An exclusive coverage on the Italian Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, currently under construction. The first Universal Exposition in the Arab world (1 October 2021 - 31 March 2022) will be the occasion for a revival and reaffirmation of Italy in all its forms of ingenuity and know-how on the subject of sustainability

Postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the first Universal Exposition in the Arab world will open its doors on 1 October 2021 and will remain open until 31 March 2022. Under the claim "Beauty unites People", the materials with which it is coated and set up the Italian Pavilion, the result of creativity, advanced research and innovation made in Italy, interpret the more general concept of the expected global event which is "Connecting minds, creating the future" ("Connecting minds, to create the future") . Exclusively, on the issue of INTERNI currently on newsstands and on, the preview in the narrative voices of Davide Rampello (the artistic curator), Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota (the designers).

In the end, everything comes full circle (text by Davide Rampello)

“Everything that has to do with living on this planet involves material. From the dawn of history, humankind has devised ways to express its creativity in a thousand forms and ways, also with great effort, stimulated by the need to survive and to adapt to the environment. Our story starts here, from a choral vision that shifts the focus back to design materials, from the primordial substances used 6000 years ago to those of the contemporary world of advanced experimentation, including organic materials, and ecological substances made from waste.

Because today the environment urgently demands to be preserved, respected and enhanced, to rediscover harmony and beauty, to avoid becoming sterile and therefore unable to nourish us, not only with food but also with clean air or water free of poisons. We cannot forget the good things that have been done by those who came before us, who were able to see and to interpret materials, applying them to different needs. Today we can apply all the knowledge of chemistry, physics, mechanics, technology in the use of also recycled raw materials, from orange peel to coffee grounds. But the logic of the circular economy is nothing new. It is seen throughout the history of humanity.

Man, until he lost his sacred respect for nature, has always complied with these tenets. In Greek and Roman culture they were overseen by divinities, and then in Roman Christianity by a single God. These principles held force until mankind began to neglect the fundamental value of peasant culture, which has always been experience and knowledge of making, in a perspective of optimization of resources. Our grandmothers put coffee grounds into flower pots as fertilizer, and orange peel into compost to create humus.

Looking at a sheep and its wool, a shepherd learned to shear it and process it, all the way to the production of yarn. One thread, woven with others, became sturdy fabric, to cover our bodies and protect us from the cold, but it also became rope, and then the binder that held together scaffolding and works of architecture. Perhaps not all people are aware of the fact that the word trellis, used to indicate support structures, has its root in a fabric formed by three types of yarn – it was very strong, precisely because it was used to carry burdens.

Man’s ingenuity then created cloth, and incredible waves that are like poems, metaphors, stories. Weaving is one of the most ancient arts, which has suggested ways of life, organizing warps and woofs in which to also inscribe the concepts of community and city, for which the Roman street plan of settlements, with its two main axes, is but one example. In our heritage, weaving implies marvelous tapestries, which inside the pavilion will become filtering elements between zones, decoration and narration during the visit itinerary.

Another extraordinary story is that of hewn stone, which brings us to another type of weave – that of masonry. When a peasant took stones from the ground he wanted to plow, he piled them in a way that was functional for the needs of the moment. He learned that every territory has its own particular types of stone, and that he could use them to make embankments, terraces, property boundaries, but also to construct a stable, a nuraghe, the walls of gardens, or dwellings. Dry stone walls have been listed as heritage by UNESCO. We will use them as a memory and reference to our Mediterranean culture, to border the belvedere terrace of the pavilion. Weaving and stone are the two primordial dimensions of research on materials, which in our reinterpretation will have other marvelous traveling companions in Dubai.

Starting with white statuary Carrara marble, inside which Michelangelo glimpsed a form that became a masterpiece of sculpture of all time, and then shifting to wood, in a ‘theater of memory,’ all the way to glass and the gold leaf of mosaics. Their counterparts are materials based on advanced and synergic experimentation with partners in various fields. We have chosen absolutely cutting-edge coatings for the construction, which protect people from a series of health threats because they are anallergic, to clad internal portions of the pavilion. With recycled plastics, we have made nautical rope for the atypical façades. This too can become a way to fight against the pollution of the seas. After this use, the plastic returns to its status as a raw material, ready to be reutilized for various forms and functions.

A special focus has been put on algae, a living, organic material that represents the most radical aspect of today’s design research. Seaweeds capture CO2 and purify the air; but when they are dried and processed they can also become edible, as in the case of spirulina, or be used to make yarns and fabrics. In the end, everything comes full circle.”

Natural-Artificial (text by Italo Rota)

“To do things differently, we simply have to make use of a future that already exists, exploring it with creativity. It is interesting to work in a more or less useful way with other forms of life, and also with plants, trying to understand our relationships with them. From my viewpoint, the pavilion is a big experimental installation on the theme of Natural-Artificial, rather than a work of architecture in the conventional sense, though it has the size of a very tall building with a very sophisticated structure. There is no opposition between architectural material and the garden in its plastic-free and bioclimate guise.

