Tomasz Krotowski
PhD Eng. Arch. Architecture Institute, Łódź University of Technology, Poland

Architecture since the Industrial Revolution has been dependent on pioneering building techniques and technological innovations. Their development requires experimentation, usually too risky and economically indeterminate in everyday design. World Expos, nominally used for self-presentation of nations’ achievements, have become a laboratory for experimentations thanks to their representation, financial resources and innovative approaches.

From The Crystal Palace (Joseph Paxton, 1851) up to 1980s, Expo pavilions focused on innovative forms, structures and materials. Nevertheless, their prestigious character ensured that the aesthetics were never neglected. Currently, the architecture of Expo pavilions is still dedicated to visual attractiveness of the form and materials. However, recent Expo themes have sharpened the implementation of sustainable solutions and human relations. The process of designing has changed over the years, with the Internet and social media promoting experimentation in common architecture. In such a context, questions arise. Are World Expos still relevant in the development of architecture? Are pavilions still innovative? What is the philosophy and what are the motives behind raising pavilions? Is it beauty? Or is it rationality?1

The article investigates the positive achievements of World Expo pavilions and questions the original background of their designs.

Innovation can be described as a sequence of activities leading to the creation of new or improved products, technological processes or organisational systems. In the case of Expos, pavilions can be seen as the products. Innovation is not simply bringing absolutely new ideas, indeed innovation is a process of development that might have happened before. If further experimentation deliver upgrades, then these may be named innovations as well.

The issue undertaken here concerns the image of pavilions and their focus on functionality. The attractiveness of the envelope is built by its vertical façades (France pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai), horizontal covers (roof) as well as three-dimensional forms that surround the entire building (Poland’s pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai). The functional aspect of the pavilions refers to energy-efficiency, resource-efficiency and user comfort.2

"The prestigious character of Expos ensured that aesthetics were never neglected"

World Expos between 1850 and 1980

In the era of industrialisation, the development of architecture was motivated by industrial growth, the development of mechanics, electricity and finally by early computerisation. The progress was driven by the technological race between industrialised countries, expressing their technical, economic and cultural power. Pavilions in historic World Expos introduced a number of innovations related to form, structure, materials and aesthetics. These past Expos presented novel ideas, and structural, functional and technological discoveries. Due to their prestigious character, Expos required unconventional actions, and the potential of creative thinking was required. During this period, Expos were ahead of common architecture because they carried out structural and technological experiments far too risky for permanent objects.3 The innovative techniques and technologies in the period between 1850s and 1980s were mostly derived from rational foundations, even though they also brought novel aesthetics to architecture.

World Expos brought numerous innovations to architecture. The first Expo venue - the Crystal Palace (Joseph Paxton, 1851) - completely redefined the approach to building design, due to the prefabricated iron skeletal system with glass fulfilment never seen before in any building. In the shade of the famous skeleton of the Eiffel Tower by Gustave Eiffel in 1889, Ferdinand Dutert and Victor Contamin constructed the Galerie des Machines. Both structures opened a new era for large-scale objects, introducing the engineering construction system into architecture. Moreover, the world owes Expos for introducing grid structures, with the Festival Roof (Kenzo Tange, Expo 1970 Osaka), tension skins as expressed in Germany’s pavilion (Otto Frei, Expo 1967 Montreal) and air-inflated pneumatic envelopes as presented by the United States pavilion (Davis, Brody and Associates, Expo 1970 Osaka).

Further innovations related to building forms and materials changed architecture in terms of aesthetics. The Philips Pavilion by Le Corbusier (Expo 1958 Brussels) for the very first time presented a unified, curvilinear, three-dimensionally bended building skin. This exceptional and unique object set the scene for the further development of future homogeneous skins. Moreover, the geodesic dome designed by famous inventor and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller in at Expo 1967 Montreal, introduced a division between the core of the pavilion and the envelope. Known nowadays as the Biosphere, the pavilion applied a novel digital Computer Aided Design (CAD) optimisation to the structure and covering panels. The pavilion attempted to isolate the indoor climate conditions thanks to the steel-and-glass dome and innovative self-regulating sun shades, finally being claimed as the most advanced responsive building to weather conditions of its time.

