Material Interrogation: UK Pavilion for Shanghai World Expo 2010

Heatherwick studio is a design firm that clearly has an interest in making architecture that involves the user in a physically interactive way.  From their Rolling Bridge, to their Longchamp Store stairs, to the Olympic torch for the 2012 London games, their work can be seen engaging the idea of physical interaction.

Their UK Pavilion for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is no exception.  Faced with a low budget, the goal of a top five pavilion, and the need to represent their country without relying on repetitive themes from its rich history, the Heatherwick Studio-led team delivered a project that was not only visually beautiful and physically tangible, but also questioned outside/inside relationships and the notion of where the building starts and ends in architecture.  In their words: “Instead of trying to shout above the noise, we aimed to do one powerful thing with simplicity and clarity, insisting on surprising visitors by the absence of screens and technological devices”1

The result of this vision was an elevated 15×15 meter cube, occupying just a small portion of the site, whose walls were pierced by 60,000, 7.5m long acrylic rods. At the inner tip of each rod, were 250,000 seeds cast into the acrylic, representing the UK’s involvement in an expansive seed-storing project. “By day, the pavilion’s interior is lit by the sunlight that comes in along the length of each rod and lights up the seed ends. You can track the daily movement of the sun and pick out the shadows of passing clouds and birds and, when you move around, the light moves with you, glowing most strongly from the hairs that point directly towards you. By night, light sources inside each rod illuminate not only the seed ends inside the structure, but the tips of the hairs outside it, covering the pavilion in tiny points of light that dance and tingle in the breeze.”2

Considering Heatherwick’s desire for clarity, the textural success of the project, and their provocation about where a building begins and ends, I was interested in exploring the detail of the acrylic rods piercing the supporting box. True to their design intent, the wall detail is straightforward in nature. Each acrylic rod is encased by two aluminum sleeves, the first adding structural support to the acrylic and the outer sleeve providing a connection to the wall.  The three components are attached to one another with a single pin set through their walls. The rod assembly slides through cnc’d holes in an outer and inner layer of plywood held about a meter apart with wood ribs. The rod assembly is held in place by a metal flange stopper that is welded to the outer aluminum tube and is easily adjustable for each hole position.  This detail is effective in many ways.  Most importantly, it connects the acrylic rods from outside to inside without a break in material, which in turn allows for the experiential qualities previously discussed.  The connection at the wood walls of the box allows for responsive movement of the rods on the outside of the building while subduing that movement on the inside to allow for a tighter proximity of rods to one another and providing structural integrity to the box. The connection detail of rod assembly to box and its simple flexibility enabled the installment of the 60,000 rods in a timely fashion. Finally, the design of the detail enables the creation of an exterior and interior that make the user forget that structure exists. Through modeling the detail, it became clear that the effect of the Seed Cathedral was in fact easy to replicate.

Because of the projects’ success, I believe we can began to project future design possibilities that contain such a tangible relationship between the outside and inside of a space and that are not a window aperture. As we imagine expanding the textural and responsive qualities of our future buildings, we should celebrate what was achieved in the Seed Cathedral while being aware that the program of the building was in fact, a pavilion. In its success, it was not required to integrate or exercise control over natural elements and systems that are fundamental to most regularly occupied buildings. Its program was simple and the design response was simple and powerful. As future designers attempt to employ similar design thinking in regards to more complex programs and systems, I hope they won’t let go of the potential for a simple, clear, response.

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