On the one hand, there is the importance of the natural landscape and botanical species, and their capacity to penetrate architecture in a spontaneous, non-programmed way, which is especially evident around the Mediterranean and therefore also inside the pavilion. Plants enrich sensory perception with evocative meaning. On the other hand, everything leads back to the production of neo-materials, new substances that have an organic and biological origin; they call for the use of pigments derived from natural ingredients, or from elements supplied by living beings; or in any case they come about through manufacturing generated by nature, with the use of bacteria and viruses that transform a material – generally waste from food processing – into a neo-material.

Of course this process should not be confused with recycling, because we are talking about the invention of new materials that have their own characteristics, and tomorrow can be reutilized in different forms, for different ends. This is a process governed by technology that interprets and achieves the invention, prototyping it. Because is we really want to have a structural material made with orange powder, we will have to make a prototype – which makes it real, not just an idea. The interesting thing is that we have attempted to incorporate sponsors and partners in this process of innovation, asking companies to take part in the detailed design of the pavilion.

A synergy thanks to which they can obtain a strong narrative thrust, while we gain the possibility of becoming teachers with respect to visitors, communicating the sphere of innovation in which they are moving. Each person is called upon to construct his or her own vision of sensorial architecture, thinking but also having fun. Just consider our clone of Michelangelo’s David, which brings a series of technological innovations: the clone is the scientific replication of something in a given moment.”

What do you want, brick?  (text by Carlo Ratti)

“When we talk about the relationship between architecture and materials, I am reminded of Louis Kahn, one of the great 20th-century masters: ‘You say to a brick, what do you want, brick? And the brick says to you: I like an arch.’ Behind this quip, we can glimpse a timeless truth: every substance is endowed with its own modes of formal expression. In recent years we have seen a proliferation of the techniques and materials available for design, which are starting to generate new formal canons. The project for the Italian Pavilion at Expo Dubai bears witness to our commitment, in this sense. While the worksite heads into its final phases, we have begun to unveil a glossary of experimental materials. After all, innovation in this field goes well beyond mere stylistic choices.

The environmental emergency impacting our planet demands that all disciplines and production sectors come to grips with their own responsibilities, developing strategies to reduce the harm being done to the earth. This is particularly true of the construction industry, which accounts for a sizeable share of global consumption. Therefore the Italian Pavilion starts with the premises of the circular economy. An approach that allows us to look at building components in an unprecedented way.


Let’s consider one of the elements that epitomizes modernity: plastic. Do we have to exclude it completely from the design of our furnishings and our buildings? If we are talking about plastic produced for the occasion, I believe the answer is undoubtedly yes. But the logic of the circular economy indicates a more virtuous direction. Using plastic remains possible, but on two conditions: the plastic has to already exist, meaning that it has already been recycled, and there have to be ways of recycling and composting it at the end of the project’s life span. In other words, the responsibilities of designers and of all the players in the industry are necessarily connected to the entire life cycle of materials.

We then have to insert another factor in our discussion: the digital dimension. Though it is not included in the glossary of component of the Italian Pavilion, it is the binder that allows us to combine and monitor the performance of very different and unusual substances – from algae to coffee, orange peel to mycelium. The digital can be seen as a material of the contemporary world, which can be seamlessly interfaced with ancient stones or the brick arches of Kahn. This is precisely how we can pave the way for new creative solutions, in relation to an entirely circular type of architecture: born, so to speak, from the earth, and ready to return to it without leaving traces of its passage. An architecture that blurs the boundaries between natural and artificial, in the framework of an ecology in which all physical objects are digitally connected, extracting data and communicating the conditions of the environment to us in real time, permitting specific, precise interventions for improvement.

At the start, we said that every different material element has its own alternative modes of expression. The present multiplication of construction materials means that in the years to come we will see the rise of a new repertoire of forms. The Italian Pavilion thus represents an extraordinary opportunity for collaborative experimentation. The teamwork of the last few months, which has involved not only the designers – the studio CRA and Italo Rota, with Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria – but also the suppliers and the craftsmen, is the start of an important pathway. At the first Universal Exposition in the Arab world, the contributions of Italy’s participation will also include an experimental approach to the relationship between architecture and materials: for a more sustainable urban future.”

Small glossary-guide to the materials utilized

Algae: they are used inside the pavilion with multiple purposes, thanks to the experimentation conducted by various Italian companies. The futuristic installation of ENI is a demonstration space on bio-reactors, used to fix CO2 and redeem it in products of high value. The pools of the Tolo Green seaweed cultivations use algae to purify air (through bio-fixation of CO2 emitted by the thousands of Expo visitors), and to produce natural fertilizers for the pavilion’s green spaces.

Boats and steel: the external structure of the Italian Pavilion designed by CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota with Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria was completed from the end of 2020 to the start of 2021. The 27 meters of height were reached by means of over 150 vertical pilasters and the ‘waves’ of the roof above them: 30 calendared steel beams, extremely complex in their engineering, each with a length of over 70 meters. The building will be topped by the hulls of three boats – made with the contribution of Fincantieri – as the roof of the pavilion, painted (see: Coatings) to create the largest national flag in the history of Italy. A skywalk has also been completed to offer access to the pavilion from above. The central part of the walkway – a large structural caisson of over 20 meters – has been raised and positioned during a spectacular nocturnal operation.

