With an Expo theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, the Herzog & de Meuron master plan deliberately makes a paradigm shift away from the monumental buildings (eg. Eiffel Tower, 1889) or big pointy towers (eg. Space Needle) that characterise past Expos;
To this end, we want to reverse the notion of a monumentality that is associated with physical impact and instead offer a vision of landscape that is monumental in its fragility and natural beauty. [Herzog & de Meuron, architect’s statement]
Described by the architects as a “reinterpreted urban agricultural landscape” the design reminds me of the classic Italian gardens analysed in the book “Green Architecture & The Agrarian Garden” (Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, 1988) that made such an impact on me when I studied landscape architecture. At first glance, the scheme looks like it could be for an anonymous new city in the Middle East but on closer inspection it reflects some romantic elements of Italian cities – Venetian canals and picturesque agrarian scenes in Tuscany – that sit within a rigourous urban structure.
The design is organised around a 1.4 kilometre long boulevard about the scale of the Ramblas in Barcelona or parts of the Champs Elysées in Paris. In the tradition of Roman cities, this primary axis intersects a secondary boulevard that connects the Expo site to the city fabric. A series of strips (perhaps recalling furrows in a field) covered by shade sails cut across the boulevard axis and define the building sites for all the national pavilions. By arranging these strips perpendicular to the axis, each country has an equal frontage or representation at the Expo – despite the varying lengths and topography. Water frames the site in way that recalls the waterways of Venice (check out the boats!), provides sustainability benefits (in part a constructed wetland) as well as way to move around the Expo by boat.
Given the strong green theme of the Expo, Herzog & de Meuron are working with the world-renowned sustainability leaders William McDonough + Partners to develop a range of environmental processes that are guided by McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach. The diagram below highlights the different parts of the “nutrient system” whereby an appropriate cradle to cradle cycle is assigned to each component; Stuff (1 day to 1 month), Setting (3-30 years), Systems (7-15 years), Skin (20 years), Structure (30-300 years) and Site (eternal).
Interestingly, Herzog & de Meuron’s bold concept for the 2015 Expo is not exactly their first. In fact, the origins of their de Young Museum (2005) in San Francisco stem from the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 as the original building was severely damaged by a 1989 earthquake.
In essence, the design for Expo Milan 2015 by Herzog & de Meuron is an urban landscape design framework that provides a monumental yet sustainable approach for an event such as an Expo. Whether or not it makes a long term environmental contribution to the city of Milan, will be revealed in the fullness time as the concept has lofty aspirations;
Just like nature, the Expo will also change over time… it will have provided a foundation for flexible and sustainable development in the entire region, ultimately redefining our long-term approach to the worldwide production of foodstuffs. [Herzog & de Meuron, architect’s statement]
UPDATE 12 April 2015: As the Milan Expo is now only a few weeks from opening, it seems timely to update this 2009 article. Regrettably the “lofty aspirations” of the design team for Expo Milano 2015 remain that – aspirational. By 2011 the entire master plan team of Herzog & de Meuron, Stefano Boeri, William McDonough and Ricky Burdett left the project. Turns out that the organisers weren’t ready to accept the radical new vision of focussing on the issues and content rather than individual pavilions. Go and read the full interview with Herzog in issue no. 32 of uncube. It’s well worth your time.