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The buzz and the bees: A journey into the Hive

Part-sculpture and part-landscape, Wolfgang Buttress’ UK Pavilion for the Milan Expo 2015 is both an experience for the senses and a reminder of the fragility of our natural surroundings

An artist, a physicist and a cellist huddle together in a sound studio engulfed by a throb of low, heavy tones. Their strange communion is made even more unusual by the fact that the resonant notes emanate not from the attendant instrument, but a recording captured at the heart of a beehive. As the track continues the cellist stirs, searching to match its pitch – lower, deeper – down to the key of D. In an instant, the natural and engineered reverberations harmonise and intermingle as simultaneous call and response.

It goes without saying that this is not a scene typical in the conception of a new building, but artist Wolfgang Buttress says it wasn’t a building he sought to create or, for that matter, even an object. His winning design for the UK Pavilion at Expo 2015 instead seeks to be a work of sculpture, landscape and experience – integrated at once as a journey for the visitor. This desire for a layered narrative is apparent on arrival at the pavilion’s entrance, where one wanders through an orchard of British apple trees to be greeted with a seemingly impassive wall of Douglas fir shuttering. It’s not an unwelcoming greeting, however, simply one that invites further inspection. Through holes drilled into the wood, one spies video clips celebrating the vital labours of what Buttress refers to as ‘the sentinels of our ecology’.

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The winning design for the UK pavilion at Milan Expo 2015 is a creation of artist Wolfgang Buttress

Hive, as it is alternately known, draws its nuanced analogies from the fundamental role that bees play in the health of the world’s biome. Given that at least thirty percent of the world’s crops and ninety percent of wild plants rely on pollination, the insect’s much-publicised troubles are a fitting response to this Expo’s theme – Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Food sustainability is an issue of such magnitude that a microcosmic metaphor is one of the few ways to render it with any graspable clarity. 

Hence the next stage in the Willy Wonka-like journey. Behind the wooden screens will explode a wildflower meadow, yet to break through the soil during my early visit, but planted from chest height within COR-TEN retaining walls. Passing into its midst, the height of the blooms will immerse and disorientate. It’s within this zone that one first starts to feel the pangs of guilt for our mass pomposity, our misplaced sense of superiority in the natural world. Like the terrifying beauty of the sublime captured on the canvases of 19th century Romantics, the space instills ‘a sense of humility,’ Buttress explains, ‘but also the feeling that you are in nature – like a bee.’ We’re not being expelled from this Garden of Eden, simply reminded of its fragility and our small place within it.

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Hive draws its nuanced analogies from the fundamental role that bees play in the health of the world’s biome

The meadow’s range of species reflects a broader interest in the organic cycles of evolution and change. The Expo is ‘an experience that goes on for six months,’ the artist reminds me, ‘so planting wildflowers just seemed completely apt. It promotes biodiversity and avoids monoculture. It means everything changes constantly.’ The plants were chosen by James Millington, landscape architect at BDP, with the assistance of botanists from London’s Kew Gardens to ensure that the meadow is in flower throughout the event. This sensitivity to the inexorable passage of time is mirrored in the project’s palette of materials. From the wooden panels to the weathering steel, they were selected for their capacity to patinate.

A musical score, assembled in part from the beehive recordings that first inspired Buttress, further advances the meadow’s sensory potency. It blends a number of ‘sound stems’ – violins, mellotrons and pianos – with bee noises, using an algorithm that interprets a real-time feed of the activity level of a hive in the UK. Sound, in truth, is the main tool of the pavilion’s storytelling. Emerging from the meadow, one next comes across a cluster of bone conductors housed underneath the glass floor of the hive. Unlike speakers, which vibrate the air to carry sounds, these devices work by transferring the vibrations directly to the skull. They reveal the secret of bee communication – only recently unlocked by the research of Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University.

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Looking up at the hive from below, its hazy cloud of aluminium resolves itself as a helix of hexagonal cells, and draws you in like a worker bee

For a long time it was believed that insects only conveyed messages by chemical signals, but Dr Bencsik has used accelerometers placed within hives to reveal a previously inaudible language of vibrations. By pressing a wooden stick connected to a conductor against a cheekbone, visitors are able to listen in on seven distinct messages, now isolated and enhanced for the human ear. Sounding like faint barks and quacks, their meanings range from a harvester bee announcing the discovery of a new food source to a virgin challenging the queen. The irony to all these experiential sonic elements is the fact that the British design is arguably most remarkable for its aesthetic nuance. Though entirely unwilling to bad-mouth anyone in particular, Buttress is aware that Expos of old have delivered their fair share of ‘Disneyworld objects’ and was unwilling to join the crude of list culprits. ‘Sometimes you can simply say more by being quiet.’

‘We’re not being expelled from this Garden of Eden, simply reminded of its fragility and our small place within it’

Thus, in place of a single spectacle, the project carries its theme by means of a series of subtle motifs. Looking up at the hive from below, for example, its hazy cloud of aluminium – milled by York-based manufacturers Stage One – resolves itself as a helix of hexagonal cells, and draws you in like a worker bee. There is of course a long history to the use of hexagons in geodesic domes and other modular applications, but here their efficiency is tempered with a dose of irregularity. For even in a real honeycomb, each cell is subtly different – to ignore this would be to ignore the design’s source material. Stage One, therefore, found itself with the unenviable task of assembling the hive’s tens of thousands of parts on-site at the modest 20 x 100m plot.

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The strong link between Buttress’ original concept sketches and the realised design reveals the trenchant vision of the artist

This compelling atomic quality will surely lead to comparisons with Atsushi Kitagawara’s design for the Japanese pavilion, only a short walk away along the Expo’s main strip. Using his signature latticework of wood, the architect has pursued a similar exploration of porosity, and the two men have struck up a correspondence of mutual appreciation. It’s important to note the specific challenges all Milan’s pavilion designers faced in the aftermath of the success of Shanghai 2010. With the number of participating countries significantly down this year, due to concerns about the return on investment, and many overawed by the success of Thomas Heatherwick’s seed pavilion, trenchant vision was required. Fortunately, Buttress has delivered this in spades, as evidenced by the strong link between his original concept sketches and the realised design.

He claims his job was made easier by a level of enforced ignorance (read Italian disorganisation). ‘I had no idea who we’d be next to, I had no idea what the context would be.’ His solution was to focus to the only ‘constant’ of which he could be sure – the sky. For, after being drawn through the orchard, meadow and up into the hive, the final destination for visitor’s eye becomes its open oculus. Meanwhile, for those passing along the main promenade, the hive’s hollow volume is set against the bright southern sky and its inhabitants appear as silhouettes buzzing around inside

World Expo 2015

When: 1 May to 31 October
Where: Milan, Italy

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