Inspired by the large cavities cut into bedrock by receding glaciers during the last Ice Age, Teemu Kurkela and his colleagues at JKMM Architects carved a tall open space at the center of their Finland Pavilion and gave the building an almost geological character. Called Kirnu (Giant’s Kettle), which is the term used for those cavities in the earth, the pavilion alludes to natural forms without ever being literal. The architects surrounded the pavilion with a pool of water to give it the sense of an island and used shingles on the outside that recall fish scales. But they kept everything abstract enough so the various elements seem poetic, not corny or sentimental.
Visitors cross a bridge over the pool, go through a tight entry, then end up in the central void where their gaze is directed up to the sky and clouds. In Helsinki such a procession would feel wonderful. In hot, steamy Shanghai, though, the sky isn’t blue, the clouds are mostly pollution, and the crowds are intense. But even though the experience isn’t exactly what Kurkela had in mind, his pavilion has the power to impress. A steel-frame structure that has been bolted together so it can be dismantled and reused somewhere else, it incorporates a number of sustainable-design strategies. For example, its central cavity helps draw air through the spaces to cool visitors and its exterior shingles are made of recycled paper and plastic. Just as important, Kurkela employs an economy of means—simple forms, intriguing spaces, and a limited palette of materials and colors—to create a powerful pavilion. Like Finland itself, this building shows how good design can give a small place more influence than its size would suggest.