the Italian Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is a journey that combines the historical memory of our country with a present of experimental and technological innovation: we talked about it with the two designers Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota

The italian pavilion, responding to the slogan “beauty connects people,” with creative direction by Davide Rampello, designed by CRA - Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota Building Office, with matteogatto&associati and F&M Ingegneria, embodies the ingenuity and know-how of our country. A laboratory that involves historical memory, research and innovation, experimental materials and sustainable technologies

Located in the Expo 2020 Dubai area, between the Opportunity and Sustainability Districts, with an area of 3500 square meters and a height of 27 meters, the Italian Pavilion is a voyage that combines the historical memory of our country with today’s experimental and technological innovation. In the various zones of an immersive garden of greenery and water, art and science, manufacturing, know-how, advanced research and culture, are organized around a system of ascending and descending central walkways, like the connections of the brain’s activities of memory.

Inside the exhibition itinerary developed under the creative direction of Davide Rampello, visitors will find, for example, the robotic drill by Leonardo for the ExoMars 2022 mission, which will seek traces of past or present life on Mars. But there are also natural yarns or fabrics of carbon fiber recycled from automotive chassis. Or mosaics that are soft to the touch, like fabric, made by master craftsmen from Ravenna.

These are just some of the themes we discussed with the architects Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota, in response to the fact that the Italian pavilion has already been assigned a prize as the best entrepreneurial project of the year, during the Construction Innovation Awards in the United Arab Emirates. We relaxed on the new Louis Ghost chairs by Kartell in the green version, produced with a polycarbonate 2.0, the result of a process of synthesis of industrial cellulose and paper scrap. Gentlemen, what can we say about this complex narrative project developed with the contributions of many hands and many minds?

Carlo Ratti: It has been an opportunity to experiment with something that remains, connected with research and progress, in keeping with the spirit of a Universal Exposition. We were inspired by the Osaka Expo of 1970, and three strong ideas that guided our project. The first can be summed up as follows: the pavilion has been approached above all as a laboratory of a national system that demonstrates its pluralism, a system capable of trial and error, in an evolutionary process that is very similar to what happens in nature, due to infinite adaptations and mutations.

Italo Rota: I feel that what emerges from this project is the idea of a spaceship earth, between utopia and reality. As Buckminster Fuller said in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, the boat is the first shelter that is created, it embodies the primordial meaning of shelter and human habitation. The next step has been to translate this into a sort of architectural bank, a catalogue with which to construct pieces of future architecture, drawing on the potentialities of a building conceived to be dismantled, recovered and reconfigured.

C.R.: This speculative design approach returns in the idea of a circular architecture that makes sustainability become the second guideline, with its most cogent contents: products with zero impact, decarbonized, made with re-compostable and recyclable biological materials.

I.R.: We are talking about neo-materials. They represent the translation of the circular economy into architecture, as in the case of two million recycled plastic bottles that become cords under tension, façades and curtains in the pavilion, and can continue to live tomorrow, in mutant forms. Or the resins that mix organic, natural waste like coffee grounds and orange peels that have been dried and made into powder, to clad the raised internal walkways, or to boost the performance of the dune of local sand on which the building stands. There is also the partially recycled steel used to make the very sophisticated engineered structure. The idea of this circularity, on a symbolic but also an expressive level, is conveyed by images of boats, the hulls of the roof, ready to set sail towards new destinations when the Expo is finished.

C.R.: The theme of seagoing also appears in the nautical ropes of recycled material that form the external perimeter of the pavilion, equipped with a system of cooling vaporizers used as a bio-climate alternative to air conditioning.

I.R.: Let’s not forget, however, that all this is part of a wider range of research, aimed at exploring the Natural-Artificial relationship in a complex, adult way, in a dimension of hybridization.

C.R.: Hybridization that happens through the intersection with technology, the bio-ristor sensors placed by the experts of CNR, which analyze the lymphatic systems of plants and indicate the minimum quantity of water necessary for their wellbeing. Artificial intelligence, the digital as a contemporary material that makes it possible to monitor performance, to extract data and bring constant improvements.

I.R.: Likewise, hybridization is the convergence with nature, greenery, water, with the living world that enters the architecture. It represents the third forceful guideline of the project, and it is the only hope and means of intervention we have in order to tackle the crisis of the Anthropocene and the consequences of climate change. The 160 species of plants in the pavilion enrich sensory perceptions, making us think about their role in the battle against desertification, and the need to conserve the landscape biodiversity of the Mediterranean, in a unified range of research. The large pools of water – another metaphorical element of Mediterranean identity – contain algae farms, cultivating materials of great value thanks to the experiments of various Italian companies in this field.

Andrea Branzi
Photo by Anna Serena Vitale
The worth of this project lies in the fact that architecture finally abandons the myth of beauty and focuses on other values. As has always happened in the history of thought. Italy is the only country in the world that has a conformation linked to the shape of a women's boot with a high heel. And this is the big difference between Italy and the rest of the world. The three overturned boats, proposed for Dubai, remind everyone that Noah's Ark exists, located among the ice of unreachable territories. Architecture continues to offer beauty contests by carrying out operations that are reminiscent of the Miss Italy elections. Architecture, on the other hand, must have the courage to overturn and overcome conventional aesthetics. To make new projects requires great courage, uselessness and even brazenness. Real surprises and shocks had been missing for some time. The world does not need only beauty contests, but projects that turn thoughts upside down and overturn boats. (Andrea Branzi)"

C.R.: Experimentation is also seen in the 3D reproduction of Michelangelo’s David in the Theater of Memory. This is not a 19th-century casting, but a very complex digital twin made in resin, marble dust and R-PET. Here again, though this is not a part of our architectural design, it is a stimulating way to interpret the theme of “Beauty Connects People” assigned by the Committee for the Italian participation in Expo.

Project CRA - Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota Building Office with matteogatto&associati and F&M Ingegneria - Creative director Davide Rampello - Photos courtesy of Michele Nastasi