Prepare to make a beeline for the Milan World Expo’s UK Pavilion

View of the UK Pavilion featuring a tall, aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure and several patinated metal, geometric planters with low greenery under a clear, blue sky
Numerous layers of aluminium overlap in the hexagonal, metallic mesh structure known as the 'Hive' in the centre of the UK Pavilion
(Image credit: TBC)

Themes for world fairs tend to be broad and inclusive by nature - from Shanghai's Better City, Better Life in 2012, to Astana's upcoming 2017 theme, Energy For The Future - their aim is to inspire and touch on a common, global topic through different interpretations. Making this overarching theme their own is part of the challenge for any designer involved, and one that Nottingham-based artist Wolfgang Buttress (opens in new tab) happily took on, when he submitted his proposal for the UK Pavilion (opens in new tab) in Milan's World Expo 2015 (opens in new tab) last year.

Proposing a pavilion that focuses on an experience, Buttress responded to the 2015 theme, Feeding The Planet, Energy For Life, by highlighting the importance and issues of the honeybee. 'I was sceptical about how you can express this theme simply, in a single pavilion,' he says. 'The honeybee metaphor worked well. Bee colonies are in danger and the bee is directly or indirectly responsible for every 1/3 mouthful of food we eat.'

The pavilion is designed to cleverly transport a section of the British countryside to Milan. The site is long and narrow (a rough 20m x 100m) so the team translated it as a journey, at the end of which sits its sculptural centrepiece and main building. A walk through a rich garden of different planted landscapes will bring the visitor up to the structure, which abstractly resembles a beehive. The 'beehive' is made of aluminium. 'We wanted to work with materials that patinate', says Buttress. 

British food will be offered and displayed within, while bespoke sound pieces (including a live feed from a UK bee colony) and smells accompany the visual feast for a truly full experience that engages each sense. Buttress worked on the design with architecture firm BDP and consulted physicist and bee expert Dr Martin Bencsik.

Manufacturing the piece was no mean feat; the level of complexity was high. Created in the workshop of expert makers Stage One (opens in new tab) in York (the people also behind the annual Serpentine pavilion), the structure consists of an impressive 169,300 pieces, weighing some 50 tons.

The competition was won in May 2014 and with Stage One already appointed for the manufacturing, construction began in October the same year. 'It was a journey of discovery,' says Stage One Sales and Marketing Director Tim Leigh. 'Time was the most challenging element in this project.' Almost a full year since then and the striking installation is now gearing up for the Expo's official inauguration on May 1st. 

Partnering with the UK Pavilion for its first ever special preview, Wallpaper* was there during the Salone del Mobile fair to celebrate the completion together with Buttress, the UK Commissioner General for Milan Expo 2015 Hannah Corbett and the UK Ambassador to Italy Christopher Prentice, in an exclusive event. Meanwhile, Wallpaper*Handmade at EXPO Gate gathered the 'best of' all the gastronomic-related wonders from leading designers, manufacturers and craftsmen. The items on display were selected from the show's past five editions and inspired by the upcoming Milan Expo and its food-related motto, whetting our apetite for what is to come. 

When the doors are thrown open, the UK Pavilion will no doubt provide an arresting, immersive and informative attraction. The theme and structure's complexity comes together under a single, powerful idea. 'We needed to remember that it will be visited by people from different places and different cultures,' says Buttress. 'It makes you want to go simple and elemental.'

View of the UK Pavilion featuring a tall, aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure and several patinated metal, geometric planters with low greenery under a clear, blue sky

Exploring the activities and motions of a bee colony, the Pavilion seeks to draw comparisons with human societies

(Image credit: TBC)

View of the UK Pavilion featuring a tall, aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure and several patinated metal, geometric planters with low greenery in the evening

As daylight falls, hundreds of LED lights switch on, creating a glow inside the cubic structure

(Image credit: TBC)

Side view of the patinated metal staircase and a partial view of the aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure at the UK Pavilion

Visitors climb a staircase over a patinated metal building to reach the centre of the Hive, where attention is drawn upwards to the framed circular hole at the sculpture's top

(Image credit: TBC)

Interior view from below of the aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure at the UK Pavilion - the structure has a hole at the top where a person can also be seen

The shiny metallic structure echoes a honeycomb, displaying a multi-layered construction with geometric variation and a translucent quality

(Image credit: TBC)

Interior view from below of the aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure at the UK Pavilion - the structure has a hole at the top and it is illuminated by rings of small lights

The central dome is illuminated by concentric rings of pinprick lights, exhibiting visual and audio effects which respond to the movement of bees in a real UK beehive 

(Image credit: TBC)

An illustration of the aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure by artist Wolfgang Buttress

An impressive 169,300 pieces form the structure, which weighs some 50 tons

(Image credit: TBC)

A second illustration of the aluminium mesh ’beehive’ structure by artist Wolfgang Buttress

Wolfgang Buttress' entry won the competition for the UK Pavilion back in May 2014

(Image credit: TBC)

ADDRESS

UK Pavilion
World Expo 2015, Milan
1 May - 31 October 2015

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Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).