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Wolfgang Buttress in the hive The pavilion at night The glowing structure makes sense once you're inside it
08 May 2015

Wolfgang Buttress on bees, his pavilion & Heatherwick

Words by 

How's the Expo going so far?
It's the first day so I'm feeling a mixture of relief and excitement. It's been a long journey and the best year – well two years squeezed into one. The team got the idea really early on and has pulled out every stop to get it done on time.

What was the initial idea?
Bees are our most important pollinator and they're in real crisis at the moment. You can see the hive as a barometer for the health of the world. I thought it'd be really great to express this through an immersive experience.

I didn't want to put a sculpture in a landscape or attach it to a building, I wanted the landscape and the architecture, the art and the science to come together as one.

Can you elaborate on the immersive experience?
The abstracted honeycomb structure plays with scale so rather than being arrogant, it creates a sense of humility and shows we are small in the world. If you create an emotional experience, sometimes you can say more than trying to shout.

What was important for me was to create an actual environment where bees flourish and they flourish in wild flower meadows. Although it's simple, there's a strong message and a lot of thought has gone into it.

How is the music part of this?
In the hive itself, we have a live stream from a real beehive in Nottingham, and their activity works in tandem with the music.

Some amazing musicians came into the studio and we recorded all these musical stems but they're random. What we're actually hearing is dictated by the bees. We know all the stems work in harmony, but you never really know what's going to come next.

Why did you decide to use aluminium for the hive?
I wanted something that'd have an impact, but at the same time sit gently and lightly within the site. The brief from the original sketches was for the rods themselves to be no thicker than my finger.

From the outside the hive looks fairly chaotic and messy, but up close it reveals its honeycomb structure and a connection with nature through the fibonacci sequence. Bees have been creating this for 40 million years and perfected something that's incredibly strong and light – we're just catching up now.

How are you involved in the construction of the actual structure?
Everything starts with the sketch and I purposefully don't get involved with the technology, I've got a great studio who can do that. Sometimes I find it's good to have a bit of distance between the idea and what the computer can do, otherwise you can get consumed by the detail or seduced by the technology.

In a project like this, it really has to work as a collaboration. For one person to make this, it'd probably take decades, even to physically construct it. There's months and months of CNC and milling, so you have to have a great team around you and people that get it.

Is the experience of creating a sculpture similar?
I saw this whole pavilion as a cohesive entity, not as a sculpture within a landscape. The art, architecture, technology are one thing, I didn't design the hive in isolation. Everything grew from the landscape.

It's not a typical piece of sculpture on it's own, and that's what's been really rewarding, how these disciplines have come together and talk to each other. I think we've all learnt from the process.

The first idea came from a pencil sketch and it wouldn't be possible to realise this 30 or 40 years ago. The technology allows us to make it so it doesn't fall in. Rather than relying on figures and numbers, the computer becomes another part of your repertoire, almost like another pencil.

Has the project increased your interest in architecture?
I've worked with architects before, but for me the important thing was getting them involved at the beginning of the project so it can all be integrated.

After this experience are you tempted to move further into architecture?
No, I'm an artist. I really love architecture, but I'm not interested in being an architect. It's knowing what you're good at and what makes your heart sing.

I am an artist not an architect or an engineer and historically artists don't do these things so I was a little bit cynical about whether I should even apply.

What'll happen to the hive after the Expo?
We're in talks with two or three organisations that are really keen to take it on. There's been so much love and energy put into this project, for it to just disappear would be really sad.

Everything's bolted together – nearly 170,000 different parts – so it was a challenge to bring it together and the tolerance to plus or minus one millimetre. However, it can be taken down easily. Something like this couldn't have been designed or fabricated 30 or 40 years ago, but now we have incredibly sophisticated software and a really talented engineer Tristan Simmonds to help us realise this.

Did you feel nervous following Thomas Heatherwick's Shanghai pavilion?
He did an amazing thing in Shanghai, it's a beautiful piece of work, but I had to shut it out of my head and think what I'd do as an artist and concentrate on that. I can be a bit intimidating so it's important not to think about it.

I met him once a couple of years ago and he seemed like a really nice fellow. I did think about getting in touch with him once to talk about the process and some of the challenges, but again it was too close. It'd be nice to talk to him about it now it's all over so we could compare our experiences.

Everyone I've spoken to at the Expo has been really positive about the pavilion.
That's great to hear. You're kind of in this little bubble and you have no real sense of how it's going to be received or if anyone's going to like it.

For a long time it had scaffolding around it, but when that came down, it was almost like it took its coat off and that was a real thrill. It was a really special moment.

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