Monumental Fragility: The Stunning Design for the Expo Milan 2015

World’s Fairs have long been a celebration of human industry and invention, our Promethean spirit on display. Most World’s Fairs have a central architectural icon, a monumental masterpiece that embodies the ego, glory, and aspiration of the human spirit. Think of the Crystal Palace in London (1851), the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889), or the Space Needle in Seattle (1962). The Expo Milan 2015 recently released the master plan for its world's fair, themed “feeding the planet, energy for life.” The concept is stunning in its humility: monumental fragility.

Designed by architects Herzog de Meuron in collaboration with Mark Rylander, Ricky Burdett, Stefano Boeri, and William McDonough, the Expo Milan offers a “planetary botanical garden” that proposes to feed Milan, “literally, spiritually, and intellectually.” The architects created a flexible framework for the exposition, a tent city surrounded by a series of canals that serve as an agrofood park. The concept is based on the Roman plans that use twin axes (the cardo and the decumanus) with a central forum. A series of reusable shade sails is imposed on top of this geometry, a romantic gesture from antiquity. The scale of the tents will be breath taking—almost a mile of breeze and light-catching fabric arranged orthogonally throughout the Expo.

Water surrounds the site and creates a biofiltering wetland that also produces food. The canals will integrate into Milan, extending the benefits of the system beyond the site. The series of canals are a clever system that allows all countries equal frontage along the boulevards and water.

I’m entranced by this notion of monumental fragility. In this exposition, the human creative spirit will not be channeled into celebrating our own glory, but on creating the conditions for nature to show its efficiency, fecundity, and beauty. The challenge for these designers is how to execute real moments of fragility within this monumental framework. This requires understanding the site at the scale of the garden, an outdoor scale which architects often fumble. The other challenge will be how to balance the energy and waste of a building project of this scale with its environmental goals. Architect William McDonough has brilliantly executed the “cradle to grave” approach on other projects, so the project has the right design thinking to make this happen.

I am enchanted by this master plan. Road trip, anyone? Milan 2015.

Credits: All renderings by Herzog de Meuron. Summary of design based on text from and

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