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Wolfgang Buttress: 'From afar the Hive looks chaotic'

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Designer of the UK pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo, Wolfgang Buttress, tells the AJ about the challenges of the project ahead of the world fair’s official opening on Friday (1 May)

Wolfgang Buttress

How do you feel now the pavilion is complete?
‘I’m still consumed by the process, so it is difficult to have a rational perspective. The feelings veer from glimpses of real joy to the concentrating on the minutiae of the snagging list. It is an amazing feeling to have realised a simple idea so coherently.’ 

Is it how you envisaged it – if not what is different?
‘The essence and atmosphere of what I envisioned has materialised. Typically my approach to sculpture is to express a sense of place or to frame nature so one can experience it more intimately. The only constant context here at the Expo is the sky, which in itself constantly changes. I had very little to cling to here so my original idea was to create a new context, to transport a piece of the British countryside to Milan and to try and find a simple metaphor for the state of the Planet in 2015.’

I was struck by how similar it looked to the digital model

‘When we first saw the Hive unveiled, with the scaffolding dismantled, I was struck by how similar it looked to the digital model and some of the more recent renders. I was also thrilled to see the ever-changing relationship between the artwork and the space that surrounds it. One can really sense the internal void from the outside as well as from the inside. I am very pleased with how, from afar, the Hive itself looks fairly chaotic but on closer approach one discovers the structure behind the apparent randomness.

‘The wild flower meadow is growing well, the combination of sun and rain here in Milan has really helped.

‘Certain aspects have exceeded my expectations: the way the Hive catches the light and changes with ambient conditions; the glass balustrade in the Hive is almost invisible.’

How does this structure work and were there any specific technical challenges that you faced during construction? 
‘The Hive is an aluminium lattice, composed of a series of truss-like assemblies: layers of plate ‘chords’ with interconnecting rods of bar. It’s fully-braced, which helped reduce material and meant that connections didn’t need to resist bending. 

‘There were certainly many challenges. It’s been through an extensive process of rationalisation and refinement since the competition stage. I have been fortunate to work with an exceptional engineer, Tristan Simmonds, who has extensive experience with bespoke arts projects. He’s a gifted lateral thinker and came up with many good solutions. His mastery of computational analysis, and willingness to push the envelope, made the whole thing possible.

The biggest challenge has been time

‘The biggest challenge has been time though. This is a complex project, which has been accelerated to be fully designed, tested, fabricated and installed in less than a year.’

Can you briefly explain the construction process?
The whole pavilion was fabricated at the Stage One workshops in York and then transported to the site in Milan for assembly. Parts for the Hive were machined and water-jet cut. This kit of parts was sent to Milan in batches and assembled layer by layer. Most of the build followed this strategy of off-site preparation with just-in-time delivery to site for install. The contractor had to confine construction within the boundaries of our plot, so this approach made a lot of sense. We started on site in September and are now in the final stages of snagging.

Is this architecture or sculpture?
‘To realise this vision I brought together a multi-disciplinary team from the start of the project including structural engineer Tristan Simmonds and architects and landscape architects BDP.  My aim was to create a successful integration of art, architecture, landscape and science. I wanted the experience to be immersive and emotional and connect the visitor with nature and ecosystems on an experiential level. The pavilion as a whole is very much an interdisciplinary-effort.

‘I am an artist who mainly works with sculpture but one could suggest that the Hive itself has certain architectural qualities. The boundaries between the disciplines, at a certain point become more ambiguous; collaborating with other professions gives me an opportunity to explore the cross-overs.

‘We are all concerned with space, form, materials and meaning. One of the differences between this pavilion and most of the others here is that the concept and design is artist led and not architecturally led.’

What has it been like working with BDP and Stage One?
‘BDP have a fantastic breadth of capability and experience within one shop, and have contributed expertise in architecture, interiors, lighting, M&E and landscape.

‘Stage one possess a unique blend of expertise allied to great facilities. They’ve contributed immensely to the process and have done an excellent job of realising the design within the challenging constraints of time and budget.

‘It has been a real pleasure to work with the whole team. Its been one of the hardest but most enjoyable of years.’

Did you have to cut any corners?
‘The design has been an evolving process and things have evolved over the course of the past nine months, sometimes for cost or scheduling reasons. You can get a sense of the changes by comparing the original walk-through animation to what is standing now. The essence is very much intact though, and the process of redesign also provided opportunities to make improvements.’

What do you think of the other pavilions?
‘It’s difficult to say at the moment, as I have not seen inside many of them. The timber wall and carpentry on the Japanese Pavilion is quite stunning. I am also intrigued and look forward to being inside the Austrian and the Chinese pavilions.’

I wanted to create something universal

Will people look at the pavilion and instantly think ‘Oh, that’s definitely British…’?
‘There are certainly aspects of British culture that we’ve aimed to express but the important thing for me was that I also wanted to create something universal; the message about the honeybee is significant for the whole planet.

‘There is something understated but impactful about the pavilion and I believe it does celebrate the best of UK creativity, technology and science.’

Project team

Designer/artist Wolfgang Buttress (Nottigham)
Engineer Tristan Simmonds
Architectural support/services BDP (Manchester)
Manufacturer Stage One (York)
Graphics/animation Squint Opera
Physicist and bee expert Martin Bencsik

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