Most pavilions present their country’s cultural history and progressive urban ideas in an effort to convey a clear sense of national values and identity. Conversely, the United Kingdom Pavilion seems to say, “You know who we are, so let’s just show you something wonderful.” Expo visitors are the fortunate beneficiaries of that decision.
More sculpture than building, the UK Pavilion, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, comprises 60,000 transparent acrylic rods, each 7.5 meters long, piercing a wooden frame. By day, the rods bring light to the interior, but at night they glow from LEDs. The ends of the rods contain seeds from the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species at the Kunming Institute of Botany, which gives the pavilion its nickname, the “Seed Cathedral.” When a breeze comes off the Huangpu River, it animates the pavilion, setting the translucent tentacles in slow motion. Inside, waving walls of rods surround a central island of yet more rods emerging from the floor. A few exhibits hanging onto slanted roofs over the exterior walkways seem designed to stay out of the way of the building’s idealized main form.
The success of the UK Pavilion’s concept depends heavily on execution, and in this it is flawless. All but five Expo buildings are designed to last only 184 days, and often their construction quality betrays this. Plastic plates on the Latvia Pavilion and hockey pucks on the Czech Pavilion have already fallen or been pulled off. Despite the thousands of users who poke and prod it daily, the UK Pavilion seems to be holding strong.
Heatherwick envisioned his building as a piece of jewelry and its site the crinkled wrapping paper from which it came. His glowing gem of a design stands as a worthy successor of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace at the Great Exposition of 1851 in London. The pavilion organizers plan to distribute the seed rods to schools in China and the UK after the Expo closes. But it would be better if this new Crystal Palace lived on as a complete building instead of scattered seeds.