Architecture

Australian Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010

May 3, 2010

Wood Marsh’s pavilion for the Shanghai Expo speaks of an Australia grounded in its desert heartland.

The World’s Fair is a fascinating beast. Arising from its first incarnation, The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, for more than a century and a half the ‘Expo’ has moved around the world operating on essentially the same original principle – an opportunity to show off your country’s wares. It’s an amazing history from Joseph Paxton’s first Palace, to Gustave Eiffel’s Tower, to Mies’ architecture-changing German Pavilion in Barcelona through to our own Pavilion in Expo ’67 by the now-worshipped Robin Boyd. With all this weighty history behind them, the temporary buildings of the Expo carry both the expectation for innovation and the heavy burden of representing a whole country.

The last practice to have a serious go at representing Australia in a single building was probably ARM with its National Museum of Australia in Canberra (2001). To quote from the book on the project, this was a series of ‘tangled destinies’ – knots and narratives that drew on rich architectural sources from Le Corbusier to Utzon and Libeskind, a comment on a tendency within Australia’s built environment towards what Boyd may have called ‘Featurism’. Wood Marsh’s new Australian Pavilion in Shanghai for Expo 2010 plays a different tune, closer to a singular gesture, a resonant object of powerful allusions rather than direct references. One of these is to the Rock, that big thing that sits in the centre of the nation like a magnet that both pushes and pulls, holding us together, but also driving us away to the edge of this giant island.

Like Australia itself, this building is big. Built from concrete and steel, it’s heavy, ground-based, low-tech, strong. Any project that deals with national identity is going to deal also with the political – Mies’ pavilion promoted a new progressive Germany in 1929; in 2010 Australia is developing a complex relationship with China, now its biggest trade partner. The client for the building is Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and one of the key roles this building has relates to deal-brokering – there are dedicated entertainment rooms within the building that the millions of regular visitors passing through will never see.

China has a keenness to impress in this event, much as it did in Beijing in 2008. Some Expos are bigger than others, and this is a big one – the biggest ever if the predicted 70 million make it through in the six-month duration of the event. ‘Better City, Better Life’ is the official theme and this is directly related to China’s massive, ongoing urbanisation. At the Expo site, the Chinese Pavilions all address themes that start with the word ‘Urban’. The site is large also, several kilometres south of the old Shanghai, but similarly sited on the Huangpu River. Space is organised around a large built armature – a huge linear structure called Expo Axis and designed by the Germany-based firm SBA Architects.

It is the most contemporary of the Chinese buildings, and is the backbone for the rest of the site, externally a covered canopy that is exactly 1000 metres long and 100 metres wide. It is permeable, allowing crossroads through the site and it also serves as a horizontal landmark for visitor orientation. At night, its complex wireframe structure becomes brilliant lines of LEDs – China’s favourite and abundant method of illumination.

The rest of the site is organised through a simple campus model – each participating country is given a block of land, a five-metre setback and 20-metre height limit. The site boundaries then dissolve to reveal a series of competing national monuments, set against each other to greater or lesser success. The business park-style planning provides space between the buildings, perhaps apt in this visual contest. A theme park of architecture, the context is one of diversity, a Featurist campus.

The concept has its origins in the picturesque garden – these are ‘pavilions’ sitting apart. The Australian Pavilion is engaging for what it doesn’t do, for its stern presence. Its sheer 20-metre walls are taller than those of Grounds’ National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), its arched openings also recalling the famous St Kilda Road gallery. It is, however, another Melbourne building close to the NGV that we can identify as the clear predecessor to this building – Wood Marsh’s Malthouse redevelopment (2002), home of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). Like the Expo pavilion, it is clad entirely in weathered Corten steel, but whereas the ACCA buildings were angular and vaguely tectonic, in Shanghai the language has become smooth and singular, reflecting a formal manner also seen in Wood Marsh’s recent apartment buildings Yve and Balencia.

The use of Corten gives the building its robust and rough nature, like a ground surface. Interestingly, it is used on at least two other pavilions on the site, but these do not have the presence of the Australian building. The steel was all donated by BlueScope Steel, one of the biggest steel manufacturers in Australasia and formerly a business group of minerals giant BHP Billiton. Companies like BHP gain the most from Australia’s relationship with China, which for most is about ripping raw material such as iron ore, the main ingredient in steel, from the land. In this way, the building represents that relationship, but also suggests the land itself, as well of course as Uluru and its surrounding desert. Here, the building buys into the image of Australia as a desert, an image most of the world readily associates with the country. The diverse reality of Australia is discovered inside the building, through the unfolding narrative exhibition elements, which are the work of exhibition designers Think!OTS.

