Architype Dialogue presents
What was the most difficult issue about working within this building type or the most unexpected challenge that may have influenced new thought in your project?
The central challenge was to fully capture and convey the essence of the seven Emirates in a single structure, but we were fortunate to be able to build on a knowledge of the UAE’s landscape and heritage that has evolved through our portfolio of projects in the region. In more practical terms, I suppose the most difficult part of the project has been that even though we designed one of the largest pavilions at the Expo, we were still working to the same deadline as everyone else. The main shell was constructed in just six months during a season of heavy rain in Shanghai – that was quite an impressive feat!
Did this project expand or evolve your role as an architect in any way? In general, do you feel that the role of the architect is changing on current projects?
Designing a pavilion is an interesting challenge – of course it must be functional, but there are more expressive considerations, which are harder to define. Buildings can be powerful symbols of place. For example in Berlin, the cupola of the Reichstag is a symbol of German democracy, while in London, Swiss Re is used to represent the City and the metro stations of Bilbao are as unique to the city as the Art Nouveau Metro entrances are to Paris. The pavilions at the Shanghai Expo relate to this idea – they make physical something of the aspirations and character of each place they represent. This was central to our approach for the design of the UAE pavilion – we wanted to create a form that would symbolise each of the seven Emirates.
In answer to your second question – yes, in general terms the role of the architect has broadened to embrace urban planning, infrastructure, interior and even product design. These disciplines are all incorporated within our studio. With a project such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi, we have been able to bring all of these together to create a new city from scratch – this holistic approach is vital in realising an integrated, sustainable community.
How is your building possible today in a way that it may not have been before and how have trends in technology and society inspired new thought and solutions?
The pavilion is a powerful example of an organic and highly effective passive environmental design, and while the sand dune form appears simple, it is in fact made up of a two-metre triangulated grid of steel. Like a sand dune, it is oriented to the direction of the wind – its form is shaped by the local climate and the curve of the dune is responsive to the arc of the sun. The pavilion’s complex geometry was developed in collaboration with Foster + Partners in-house Specialist Modelling Group.
In the context of this project, how is your office and design process being influenced by current trends in academic curricula and incoming young architects? In turn, how are current projects and processes guiding the ongoing reformulation and development of academic curricula?
Foster + Partners holds an annual exhibition to showcase the most recent work completed by graduates prior to joining the practice. The range of projects is incredibly diverse and I have been impressed with the increasing awareness of sustainable design in recent years, in particular embracing transport. The most recent exhibition included proposals for an integrated transport system and central transport hub in Venice and an extension to a metro station in New York which would incorporate a community building to aid the regeneration of the area. These holistic ideas are underpinned by the same principles of sustainable, humane design that are fundamental to the work of our studio. Aside from its efficient form, one of the most remarkable aspects of the UAE pavilion is that it can be recycled – because the structure can be taken apart and rebuilt elsewhere, it is inherently sustainable. The pavilion will be transported and rebuilt in Abu Dhabi after the Expo.
The practice has many links with universities, from running the annual RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship, to providing financial support, lecturing and, perhaps most significantly, designing academic and research buildings. Our university projects have been guided by emerging trends in this field. The Clark Center, for example, continued the practice’s investigations into the physical nature of the research environment, which began at Stanford University with the Centre for Clinical Science Research (CCSR). The CCSR reflected changes that were beginning to take root in research methodology at the time and was designed to facilitate an inter-disciplinary approach and promote interaction between scientists. The Clark Centre takes this formula a stage further, driven by the pioneering Bio-X programme, which remodelled the landscape of science and technological research at Stanford. This understanding of the research process informed the design of Petronas University of Technology in Malaysia and, most recently, the design of the Masdar Institute, which is due to welcome its first students later this year.