully capture the magic of a walk in British shoes, rain is needed and Troika managed to deliver this using ingenious light and projection equipment. Installations in the underside of the pavilion create the illusion of raindrops on the walkway underneath, with a range of intensities from light drizzle to heavy rainstorm. The culmination of Troika’s exhibitions is ‘Living City’, a collection of 40 different plant species sown further along the walkway, designed to make people question and fully appreciate what plants can do for us. Hidden amongst these functional plants are fictional ones designed by the team as ‘plants of the future’, as Troika challenges visitors to separate the real from the imaginary. These include the plant that eats itself in order to save costs in fuel production, a leaf that could stop a thief using a unique pigment in its veins and a plant that can dig for precious metals using selective roots.
After a year of construction and more than two years in the design process, the UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is finally ready for its purpose – to represent Britain in one of the most competitive international architectural events of recent years. Before the gates have even been officially opened, neighbouring pavilions have already begun to get irritated by people entering their exhibitions simply to photograph the UK Pavilion from a better angle. As the majority of exhibitions are bound to rely on the latest technology, LED lighting, full-colour projections and so on, Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘hairy’ design stands out for its elegance, class and pure ingenious oddity. In a time when Britain has begun to make a name for itself for economic disasters, political problems and social concerns, it seems that we may finally have something to be proud of.