Coatings (enamels and paints): produced by Gruppo Boero, these materials are used to coat over 3000 square meters of surface, inside and outside the pavilion. On the exterior, enamels color the three hulls of the roof, which seen from above form the largest national flag in the history of Italy. A transparent pearly finish has been applied to the green, white and red zones, formulated to bring a dynamic effect of iridescence to the flag. In the interiors, the paints have been made by using raw materials from vegetable waste and micro-algae, for natural, biological chromatic impact.

Coffee: this has been used by Mapei as another construction material (for an overall area of about 1500 sqm), in the finishing of the walkways and footbridges inside the pavilion, creating a chromatic contrast with the orange peel claddings.

Fabrics: a series of traditional silks and natural fibers, many recycled, kept in their original colors, form the tapestries produced by Sicis. Those in the institutional image areas, which also reference historic drawings by Serlio, are made with different yarns and are very thick, because they also function as acoustic barriers. Ornamental weaves with lettering have been created in the main exhibition space, with scrap yarns generated by the processing of wool in Sardinia. The technical fabrics by Caimi have the task of forming an acoustic gallery with sound-absorbing surfaces.

Gold: tiles in gold and Murano glass by Sicis are used for the mosaics created by master craftsmen in the Ravenna-based workshops of the company. Inspired by the treasures of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, the mosaics cover the spaces of the Theater of Memory and the interior of the pavilion. Thanks to a patented composition technique, the mosaic surface will have a soft appearance like fabric.

Greenery: plants are utilized to create a comfortable micro-climate in the pavilion. The installations of trees and flowers made by CNR and the landscape designer Flavio Pollano represent the biodiversity of the Italian landscape, suggesting image of vegetable gardens, flower gardens and vertical botanical installations. The typologies include suspended green curtains: large three-dimensional structures that descend from the roof of the pavilion, with turf hosting over 20 botanical species. Inside the gardens on multiple levels, medicinal herbs, legumes, fruit trees, citrus, grapevines and olive trees will be cultivated, from season to season, along with a selection of plants capable of halting desertification, for a total of over 40 species.

Light: two installations with complex geometric design: the Second Sun and Second Moon, produced by Enel X, an affiliate of the Enel Group. These LED lights will have a dual function: a traditional purpose, for lighting the exhibition space, and another of creating spectacular scenarios through changes of color temperature based on outdoor lighting conditions. The Second Sun and Second Moon, thanks to an IoT system, are capable of detecting the quantity of visitors and the emotions seen on their faces, generating a change in the set design and creating narrative, emotional and cognitive interaction with users.

Nautical rope: produced with recycled plastic, the ropes form the spectacular façades of the pavilion. They develop in a complex vertical weave that extends for a height of 27 meters and an overall length of nearly 70 kilometers, for an equivalent of recycled plastic equal to almost 2 million bottles. Produced in an industrial plant in Campania with a certified process, the ropes are subjected to a flameproofing treatment. At the end of the Expo they can be reutilized, in keeping with the logic of the circular economy. Ropes as material, however, are not seen only on the façade: inside the ENI installation a series of luminescent ropes, produced by recycling waste materials from the bio-medical sector, contain liquid for the cultivation of algae.

Orange peel: using oranges, whose peels are left to dry and then ground into powder, it is possible to obtain an experimental construction material with which to apply principles of the circular economy to architecture. Processed by Mapei, the orange peels are used to cover walkways inside the exhibition space. Sand: in a tribute to the topography of the Arabian Peninsula, the pavilion stands on a sand dune. Sand is also a presence in the floors and facings of the building, mixed with a production process implemented in collaboration with Mapei.

Stones: used with a hewn system and applied ‘dry,’ they reflect the traditional construction methods of the Italian regions. Together, they form the facings of the Belvedere, the circular structure whose dome is decorated by a spontaneous herb garden typical of the Mediterranean brush, including rosemary, capers, thyme and ferns.

Water: using the system developed by Saba Technologies, air humidity is transformed into water – up to 300 liters per day, even in desert climes – to irrigate plants and gardens inside the pavilion. This is an innovative technique with which to imagine alternative or complementary scenarios with respect to current processes of desalinization.

Wood: the sets that decorate the spaces of the Belvedere and the Theater of Memory will be in wood, installed in a Renaissance style. A series of wall modules will create niches, kiosks, pilaster strips or columns, tympana and cornices, coffered ceilings, with facings in wooden slats and moldings in solid wood.

Project and text Davide Rampello, Carlo Ratti, Italo Rota - with the collaboration of Daniele Belleri, Francesca Grassi, Francesco Strocchio - Edited by Antonella Boisi in collaboration with the Commission for the Italian participation in Expo 2020 Dubai