Italian Pavilion for Expo Dubai 2020: interview with designers Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota

After choosing the project with which Italy will take part in the 2020 Universal Exposition, the designers Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota take the floor. In this interview with Artribune they explain the origins and the aims of the national pavilion.

The Italian Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai will focus on the theme of travel and will, so to speak, “embody” the idea by sending three boats by sea. As we understand it, the installation will stop in Dubai, and then be re-used. What will happen in the course of the voyage? How will the sense of this endeavour be reprised in the pavilion? It’s almost as if this action “foreshadows” the opening of the exhibition space…

Italy’s Expo entry is entitled Beauty connects people. Our design contemplates this theme by thinking of beauty as a relational and not static thing – a beauty that springs from our experience of the voyage as one of exchange and openness. The pavilion was built in Italy and will travel to Dubai by sea in three large vessels, which, after reaching port, will become the actual roof of the building. We have envisaged a dynamic architecture, which will sail the seas before Expo, become an exhibition space during the event and will continue beyond the end of the World Expo.

Let’s talk about the use of the boat hulls on the roof: how did this idea begin, and what, if any, were your influences? In your first statement you referred to an ancient gesture, “full of historical values”: can you perhaps clarify this aspect which, as we have said, has had mixed reactions.

In ancient times, when Mediterranean seafarers landed on unknown shores, they turned their boats over and used them as their first refuge. For millennia, boats have been a primordial form of architecture for coastal populations, almost an equivalent of Laugier’s Primitive Hut. In the last century, Buckminster Fuller masterfully explained that he saw the hull of a boat as a kind of architectural archetype shared by Japan and Scandinavia: “In Japanese, the word for ‘roof of the house’ has the meaning as ‘inside of the boat’. After their long voyages[…] seafaring peoples turned their boats upside down, as their first land shelter for protection from the elements“. This tradition continues today in many parts of the world: for example, in the village of Equihen-Plage in France, or the little island of Lindisfarne, off the north coast of England. Aside from the historical references, we liked the idea of a mobile architecture. The pavilion, built in Italy, was supposed to be transported to Dubai by sea. But rather than pack it up and send it by ship in containers, why not imagine an architecture that could actually sail the seas?

How will the spaces inside the pavilion be arranged? What can you tell us about the setup?

The exhibition routes will involve an ascent and a gradual approach to the hulls of the boats. These will be supported on vertical pillars, creating three big aisles, separated by two large squares. The whole narrative is created through installations that refer to Italy’s contemporaneity and not just its past.

The renderings show these “pillars” and large transparent surfaces, also on the roof. Let’s focus then on the materials and construction aspects, also in view of the constraints imposed by the organisers.

This pavilion will not be the all-too-familiar “black box” – a closed box that forms black backdrops for film screenings. Ours will be an atmospheric, lightweight and permeable pavilion. For this reason, in fact, one of the technological innovations will be the air treatment and how it can respond to external conditions. Almost as if we were on a boat.

How will the Italy Pavilion relate to the rest of the exhibition area?

The hulls of the three vessels will rest on lines of pillars, and one of the facades will form a kind of transparent digital wall: a screen for projecting images, data, and news about the Pavilion. We have always been interested in responsive architecture and narrative façades: the Italian Pavilion will continue this research interest, creating a place recognisable from any point of the Expo.

You intend to take a “circular” approach with the Italian Pavilion. What are the strengths this will build on?

One of the linchpins are the boats themselves, which are created in Italy, transformed into an exhibition space, and will continue to live in multiple forms after 2020.

The Italian Pavilion has met with some dissent. What is your position on these opinions? What are your thoughts or feelings in the light of all that has happened?

The international reception has been very good, often very enthusiastic. The response In Italy has been more diverse, but that’s natural: this country always takes a while to get up to speed. Remember Expo Milano 2015? It started off mired in controversy but went on to become the success we all know. We’re sure that’s how it will be this time as well. Looking at it from a methodological point of view, architecture is supposed to provoke debate. We’re big fans of the idea of “critical design”, developed in recent years by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Ruby: the notion of design as a process that can stimulate public debate. So, we welcome suggestions, encouragement and criticism; they help us improve.

(Artribune, 22 March 2019)

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