Visitors at the British Pavilion at this year's Expo in Milan are all abuzz. The pavilion, which is themed around bees and their importance to our environment, lets visitors step into a tall ‘hive’ inside a large aluminium and steel cube lit by 1,000 LEDs that increase and decrease in intensity – mimicking how bees behave.
"We wanted light only where light was required"
Meanwhile, deep, heavy tones from what sounds like a cello rehearsal engulf the visitor in a constant, vibrating buzz, creating an almost meditative sensation inside the hive-shaped LED dome.
The LEDs aren’t just flickering at random; the lamps are individually addressed by a DMX system that links the 1,000 lamps to a real beehive in Nottingham.
The bees’ activities are monitored from the roof of Nottingham Trent University by physicist Dr Martin Bencsik using accelerometers – devices sensitive to minute vibrations – to detect and translate the vibrations made by bees as they communicate with one another.
Algorithms convert the bee colony vibrations into lighting effects. Each lamp can be addressed individually.
Acrylic rods conduct light from the LEDs into hand-blown glass lamps which refract and diffuse the light. 'This unison of light and sound brings together art and science, through the research methods of Dr Martin Bencsik and the vision of architect Wolfgang Buttress,' a spokesperson from UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) said.
The data, and the light, changes throughout the day and tends to get more intense towards the evening. There is more activity at the top of the hive where the LEDs sit closer together.
A British collaboration
As well as representing Britain among the 145 nations exhibiting at the Expo in Milan, the hive is a manifestation of what UK architects, designers and lighting companies can achieve together.
The lighting design is by Manchester based Architecture and design firm BDP. Lumenpulse AlphaLED has supplied spotlights for the pavilion, and Lumenal, Light Projects and Luxonic also contributed to the lighting of the pavilion.
Mike Stoane devised a scheme of honeycomb-shaped luminaires running on a trailing edge dimming system for the meeting room behind the hive.
‘All the lighting has been provided by British manufacturers. We’ve had fantastic support from them,’ said UKTI’s spokesperson.
BDP took care of the integrated lighting details in the bar, dining area, and meeting room, and made sure the emergency lighting and way-finding light around the meadow surrounding the hive was integrated seamlessly.
'We wanted light only where light was required,' explained the designer of the scheme, Rhiannon West of BDP.
One major decision that was taken early was to uniformly light all details in a consistent very warm white to emulate a ‘honey’ effect of the hive.
Visitors are greeted by an orchard glowing from within by well-shielded tree up-lights. The labyrinthine pathways leading through the meadow toward the hive are lit by low level coves shadow-gapped within the bottom of the planters.
'We needed to keep in mind low viewing angles and glare,' said West. 'The journey from beginning to end was intended to replicate a "waggle dance" - a movement bees make to signal the direction of pollen to one another. This route by night comes alive with glowing pathways being the only source of lighting.'
Below the hive, deep recessed low-glare adjustable spotlights provide pools of light so visitors can read the brochure they've been given about the pavilion – or look up at the people who've already made it into the hive, whose shoe soles can be seen through the transparent floor.
Up a flight of stairs, before the entry to the hive itself, the bar is accented with layers of light, all in the rich honey warm tones. It serves Pimms, of course.
Inside the building behind the hive, a hexagonal shaped room used for private dining and government hosting has bene lit with a honeycomb-inspired lighting installation. 'Clusters of hexagons are scattered everywhere using rich warm, 2200K honey-tone light to emulate the inside of a beehive,' says West. 'Achieving this on such a tight budget was something which proved most challenging,' she adds.
A message to humanity
If bees don’t thrive, it’s a threat to the planet as a whole; about 90 per cent of wild plants depend on pollination, as do many crops, and the team behind the UK pavilion wanted to remind visitors to the world expo of the danger of the decline of wild meadows.
‘The idea behind this was to get the bee issue back on the world stage – it’s not just about an iconic building, it’s about an iconic message,’ said Mark Braund, architect director at BDP.
When the Expo finishes in October, the hive will live on – the plan is to dismantle it and rebuild it somewhere in the UK.