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BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group – Danish pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010

Place: Shanghai, Country: China
Architect: BIG - Bjarke Ingles Group
Structural design and engineering: BIG, Arup
Media facade: BIG, Martin Professional, CAVI
Text by Riccardo Bianchini
images courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group, Arup, and CAVI

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Photo © Iwan Baan, courtesy of BIG

BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group –  the Danish pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010

The Shanghai World Expo 2010, along with being a monumental event aimed to celebrate the rising of a new superpower, the Popular Republic of China, was also a unique showcase of temporary architectures, revealing the talent in this particular design field of both well established and emerging architects, such as Thomas Heatherwick, Miralles Tagliabue, Norman Foster, and a then not-so-known Copenhagen-based practice, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, author of the Danish pavilion.

Indeed, the pavilion of Denmark in Shanghai was possibly the design which spread the fame of BIG outside their home country.

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Location of the Danish Pavilion in the Shanghai Expo 2010 site

Architectural concept
The circular spiraling shape of the pavilion conceived by BIG for the Chinese Expo has been recurrent also in other projects by the Danish firm, such as their competition proposals for the Astana National Library and for the Greenland National Gallery of Art, or the Audemars Piguet museum currently under construction in Switzerland.

There are at least two reasons that explain why Bjarke ingels chose this form for the pavilion in Shanghai.
The first was the architect’s aim to create a continuous and unconventional exhibition space that the public could experience by bike, a traditional means of transport very popular both in China and Denmark (some 1500 city bikes could be borrowed for free at the pavilion).
The second reason was that a spiraling shape, combined with a small pool, would have permitted to ventilate and cool the pavilion naturally in the hot subtropical climate of Shanghai’s summer.

The shape that BIG developed for the pavilion was actually a double loop, a sort of knot 39 feet high and 164 feet across, conformed so that the ends of the spiral connect to one another to form a continuous path.

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Schematic diagram of the pavilion’s geometric concept, courtesy of BIG

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Photo © Iwan Baan

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Axonometric drawing, and cutout of the pavilion, courtesy of BIG

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Photos © Iwan Baan

Structural design
The load bearing structure of the pavilion, designed by BIG together with Arup, was composed by a concrete basement, and two “curvilinear boxes” made in steel.
A hidden support, actually a truss, was concealed in the volume where the two boxes overlap, resulting in a partially-cantilevered building which, from some points of view, seemed to float in the air.
To further reinforce and stiffen the structure, the pavilion’s facade was designed as a structural element as well, and the holes perforating it, which contributed to natural lighting and ventilation, were arranged accordingly with the distribution of the structural stress, previously calculated through a FEM computer aided engineering software.
A complex fluid dynamic calculation was also developed to simulate airflow and temperature inside the pavilion in order to optimize natural ventilation and cooling.

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Elevation drawing, courtesy of BIG

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Photos © Iwan Baan

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The pavilion structural steel framework, courtesy of BIG

Interior layout and exhibition space
Both a thermal mass aimed to contribute to natural cooling and a symbolic element, a circular pool was placed in the heart of the pavilion.
The pool, filled with the seawater of Copenhagen’s harbor (whose cleanness is the result of a gigantic wastewater treatment project started 15 years ago), was also a reference to Denmark’s landscape and culture. Indeed, the center of the basin, which BIG originally intended as a real pool the public could swim into, accommodated the famous Little Mermaid statue, transported from Copenhagen to Shanghai for the occasion (a video-installation by Chiense artist Ai Weiwei replaced it in the Danish capital during the Expo).
In a nutshell, the whole pavilion was conceived like a tiny piece of Denmark “teleported” to China.

“The aim of the Danish pavilion was to create an opportunity for visitors to experience firsthand the feel of a Danish city. The theme of the pavilion was “Welfairytales”, a contraction of welfare and fairytale, presenting new images, new ideas and new knowledge of how Denmark combines sustainable cities and a high quality of life” (from the Expo 2010 Danish Pavilion’s press release).

Inside, the 32,000 square foot pavilion didn’t present a traditional exhibition, like those that many countries do when participating at a World Exposition, while it featured a small urban area to live into for some hours.
Taking the cue from the theme of Expo 2010, “Better Cities Better Life”, BIG created a playful, microscopic Danish city of the near future which included a panoramic restaurant overlooking the harbor pool, cycle lanes and parking, pedestrian routes, picnic areas, spaces for live performance and cultural events, squares, fountains, monuments, shops, and cafes. Somehow, an under-scale version of Milyutin‘s linear city, but twisted in a continuous loop.

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Section drawing, and plans of the upper and ground floors, Courtesy of BIG

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Photos © Iwan Baan

The media facade
A key element of the pavilion was its media facade. The media facade used the 3600 holes which perforated the curved facade to transmit short messages and graphic patterns all around the building. Developed by BIG, Martin Professional, and CAVI – a research center focused on digital technologies established at the Aarhus University in 2001 – the system consisted of an array of diffusing polycarbonate tubes, one for every hole, each equipped with a multicolor LED light source connected to a custom-made controllers by 8 kilometers of signal and power cables. This way, every hole was like a large round pixel, part of a giant curved video screen enveloping the entire pavilion.

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View of the media facade at night, photo courtesy of Arup

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The Danish pavilion media facade, images courtesy of CAVI

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Photo courtesy of Arup

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Photos © Iwan Baan



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