Buzzing with Collaborations

The UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo by BDP won Building of the Year at the Manchester Architect Awards. Designed around the journey of a bee, it has challenged what people assume to be a ‘building’ and celebrates collaborative practice between architects, artists and lighting designers. In this interview, Raphaé Memon speaks with the interdisciplinary BDP Manchester design team who worked with artist Wolfgang Buttress on the design and realisation of the Pavilion. The BDP Design Team is composed of Mark Braund (project director), Miguel Silva Romera (project architect), Mike Davenport (architectural technician), James Millington (landscape architect) and Rhiannon West (lighting designer).

Raphaé Memon: How does the design of the UK Pavilion capture the Expo’s essence of ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’?

Mark Braund: As a design team we have come back with a message about bee importance to food propagation. The concept is about reading things at two levels: one as a series of landscapes transported from Britain into Milan to attract investment, tourism and trade; and another is about transcending people down to the level of becoming the bee, identifying cross over points between bee colonies and humanity.

Mike Davenport: It’s about the journey of the bee really isn’t it, to put it in one line!

Raphaé: Bees are responsible for pollinating over a third of our crops, and the UK has seen an overall decline in bee population. The Pavilion stages the complexity of their ecosystem and presents it to the public. How does the Pavilion represent this struggle and journey of the bee?

James Millington: The design showcases natural processes subtly. There is evidence of bees being quite repetitive in what they do. For example, they start with what we have in the Orchard: steady movement through the trees. Then in the Meadow there is erratic movement towards where the flower is. When bees reach the flower, they circle around the flower and then go tell others about it, and then they go do it again. What we’ve got as the Pavilion is very much a journey through the different stages – the Orchard, the Meadow and then rising up into the Hive itself and then back out again.

Raphaé: So it’s an experiential journey, where the visitor is encouraged to be as receptive as they can in their own movements.

Miguel Silva Romera: It was all about creating a lasting memory in the visitors. You have points of change and wonder as you move through the Pavilion.

Rhiannon West: By day it is about the Meadow: the luscious greens, flowers, scent and noise. And by night it’s completely different: it’s about the route you take in the Meadow, and the bees’ ‘waggle dance’ that leads you to the Hive.

Raphaé: Do we get to hear real bees inside the Hive?

Miguel: Yes. Along their journey, visitors will hear bees flying around them. They will start hearing soft sounds from the Hive which will attract them in, and then they’ll have a plenum experience of the bee’s sound, the buzzing, the lighting, and the spatial experience.

Rhiannon: The lights flicker, and their intensity increases as you look up at the oculus of the Hive. Each luminaire has a unique relationship.

Raphaé: The pavilion demonstrates a great commingling between art and science, where the lighting design must have been critical in order to create that immersive experience for the visitors.

Mark: Well what’s interesting is that the light during the day and night, is just two ways of conveying the same message. Our design is all about being understated, calming, natural, slow. During the day it’s about spatial experiences, enclosure, mirrors, landscape, soundscape…and at night the light takes over that same experience by closing you in, becoming immersive. Wolfgang spoke about the pavilion as something that tries to convey a message through ambiguity, so it relies on the visitors asking questions and wanting to understand what they are experiencing. They get a visceral experience that is enjoyable.

Raphaé: The Hive is designed to literally keep ‘buzzing’ with people by always remaining full, but also not looking empty. How important was controlling the number of visitors?

Mark: Hugely! Fluid dynamic modelling was conducted on the design, which was really important to figure out management strategies so that visitors get the optimum experience.

Raphaé: People build up that experience of the Hive when they catch a glimpse of it from the Meadow. It’s a 360-degree spectacle, which presents many different ways of seeing the structure.

Miguel: People can see the Pavilion through photographs, but they will need to go to Milan to enjoy the complete multisensory environment, from the lights and the sound, to the taste of British food in the open-air bar.

Raphaé: How is the UK Pavilion different to the others?

Rhiannon: Well, about two-thirds of the Pavilion is set outside because of the Meadow.

Mark: Yes that’s it, but also a lot of people say they want to come back at night to see it. Going through once is not enough. The Expo is almost like the Eurovision of architecture – there are some great acts, but there are some drag queens in stilettos too!

Raphaé: What was the project brief like, and how different was it to your usual projects?

James: The brief was ‘give us something fantastic and unique’.

Mark: We are used to working with small budgets and trying to be clever by making use of contacts as much as we can to make things work. This Pavilion was different. It’s quite democratic, which was a positive design response that came forward. About 95% of the Pavilion is open to the public, with only a few private back-of-house spaces. Our approach was that we want people to maximize the user journey. The client bought into that.

Mike: It was brilliant to see every component being made. Usually as designers we are not involved in the whole fabrication of a project as elements are sublet.

Raphaé: What was it like working with Wolfgang? All these different collaborations in art practice are something quite rare and unique really.

James: It is rare definitely. Wolfgang as a chap is terribly chilled, laid back, and has a brilliant perspective of life. He really wanted to deliver something out of this world.

Mark: I think that’s the big difference, the collaboration. Normally his commissions are about sculptural one off pieces that sit in the landscape. In this job sculpture is integrated into lighting, landscape and architecture, and we have been as involved in the artwork as much as he in the landscape, architecture and lighting. It’s really been an ‘unprimadonnaesque’ process!

Mik: If you look at Wolfgang’s early concept, it looks remarkably similar to what has been produced.

Raphaé: Are you looking forward to having more collaborations like this in the future?

Mark: Yes this was somewhat of a dream job, conveying a message through an ephemeral object architecturally. There is something quite cinematic about the experience which is intriguing to architects, the temporality. Ultimately it is something we are really good at, as architects and designers, and something we should be more involved with in the future.

Rhiannon: I think it was great to see that level of creativity. It’s not often you can work with an artist who has a wife who is an artist, who has a team who are all ‘mini-artists in the making’, and you get to be super creative and balance off each other.

Raphaé: Well, I believe this project is a great celebration of how disciplines of art, architecture, landscape and lighting can come together to create something truly spectacular.

James: Yes indeed. It shows that BDP doesn’t only produce award-winning schemes, but also one off spectacles with a lot of creative collaboration.

The Pavilion invites you to process through a multi-sensory environment, and let intuition guide you through the immersive journey, with a little help from the bees.

Visit the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo before it closes on October 31.

Photographs and drawings provided by Wolfgang Buttress & BDP / Interview conducted by Raphaé Memon at BDP, Manchester.