Rising from the grounds of Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, the Vanke Pavilion by Daniel Libeskind, AIA, can be read as both sculpture and building. Named after the Chinese real estate developer China Vanke, which funded the pavilion, the sinuous structure takes the form of a dragon or, say, a soft-serve gelato. In Chinese lore, a dragon metaphorically relates to farming and sustenance, which ties into this year’s Expo theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”
The pavilion also subtly references the Chinese landscape in its format and design. The objective behind its concept, Studio Libeskind principal Yama Karim explained to a press tour at the Expo's grand opening, was “to create something about the Chinese landscape … not just the physical landscape in China, but the depiction of landscape in scroll paintings, having many layers and unrolling.”
A central concrete stair gives the pavilion a theatrical and functional purpose. Like all of Libeskind’s projects, Vanke’s organic shape began as a sketch. After a combination of detailed drawings and modeling, the studio then determined the pavilion’s initial form. By focusing on one design aspect—the Chinese landscape in this instance—the process was acute, but precise in perspective.
At the press event, Libeskind said that he wanted the pavilion to be “interesting from different perspectives.” One not only appreciates the vertical landscape of the pavilion from ground level, but also by entering the structure through a concrete central stair that opens up to a seating space that mimics the Italian piazza. These stairs also lead to a rooftop observation deck overlooking the Lake Arena with panoramic views of the Expo facility. As such, the stairs become a theatrical element and give the structure function by creating both circulation and seating. The building "becomes something you traverse," similar to the Chinese landscape, Libeskind says.
Cladding the 11,000-square-foot, 40-foot-tall pavilion are 4,200 glazed porcelain stoneware tiles designed by Libeskind and developed with tile manufacturer Casalgrande Padana, based in Casalgrande, Italy. The "fractile" collection is engrained with a 3D bas-relief geometric pattern and made from a mix of clays, quartzes, and feldspars. The tiles are then finished with a metallic glaze rich in oxides, giving the surface an iridescent effect, and then fired at 2,282 F. As a result, the appearance of the pavilion exterior changes as the quality of daylight or viewing angle changes, from a deep red to shimmering gold and to bright white.
Along with altering color perception, the glaze contains titanium dioxide, which imbues the tiles with the potential to self-clean and purify air. The latter is done with a photocatalytic process, in which sunlight activates a chemical reaction between the titanium dioxide and the surrounding air to produce dirt and water, which are subsequently deposited on the tile surface and washed away by rain.
The approximately 1/2-inch-thick, 24-inch-square tiles are hung using a versatile flange system. A sheet metal bracket with three flange edges and an adjustable guide are fastened to the back of each tile. The tiles are then hung onto a steel tubular sub-structure that wraps the entire outer shell of the pavilion. The anchoring system enables each tile to use the same fastening system, but hang at different orientations, creating the shimmering and sinuous geometric pattern that flows between the pavilion’s interior and exterior.
The collaboration between Studio Libeskind and Casalgrande Padana is part of an ongoing relationship that began in 2009 with the CityLife residential project in Milan and continued with the 2013 Water Design of Bologna festival sculptural installation Pinnacle , which is entirely clad in a prototype version of these 3D geometric tiles. Vanke is the first time these faceted tiles have been applied at this scale to date. Libeskind is currently working on a high-rise housing project in the central district of Mitte, Berlin, that will incorporate the ceramic tiles to adorn and enhance the building façade.
Upon the closing of the Milan Expo, the Vanke pavilion, whose mass is made up primarily of these tiles, will be dismantled. The tiles will be recycled and reused in future architectural applications in China, which Libeskind said will “extend the legacy of Expo.”