UK gets to the point in Shanghai

11 March 2010

Heatherwick’s Expo vision comes to life

So how exactly are they going to build that? When the dramatic CGIs of Thomas Heatherwick’s competition-winning UK Pavilion for this year’s Shanghai Expo were unveiled in 2007, it was followed by a head-scratching moment for many in the industry. After all, this was the designer whose B of the Bang sculpture ultimately proved beyond the technical ability of its engineers and fabricators. It has now been dismantled, with the team reimbursing Manchester City Council for the costs. 

The job of actually building the “puff-ball” pavilion fell to the Hong Kong office of Mace. Speaking in mid-February, when around two-thirds of the 68,000 acrylic rods had been positioned, Mace director Philip Ireland says the building is a faithful realisation of what had seemed a flight of fancy. “The concept actually works – you can see that now that we’ve taken down the scaffolding. It’s unusual for an architectural concept to look like the real building.”

Heatherwick’s design responds to the Expo’s theme of Better City, Better Life with a building that embodies ideas of nature, bio-diversity and the healing potential encapsulated in seeds. The spikes penetrating the building are in fact delicate acrylic rods that will sway in the breeze. The tips of the portion inside the building each encase a single seed of native Chinese plants.

The design team call it a “seed cathedral”, but a Chinese online competition gave it the friendlier nickname of “The Dandelion”. According to UK Trade & Investment, the government body co-ordinating the £15m project, the tantalising CGI images appear on Chinese posters for the Expo as a single iconic emblem of the event.

The hidden structure supporting the acrylic fronds comprises inner and outer timber shells (see drawing), held rigid with egg-box style structural stiffening. To accommodate each individual rod, two holes were pre-machined at precisely matching angles and alignment in the two shells. Once the rods are positioned, the outside face of the timber was given a waterproof coating.

Each rod, sourced from a small workshop in Shanghai, is 7.5m long, and measures 22mm2 for most of its length before flaring to 40mm2 at the ends. On a sunny day, the rods act as light collectors, channelling daylight deep into the interior of the building. On overcast days, or at night, the white LED lights embedded near the mid-point in each rod illuminate the spikes in both directions.

Inside, visitors will follow a walkway around the building that takes them past audio-visual and interactive displays designed by exhibition designer Troika. The rest of the team includes Adams Kara Taylor as structural engineer, and Atelier Ten as environmental and building services engineer.

 Outside, the pavilion has a riverside site amid a 6,000m2 garden of folded concrete, combining the hard urban aesthetic of the city with a place of tranquillity and rest. Additional facilities nestle beneath the concrete folds, including a multi-function space suitable for presentations and VIP events, and an “Olympic corner” with an exhibition focusing on the sustainable legacy of the London 2012 games.

Around 70 million visitors are expected at the Expo site, which has 239 pavilions. “We believe it’s going to be top of the list of crowd favourites,” predicts Sir Andrew Cahn, director of UK Trade and Investment.

The pavilion has business, diplomacy and PR objectives, says Cahn. “We want to project an image of a country that is modern, forward-looking and exciting, a country that the Chinese will want to be associated with. The UK is the largest EU investor in China, there are 420 Chinese companies operating in the UK. It is a rapidly growing market for our exports.”

For Mace too, the project is a showcase for its capacity in China. Currently, its Hong Kong office has a staff of 100 – mainly UK expats – delivering projects on the island, in neighbouring Macau and increasingly in China itself. However, Mace has further plans for growth in the mainland. “We’re just expanding into Shanghai, so a project as high profile as this definitely fitted into our plans,” says Philip Ireland.

 The Shanghai office of the British Council is organising a programme of 100 events throughout the Expo, mainly held offsite. Themed weeks will look at different regions and business sectors, including the creative industries, life sciences and low-carbon technology.

Businesses interested in sponsoring events should contact the Shangai office.

More details at

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