Shanghai Expo 2010Some pavilions showcase their country as a tourist destination, some show off fine products for Chinese consumers to covet, while others present smiling portraits of their citizens extending a hand of friendship. The United Kingdom decided on an entirely conceptual approach that had little relationship to any ideas or images of the island nation that expo visitors might have held before.
The British Pavilion, designed by Heatherwick Studio led by the internationally acclaimed Thomas Heatherwick, made succinct points about humanity and our environment rather than delivering a public relations or marketing message.
Two key concepts are imparted: biodiversity and public space.
The main structure, the Seed Cathedral, is formed from 60,000 transparent 7.5 meter long fiber optic rods, each encasing one or more seeds at its tip. During the day, they draw daylight inwards to illuminate the interior. At night, light sources inside each rod allow the whole structure to glow. As the wind moves past, the building and its optic hairs gently move to create a dynamic effect.
The project is more English than it might seem. London is among the world’s greenest megacities and city has the world’s first major botanical institution, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, itself part of Heatherwick’s inspiration for the Seed Cathedral. The Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seedbank seeks to collect the seeds of 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020. The seeds used in the Cathedral were sourced from China’s Kunming Institute of Botany, a partner in Kew Royal Botanic Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank Project.
The pavilion also makes an environmental point with its construction. To reduce unnecessary transportation, 75% of the materials for the UK Pavilion have been sourced from within a radius of 300km around Shanghai. Most of the materials of the UK Pavilion will be reused or recycled at the end of the Expo.
Interestingly, the lasting memory the pavilion leaves might be of the public space it provided. The large open space around the Seed Cathedral – nick-named The Dandelion by the Chinese public – gives visitors a place to relax, chat, and take a break from the maddening crowds of the Expo. When one thinks of all the parks in London, this seems very appropriate.
The result of this conceptual pavilion may be that visitors leave with new viewpoints on the United Kingdom, urbanism, and the environment. While other pavilions cement existing stereotypes, positive or not, this pavilion shows a country that – far from being traditional and uptight as many Chinese imagine it to be – is forward thinking and imaginative. The UK appears as a country eager to raise awareness about and confront the challenges facing society and our ecosystem.
Naturally, the appearance of the Seed Cathedral is probably the most memorable and revolutionary of all the pavilions. The goal set by the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) of creating one of the five biggest attractions of the Expo has been met, if coverage in the Chinese media and the number of magazine covers the pavilion graces is any barometer. All of this bodes quite well for London as it sets the stage for impressing the world in 2012. The empire may have passed, the economy may be weakened, but the country still seems filled with vitality.