The fortress-like language established, the building is threaded by a system of glass tubes that wind their way through to a different beat. Housing the 160-metre long circulation ramp, the tubes are an expressed outcome of the process of circulation that dominates these buildings – there is a lot of queuing. The Australian Pavilion has adopted a theatre model, where a linear exhibition serves as an elaborate queue for the 1000-person auditorium show, an internal circular space at the top of this ramp system.

The theatre space is an ‘in the round’ experience; radial terracing provides cushioned rails to lean against during the eight-minute show. Circulation is one-way, and visitors subsequently leave via the bottom level and then take a shorter ramp back down to the ground floor level and to the last ‘Act’. This large interior space is more fluid in its pattern of use, being designed for less formal performances and gatherings. Conceived as a courtyard, the space would have worked better if top lit with skylights. The VIP areas for government and business meetings are effectively a separate building within the sinuous perimeter, with their own entry lobby and circulation. The biggest is the top floor dining room that is glazed over with a view into the internal courtyard below, and fitted out in a rich material palette of timber and stone, used in block areas.

The rawness of the exterior and its scale give the project an infrastructural feeling, and recalls some of Wood Marsh’s other big work – freeway walls and bridges such as those on EastLink and the Eastern Freeway in Melbourne. This quality is maintained to some extent internally, particularly the ramps and their helix-like orange glazed walkways. These break through the skin and colour the interior experience with a visual orange burst that feels like being inside energy itself. These episodic moments of immersion also give views across to the rest of the Expo site, seen through the murky Shanghai air.

Perhaps most engaging is how close the building sails to some very unfashionable motifs – a wave parapet, curves in plan and arches. As some others have also discovered, these forms provide opportunity for a new exploration of architectural language, an alternative to the obsessive complex formalism of the digital zeitgeist.

The organic plan is almost symmetrical, the movement in plan of the containing wall edge is subtly adjusted to vary the effect of the wall – the waving parapet also works to exaggerate the depth of the protrusion as it gets higher at these extremities. The entry corner sits at the intersection of two skyway circulation spines – the word ‘AUSTRALIA’ sits above the arch, in large and shiny English and Mandarin, indicating both entry and addressing the obvious question of which country is on show. A true test would be to remove the signage, to see if it was needed at all.

From the elevated walkways of the circulation spines, the base of the building is eclipsed, and the strength of the idea becomes apparent – the walls have a flowing curtain-like appearance from this view, and the language does not rely on its ground connection. The building does land – into a sea of Midland Brick pavers, a familiar sight in Australian backyards and plazas alike, rippling away from the sheer floodlit walls.

Despite its fluid form, the building fills most of its allowable envelope, and shows a strong commitment to the Expo and its aims of promoting Australia and fostering trade. Australia’s last Expo exhibition was in 2005 at Aichi, Japan. That was a smaller scale Expo, but one big hit for visitors to the Australian Pavilion was the serving of croc burgers. These are available here from a kiosk in the internal courtyard that will face both in and out, to literally give hungry visitors a taste of Australia. After his inspection of the completed Chinese facilities in February, Premier Hu Jintao asked to visit one other national pavilion – the Australian Pavilion, which was one of the first to finish.

Australia’s relationship with China is an evolving one, fraught with issues. On one level, it can be seen as a bit like the US relationship, in that Australia has far less influence than its partner. In other regards, it is very different – it is, however, closely tied to infrastructure. Shipping, mining, manufacturing – it is this ‘working’ relationship that this building represents as much as it does Australia alone.

The great contradiction of Expo pavilions is their temporary nature, with most demolished after six months. Some of the surviving ones, and some of those lost, have become seminal works. The Australian Pavilion is not built like a temporary building – it needs to handle more people in six months than most buildings do in their entire lifespan – some 40,000 people a day, or seven million over the open period. Shanghai has weathered the coils of its Corten cladding, which will be peeled off and returned to us for another life. For now though, these rusted, pleated walls fold over themselves, lending the building a depth that is independent of Shanghai’s occasional sunlight.

Stuart Harrison is an architect and director of Harrison and White. He teaches at RMIT, hosts The Architects on Melbourne RRR and is Melbourne editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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