words Douglas Murphy
images Cristobal Palma
It seems that China still has expo fever. Not content with staging the largest ever International Exposition last year in Shanghai, the ancient city of Xi’an is now hosting the World Horticultural Expo. Based on the theme of “harmony between nature and mankind”, its main attraction is a series of buildings and landscapes by architect Plasma Studio and its related landscape urbanism practice Groundlab.
Plasma Studio’s design won the international competition as recently as 2009 – a staggeringly swift period of design and construction. “It’s amazing how fast we can actually work when there’s no time!” says Holger Kehne, director of Plasma Studio.
The design features three main “buildings”: the first thing that visitors encounter is a bridge over a highway that takes them into the expo proper. This sits under an irregular steel structure that will eventually become a massive pergola, once time has allowed creeping plants to climb over its cables and meshes. Inside the park is a landscape of various paths that split and rejoin, leading to two more feature buildings: a greenhouse embedded into the landscape, faceted like a jewel and entered via a deep cut in the side of the hill; and a pavilion that rears its way out of the landscape to face the park’s central lake.
The buildings are all designed in a style typical of Plasma Studio: angular and complex, reminiscent of the last decade’s fashion for folding, but developed from rigorous digital research. “It is a logic of a kind of biological order that rules the design of the park as a whole,” Kehne says. “When you look at the overall drawings, you can see it’s been designed like a delta, or the way that people flow – the same way we think about structure as a kind of flow of forces.” As a result of this approach there is a remarkable consistency to the design across scales, from the overall landscape to the form of the buildings to their individual structural resolutions.
The formal language of the expo might not be what you expect from a project that is entirely devoted to plants, but Kehne sees this as a strength: “We always develop these strange hybrids – we’re not doing biomorphic architecture.” But this abstraction is just as “natural” as steel buildings shaped like pebbles or petals. Indeed, the project belongs to the Buckminster Fuller tradition of ecological high technology. “It’s a different paradigm,” Kehne says. “It’s not modernist any more, but it’s also not something that’s been grown in a laboratory.”