"The world owes Expos for introducing grid structures"

Furthermore, numerous designs focused on innovative materials, such as Finland’s pavilion at Expo 1937 Paris (Alvar Aalto), Czechoslovakia’s pavilion at the same Expo (Krejcar and Bolivka), and Brazil’s pavilion at Expo 1939 New York (Oscar Niemeyer, Lucio Costa), which all applied innovations in terms of materials. The first skilfully integrated traditional wooden cover with modernistic proportions. The two others responded to the inadequate glass parameters concerning energy and comfort by introducing thermal glass and brise-soleil.4

Expos have introduced a great deal of architectural ideologies and original concepts of settlement. Le Corbusier emphasised functional requirements and human needs, drastically diminishing decorations in the Esprit Nouveau pavilion (International Exhibition Paris in 1925). At Expo 1929 Barcelona, Mies van der Rohe created his first architecture icon as the pavilion of Germany later known as the Barcelona Pavilion. With sophistication, the architect deprived the building from exterior walls, creating a new relationship between the interior and the surroundings. Moreover, the prototype house by Keck and Keck at Expo 1933 Chicago and Japanese Metabolists ideas of floating cities at Expo 1970 Osaka were far ahead of their time.

If the above-mentioned experiments had not appeared on site of World Expos, they still would eventually have materialised in common architecture, however Expos accelerated the opportunities for these innovations to emerge.

World Expos after 1980

The world changed drastically after the utopian projects at Expo 1970 Osaka. The publication The Limits the Growth by the Club of Rome and the oil crisis ended an optimistic race aimed at always exceeding in size and volume. There was no longer a sense of competition. Declining resources made the construction industry begin to search for new sorts of innovations.

The implemented time range in the article results from the turning point in industry and architecture in the 1980s. The fifth phase of industrialisation or the Scientific and Technological Revolution began. If the world economy wished to get independent from oil, highly developed countries had to review their energy policy.5 As a result, economic changes were profound and new directions emerged - seeking alternatives to fossil fuels, optimising energy consumption and developing new technologies.

The new intensive development led to the further integration of industry with scientific and research centres (R&D - Research & Development). Economic growth came from miniaturisation, new sources of energy processing and technologies of production, automation and robotisation, as well as modern IT systems and computer networks. As a result of these activities, an industrial society has changed into a post-industrial knowledge-based civilisation. New symbols of the era have appeared, headed by personal computers, mobile phones, nanotechnology and gene manipulation.

Innovations introduced for the needs of industry translated into the development of architecture. Modern structures and cover materials appeared. New construction techniques were introduced and modernised. They allowed the progressive freedom of forms, optimisation and finally new building aesthetics.6

"Rivalry has been replaced with collaboration in search of ecology, energy efficiency and resource efficiency"

Since the 1980s, Expo themes have reoriented towards sustainability, social cohesion, media technologies and networking. World Expos have remained prestigious and well-financed, however the experiments in architecture went global. With computerisation and digital simulations, predicting the final architectural outcome was uncomplicated. The Expo laboratory lost its leading role. On the other hand, great architects and engineers like Norman Foster, Nicolas Grimshaw, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid or Alvaro Siza continued to work on pavilions for developed countries, proving that World Expos were still innovative.

Former national competition has been replaced by solutions for reducing energy consumption, maintaining comfort, and reducing environmental impact. Rivalry has been replaced with collaboration in search of ecology, energy efficiency and resource efficiency, such as zero energy solutions (Hamburg’s Best Practices pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai), carbon neutrality (Malaysia’s pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai) or passive sun energy control (the Expo Building at Expo 2008 Zaragoza). The sustainable design forced numerous technical, technological, functional and ecological innovations.7

Alternative research and experimentation in the field of Expo pavilions in recent years has concerned the idea of light-weight solutions and desire of lightness which derives from aesthetical, economic and ecological background. As a result, original construction materials like plastic foils (MeteoWorld Pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai) and systems like cable tension structures (Trade Fair Hall 26 at Expo 2000 Hannover) were developed. All that allowed greater freedom of new form types and techniques, as can be seen, for instance at Germany’s pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan.

