The Hive at the UK Pavillion


Originally appeared in the LEAF Architecture Review

A fascinating project inspired, and lit by, the humble honeybee, the hive at the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo was a well deserved winner of the coveted best lighting design prize at this year’s FX Awards. So what makes the Pavilion tick? LEAF takes a look at the project and the environmental message behind the stunning display.

Most lighting designers, when asked to see if they cut costs on a project, usually don’t turn to bees as a solution to their power problem. But when BDP Architects and a team of artists and designers were given the commission to design the UK Pavilion at this year’s Milan Expo, and asked to create what essentially appeared to be high-cost lighting for a low price, that’s exactly what they did – at least in a conceptual sense.

It’s certainly a leftfield idea, but one that’s seen its inventors scoop up the best lighting design prize at the 2015 FX Awards, winning plaudits for the sensitive highlighting of the complex environment issues around honey bees and the importance of technology in driving sustainability, as well as the elegant interplay between the lighting and the projects’ other components. With a panel from across the world of architecture and design, from creative directors to journalists and consultants, as well as a luminous shortlist, competition was fierce, but the consensus was clear. 

“The scheme is completely in tune with the Hive theme,” the judges said in their praise of the project’s lighting. “In a sea of Expo excess it is a lesson about what can be skillfully achieved on a low budget it is at once visually arresting and at the same time calm and nice to look at.” 

“The end result is a highly integrated yet minimal lighting solution that translates Wolfgang Buttress’s artistic beehive concept in light and blends discreetly with the architecture and landscape surroundings,” agrees FX in its profile of the project.

A lot of work by a skilled team was involved in putting the Pavilion together. Leading the creative side of the project was Wolfgang Buttress, an award-winning British artist with a background in sculpture and working with public spaces.

“What I wanted to do with the Pavilion was something really simple, and in a way almost to create a journey,” he says in a video on the BDP website. “It’s been a real journey of discovery, and I think it’s been a real collaboration and integration of art and science and landscape, and landscape architecture.” 

“Wolfgang’s obviously extremely good, and has a great track record of other large, iconic artwork pieces,” says James Millington, the architect heading up BDP’s work on the project. “But then to set that into a landscape was something I was really excited about working with him on.”

So how does it work? Developed by Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University, an expert on the growing problem of declining bee populations, the 891 LED lights are powered by the movements of a colony in Nottingham, UK, which are tracked to correspond with sights and sounds in the virtual space. Honeybees at work communicate with a complex language of buzzes and movement, and the hive is meant to mirror, in real time, the life of the colony. 

“Hopefully when they get into the hive, they hear with great intimacy the vibrational messages that bees share, and the buzzing they share within the colony,” says Dr. Bencsik. “Hopefully they will feel there is sharp description of the colony’s status, how well the colony is in the change of the sounds and vibrations that the visitor will experience within the hive.”

“What we’ve done is when one actually gets into the hive, it’s a sensory experience,” says Wolfgang Buttress. “There’s thousands of LEDs and all these have been triggered by the energy levels of the hive back here in Nottingham. So it’s continually moving, continually changing.”

So how does the Pavilion fit together? Inspired the Expo’s theme of “Feeding the planet, energy for life”, the UK Pavilion is intended to mimic the life of a bee, guiding visitors through the virtual colony, an orchard, and serene meadow walkways. The hive itself dominates the Pavilion, standing at 14 metres and branching out in all directions with its honeycomb structure. It’s made from aluminium, made up of 169,000 components, and assembled in 32 horizontal layers in a lattice steel structure.

Behind the now award-winning design lies a more important message. Pollination is essential to the existence of life on earth, and bees play a crucial role in the food we all eat and the delicately-balanced natural ecosystems which surround us. Without it, Greenpeace estimates, 75% of all crops would see a dramatic fall in productivity, and the most nutritious foods, fruit and vegetables, would be almost impossible to keep affordable.

But the populations of these essential being is slowly eroded, for reasons that aren’t necessarily clear. In recent years, bee numbers have dropped, sometimes up to 53%, over the winter, and it’s essential that more is done to raise public awareness about the problem. The Pavilion is, in many ways, hoping to accomplish this in its own small way with its sympathetic depiction of the complex and often-misunderstood relationship between honeybees and the planet to a global audience.  

“In a way one can see the Pavilion as a barometer of the health of the earth, and how important it is,and how important the bee is in maintaining the health of the earth and in pollinating so many foods that we take for granted,” explains Buttress. “Without the bees and the pollinators life would be very different, and a lot more unpleasant.” 

“The bee is in peril, and one of the big problems the bee is facing is lack of biodiversity and natural meadow land, what we wanted to do was create this sense of the British countryside, this meadow over in Milan.”

It’s also an optimistic project, however, and as much about examining the interplay between technology and environment in solving problems as it is about raising awareness. As part of Britain’s contribution to Milan Expo, too, it was intended to showcase the best of British offsite construction and manufacturing ingenuity. UK commissioner general Hannah Corbett, who also worked on the project, argued in April that the Pavilion was in many ways a celebration of the ways engineering and architecture could drive environmental sustainability.

“This Pavilion is about pollination and pollinators,” she said. “But it’s also a story about the way we need to bring together disciplines, about the way that science and art and business and nature and technology all need to combine if we are to find solutions to the problems of the future.”




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