“It sails in the middle of the desert like a ship at sea. It’s a tricolor that can be seen from miles away.” This was how Carlo Ratti described the Italian Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020, created in collaboration with Italo Rota Building Office, F&M Ingegneria, and Matteo Gatto. The pavilion, which was awarded the best Commercial Project of the Year at the prestigious Construction Innovation Awards in the United Arab Emirates, will be open until March 31, 2022. This is a very important project, partly because it coincides with the first World Expo ever held in the Middle East, and partly because it was conceived as architecture that’s able to evolve through time in a sustainable way. The architects and some of today’s leading designers explain how.
Algae, coffee grounds, orange peels, and sand were the “innovative” building materials used to construct the Italian Pavilion, a building that covers an area of over 37,700 square feet (3500 m2) and presents a finely crafted vision of reconfigurable architecture and circular design. One of the objectives was, in fact, to design a structure able to live up to the challenges of the current climate crisis. Some of the most innovative companies in Italy are involved in the exhibition, while all the materials were chosen according to circular economy guidelines and developed in collaboration with Mapei, a manufacturer of chemical products for the construction industry.
Specifically, coffee and orange peels were left to dry and then ground to a powder. The powder was then used to cover paths and suspended walkways. The sand, locally sourced, was used to create a 16 1/2 foot (5 m) high dune on which the entire pavilion rests, with a pathway created and planted with over 160 species. Developed in collaboration with Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) and botanist Flavio Pollano, this natural landscape pays homage to the biodiversity and natural beauty of Italy and the Mediterranean countries. Particular attention was paid to the role of plants in the fight against desertification.
Here’s what Italo Rota has to say about the project:
The Italian Pavilion has a highly sophisticated structure. But rather than architecture in the strict sense, it’s a large, experimental installation focused on the increasingly blurred boundaries between the natural and artificial. Its construction is equally inspired by natural biotypes and the most advanced technologies from space research. On the one hand, the building looks at the organization of tropical forests, where light filters in through a high canopy and life is organized accordingly. On the other, a key theme is the production of neo-materia: new construction materials with organic and biological origins, whose technological production is not to be mistaken with recycling. The Italian Pavilion represents a kind of “architectural bank” – a catalog from which to choose elements for future architecture.
The choice of boat hulls as the roof of the building underscores the connections between the Italian and Arabian peninsulas, while also hinting at the themes of both Italy’s participation in the Expo (Beauty Connects People) and Expo Dubai 2020 as a whole (Connecting Minds, Creating the Future). When the exhibition closes its doors, the three hulls will be free to set sail to new destinations. They vary in length from 141 to 164 feet (40–50 m) and are supported by 150 slender steel pillars that are each 88.6 feet (27 m) high. The pillars were produced with the contribution of Fincantieri, Europe’s largest shipbuilder. In turn, these elements support a wave-shaped roof membrane made of ETFE pillows and a layer of perforated metal sheets that filter sunlight. Seen from above, the hulls are coated with an innovative paint developed by Gruppo Boero. The colors – green, white, red – form the biggest tricolor in Italian history, covering over 22,600 square feet (2100 m2).
A curious feature of the pavilion is that it has no walls. Instead, it’s bordered by a curtain façade made of nautical ropes. With the ropes incorporating LEDs, the façade can also be used as a multimedia surface. The ropes are made from recycled plastic from the equivalent of nearly two million water bottles. The result is a kind of vertical meshwork that extends for almost 43.5 miles (70 km) in length. When the Expo closes its doors, the ropes will also be reused, according to the principles of the circular economy. The use of nautical ropes, together with a localized cooling system and nebulizers, allows for natural shading and ventilation, and better thermal comfort.
Via an escalator, visitors are taken from the internal pathway up to a skywalk suspended 36 feet (11 m) above the ground. From this vantage point, it’s possible to look out over the entire pavilion from the walkway above the exhibition spaces. Among the most interesting of these are the Belvedere: a round building topped by a dome planted with wild Mediterranean scrub, resembling a Renaissance garden. Spirulina algae, grown by renewable energy company TOLO Green, purifies the air by biofixing the carbon dioxide produced by visitors.
Another highlight is the Innovation Space. Dedicated to technological research, it features the digital installations Second Sun and Second Moon, the work of Enel X, which create a crescendo of lighting effects that reflect visitors’ real-time emotions. There’s also Theater of Memory with a 3D printed copy of Michelangelo’s David, developed by the Museum of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and the Ministry of Culture in partnership with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Florence.
The pavilion was entirely built using Building Information Modeling or BIM. All the designers, architects, structural engineers, and plant engineers developed the project with Revit software using BIM, working from offices located in different geographical locations. Each operator virtually built the sections of the building they were responsible for, while verifying in real time how they interacted with what was being virtually created by their colleagues. Thanks to this simultaneous management of all users, it was possible to detect and resolve problems arising from interference between architectural spaces, structures, and systems in real time, while easily managing the complex geometry of the pavilion.
Federico Zaggia, partner and project director at F&M Ingegneria, commented on the result:
Cross-disciplinary coordination of the project between F&M and the design team allowed for effective, timely work, along with coordination with the operators on site during the execution phase. The BIM model was implemented to ensure maximum efficiency from design to construction by resolving any interference. The large spaces available on the first deck, called “the great dune,” with its large pillarless facades and its entirely exposed structure/architecture, are the result of sophisticated structural analysis conducted by our specialist engineers. The complexity of the construction site, where each phase was planned in detail, and the creation of highly complex geometric artifacts were seen as a challenge – one we met with outstanding results.
Another advantage of BIM is that it provided accurate estimates of the quantities of building materials needed for construction, which in turn made it possible to accurately estimate costs. The power of the software was decisive for transferring design information to production. Thanks to the interface between the designers’ software and the software used by the numerically controlled machines in the factory, it was possible to produce all the construction drawings quickly and accurately, beginning with the production of the structural work, well in advance. During construction, BIM made it possible to manage the progress of the work by monitoring site operations in real time.
Credits: ph. Michele Nastasi