Besides being beautiful, the British pavilion at the Milan Expo makes a serious political point, says Will Hurst
Save for Ed Miliband’s daring visit to Russell Brand’s gaff – the ‘Milibrand’ moment – the election campaign has felt depressingly short of original ideas. So it’s ironic that an architectural project based on a genuinely original idea, designed to promote British expertise and paid for by the government, cannot be properly promoted precisely because of the election.
AJ readers will likely be familiar with the UK pavilion at this year’s Milan Expo, designed by Nottingham-based sculptor and painter Wolfgang Buttress with BDP. A beautiful and complex structure with visual echoes of Thomas Heatherwick’s 2010 ‘Seed Cathedral’, the pavilion comes alive through light and sound to mimic the hive of a bee colony. But, save for a snippet on Radio 4 on Sunday, there has been next to nothing said about the £6 million ‘Hive’ in the national media. This, it turns out, is not down to lack of interest but because of the arcane rules of ‘purdah’; the pre-election period which prevents local or central government, including the Hive’s client, UK Trade & Investment, from making announcements on any new or controversial government initiatives.
While it has only just opened, the project – which defeated competing pavilion schemes from the likes of AL_A, David Kohn Architects, Asif Khan and AHMM with Studio Myerscough – isn’t exactly new in that it was publicly announced a full year ago by that shrinking violet Prince Harry. The Hive doesn’t seem controversial or political either; but in some ways it is. As well as promoting this country’s skills in the creative, life sciences, agri-tech, and food and drink sectors, this intricate building also makes a very serious point about the dramatic decline of the bumble bee. This decline could have a devastating impact on agricultural production as well as natural ecosystems and, believe it or not, did figured in all the main political parties’ manifestos.
As Buttress said on the radio on Sunday, he wants the pavilion to raise consciousness in the plight of bees and other pollinators. ‘It is going to be one of the big global concerns over the next couple of decades: we really need to address it,’ he said. This is a different kind of political to the topics which dominated the election debate. Like tackling climate change or planning for an ageing population, these are vitally important but long-term challenges which receive only lip service from politicians and the media and were once again drowned out by an election campaign playing to voters’ more immediate fears and desires.
If you seriously considered bees (or global warming, or the projected doubling of the elderly population in Britain over the next 35 years) prior to voting yesterday, then I salute you. That said, architects do tend to have minds which are well-suited to original and long-term thinking of the type Buttress has so successfully demonstrated. Perhaps in the next parliament, the profession could stop punching below its weight and follow another of his lessons in becoming a little more political.
The UK Pavilion more than makes up for the lack of election buzz