Buckminster Fuller once wrote that when the ancient vikings landed in Scandinavia, they flipped their boats upside down and hoisted them up on poles. The arched, waterproof hulls made for a perfect roof.
Like many pieces of Viking lore, it’s an enticing tale that might not be true. (Viking longhouses did feature some roofs that loosely resembled boats, but Vikings actually built houses for their ships!) However, Italy’s national pavilion being constructed for the Dubai World Expo realizes the idea.
The pavilion features three boats on top, which literally shape and serve as the roof. And when the pavilion is no longer needed, they can sail off into the sunset (theoretically bringing many of the building components to a new location for the pavilion to be constructed again).
The pavilion was designed by a team of Italian architects and designers, including Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota, with F&M Ingegneria and Matteo Gatto. And it’s a direct response to major architectural events, ranging from expos to the Olympics, which construct humongous, one-time-use buildings. Such construction is a financial burden to cities and an insult to our earth. Buildings are one of the leading contributors to climate change, due to everything from sourcing and shipping materials to air conditioning.
“In opposition to that approach . . . we wanted to develop an architecture that is able to transform itself through time, and that does that sustainably,” says Carlo Ratti, who is both an MIT professor and an architect known for pushing the envelope with projects like architectural arches grown in a lab, and floating islands that produce energy.
The pavilion is built upon a sand dune with 150 steel pillars anchored in the ground, which support the three, 131-foot boats. The boats aren’t merely decorative, but legitimately seaworthy, constructed in collaboration with the largest shipbuilder in Europe, Fincantieri. When installed, the boats offer a sloping skeleton underneath a thin steel roof, which has holes to let light in.
“When you look at the roof from underneath it looks like a succession of waves, interrupted by sparkles of light,” says Ratti.
As for the walls of the pavilion, there are none. The circumference is constructed out of nautical ropes hanging down from above, interwoven with LEDs to illuminate the night. The ropes are made from recycled plastic, equivalent to nearly 2 million water bottles. Suspended walkways allow visitors to explore a floating second floor—their construction material is primarily recycled orange peels and coffee grounds. These substances are dried out and ground to a fine powder, in a process developed by the chemical company Mapei. The use of this recycled material is significant, constituting 10,000 square feet of construction.
“The boats talk about circularity through reuse, orange peel and coffee ground about circularity through natural materials,” explains Ratti. Locally sourced sand—which is plentiful in Dubai—is used in flooring and coatings throughout the pavilion.
But overall, Ratti is not all that precious about any of the materials or construction methods used in this pavilion. Rather, they are interchangeable placeholders. Sand might not make the right flooring in another area. Coffee grounds, patriotically sourced from the Italian company Lavazza, aren’t necessarily so plentiful around the world. And so as the pavilion packs up onto boats, setting sail off to other countries, parts might be constructed differently when they land.
“We liked the idea of a pavilion that would continuously mutate into different forms,” says Ratti. However, it may be a long time before that actually happens. As Ratti explains, the pavilion is a victim of its own success. Opening in October 2021, Dubai has already chosen the pavilion to remain for years after the World Expo ends in March 2022, perhaps being turned into a museum for design.
“So the boats might need to wait some more years before taking off to the seas again,” says Ratti.