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Comment: Architecture academic Cristiano Luchetti critiques Italy Pavilion design for Expo 2020 Dubai

The winning design of Italy’s pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai by Carlo Ratti, Italo Rota, Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria was recently released, revealing the structure's main feature: three overturned hulls on its roof.

According to Ratti, flipping and reusing the ships “was an act that had a profound appeal… not only because it is laden with historical value, but because it represents the realisation of a circular architecture from the project’s beginning. The ships that become part of the pavilion can continue to be used in different ways even after the [Expo ends].”

Cristiano Luchetti, architect and assistant professor of architecture at American University of Sharjah

In the Italian architecture community, this project has already aroused a chorus of almost unanimous disapproval. Some even noticed that the overturned ships could represent the unstoppable decadence of Italian society and the shipwreck of its architecture. To avoid any misunderstanding, I will say this immediately: I am also critical of it; however, in this text, I will not take part in the ongoing controversy. Instead, I want to analyse the project from the perspective that particularly interests me: the nuances of its metaphorical approach, or lack thereof.

As the designers further explain, the pavilion, named ‘Sailing Beauty’, “seeks to explore new ways in which beauty connects people”, and it “pays tribute to the long history of explorers throughout the centuries who sailed the seas and wove together a shared Mediterranean cultural heritage.” Not much else has been released about the pavilion.

In the Italian architecture community, this project has already aroused a chorus of almost unanimous disapproval. 

For now, one can only analyse the architecture of the pavilion by looking at its renderings, and I believe that the image from aerial view has the most impact. It shows the three hulls placed on the roof, arranged in a Z-shape and connected by a translucent material patterned with a (potentially) parametrically controlled texture.

Oddly, the hulls are more reminiscent of racing yachts than sailboats and their arrangement appears casual, suggesting the formation of triangles for shape-responding structural purposes but then bows and sterns, not being originally designed to do so, do not touch each other, renouncing to create a solid frame.

In addition, the volume below the roof seems to be rather ordinary in its massing, which neglects any tectonic interaction with the roof. I wonder if the internal side of the hulls will be visible from inside the pavilion – this currently can’t be determined from the images.

While looking at the aerial rendering, I found myself wondering: What is the limit of metaphors in architecture? Is there a correct way to use them? How do we know if an analogy is too literally portrayed?

A metaphor is a rhetorical figure that analogously refers to another and serves to make our thoughts obvious and tangible. According to American philosopher Hanna Arendt, metaphors function “to bridge the gap between the sensible world and the mental realm”. Therefore, through metaphors, we express and visualise the invisibility of feelings and thoughts.

According to Italian architect Franco Purini, these metaphors come in three forms. The first is "direct verbal", and consists of "inserting in the building recognisable objects and carriers of information as architectural elements".

Architecture is not merely an activity of construction, and metaphors are necessary. The practice of architecture, beyond adequately responding to a functional brief, must promote evocative, stimulating and fascinating spatial solutions. Therefore, architectural metaphors communicate the intangible thinking process behind design ideas.

According to Italian architect Franco Purini, these metaphors come in three forms. The first is "direct verbal", and consists of "inserting in the building recognisable objects and carriers of information as architectural elements". Frank Gehry's Binoculars Building in Los Angeles can be used as an example. 

The second type of architectural metaphors is "indirect verbal". This metaphor is a staple of classical architecture – i.e. columns are seen as symbols of support and therefore were used for institutional buildings that supported society in ancient Greece.

The third and final type is "non-verbal” or “autonomous": "architecture seems to exchange meanings exclusively with the earth that sustains it, with the atmosphere that surrounds it, with the sky that crowns it, with the light that illuminates it, and with the construction materials that keep it upright while loading it with their weight ". Purini highlights ashlar work as an example, which metaphorically bears the weight of the building that, indeed, swells the blocks.

Here, we can agree that the Italian pavilion uses the “direct verbal” metaphor, as the hulls of the boats become the roof of the building.

There are more considerations to make. For American philosopher Nelson Goodman, a metaphor is an “expedition abroad from a realm of thought to another.” Hence, there is an interesting coincidence between the metaphor used in the self-sailing-transportation of the pavilion and the etymology of the word “metaphor”, which comes from the Greek word metaphérō (I carry, I transport).

In a recent conversation with Italian philosopher Romano Martini, he added, “A hyper-metaphor is generated as articulation and interchange between two different metaphorical orders: one aims at expressing the image of transposition and transport, while the other refers to the transportation of the image itself, in a pragmatic sense.”

Dodi Moss' proposal for the Italy Pavilion, which came in third place

So: is the Italian pavilion for Expo 2020 an architectural hyper-metaphor? Moreover, is this good or bad?

I would argue that for an architectural analogy to be evocative and able to engage the collective imagination, it should avoid slavishly depicting a metaphor, which means refraining from using obvious and superficial visuals.

The designer should make the effort of the synthesis, which is the second phase after the analysis of the design process. It is during this moment that, transcending from a mere assembly of constructive components, architectural metaphors become poetic spatial experiences. I believe that this more meaningful and sophisticated approach constitutes the theoretical platform of the second and the third placed projects for the competition of the Italian pavilion – but that’s another story.

Bowen-Moore, Patricia. 1989. “Hanna Arendt’s Philosophy of Natality”. Palgrave MacMillan
Purini, Franco. 2002. "L'architettura didattica". Gangemi Editore
Goodman, Nelson. 1976 “Languages of Art”. Hackett Publishing Company

Cristiano Luchetti is an assistant professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah. He is also an architect.