Besides the great ideas of sustainability, the architecture of modern Expo pavilions still glorifies aesthetics that is undoubtedly considered as the priority factor in the design process. In the search of an attractive skin, World Expo pavilions drive numerous experiments and innovations, especially in the search of unconventional and breath-taking building skins, such as the Vanke Pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan.

In such a context, pavilions present a well-balanced approach between functionality and aesthetics, being driven by both the beauty and rationality. Through the years, functional solutions changed the image of the building and finally have proven that architecture in search for attractiveness is not entirely pointless.

The aforementioned theory will be confirmed with three non-objective and emotional groups of innovations, each characterised with two strong examples.

"In the search of an attractive skin, World Expo pavilions drive numerous experiments and innovation"

Unconventional aesthetics

Since the 1980s, innovations have been leveraged in favour of beauty by highlighting an object with individuality through a unique emotional impact concentrated on amazement, surprise or a seemingly “impossible” effect. All the results may vary from one another.

Poland’s pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan (2PM Architekci), constructed with apple boxes, was rather sentimental, while the One Ocean Pavilion at Expo 2012 Yeosu (Soma), with an operable self-closing façade similar to giant fish gills, seemed rather shocking. Germany’s hard-to-perceive pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai (Schmidhuber, Kaindl), whose diagonal walls seemed to be constructed with unworkable masonry structure, finally appeared to be steel mesh hung on a lightweight structure. No matter the method, all above pavilions achieved their objective unconventionality.

Experiments aiming at an unconventional approach depend on original forms, and unique materials frequently resulted from application of advanced CAD technologies (such as the folded shape of Austria’s pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai) or Computer Numerical Control (CNC) cut techniques (for example the traditional cut-out panels of Poland’s pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai), pioneer materials previously unknown in the field of architecture (such as the cork façade of Spain’s pavilion at Expo 2000 Hannover) or a use of innovative technologies. In contradiction to new components, the external skin can benefit from a traditional materials approach, used in unique and creative ways, such as the wooden bars applied in Switzerland’s pavilion at Expo 2000 Hannover (Peter Zumthor). Moreover, the return to vernacular and ornamental solutions has been noticed after a hundred years of these historic details being neglected. Such orientations could be seen in simple cut-out façade panels of UBPA Pavilion façades (Mario Occhiuto) and Russia’s pavilion (PAPER), both at Expo 2010 Shanghai.

"The return to vernacular and ornamental solutions has been noticed after a hundred years of these historic details being neglected"

The traditional concept of aesthetics has changed, with even structural innovations leading to the unification of the envelope. The search for the use of thin-walled façade materials and lightweight structures was clearly marked in China’s pavilion at Expo 2015 Milan (Link-Arc Studio), where the wicker panelled skin cover created unified roofing. Most recent unconventional envelopes might be seen as blurring the difference between the façade and the roof, creating one homogeneous “skin” or a “package” of the object. Such a trendy envelope was applied to the UAE pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai (Norman Foster), creating the smoothly curved geometry of two dunes, recalling the desert landscape of the Arabian peninsula.

Another common method for creating a unique envelope emerges from multi-curved geometries or experimental materials. Usually, both solutions are not used simultaneously. Most often, the expressive material harmonizes with the simple geometry of the envelope, like Spain’s pavilion at Expo 2005 Aichi (Foreign Office Architects). On the contrary, curved and complicated forms use a uniform external wall and a simplified façade material, like the one seen in the Samsung Pavilion at Expo 2012 Yeosu (MDLab).

United Kingdom pavilion, Expo 2010 Shanghai

The simple form and experimental material were the primary markers of the eccentric UK pavilion designed for Expo 2010 Shanghai by Thomas Heatherwick. At first glance, the pavilion was an inconspicuous uniform object with rectangular geometry and rounded edges. What made it special was the surprising lightness and the effect of disappearance of the edges. The effect was created by slim acrylic rods perpendicular to the envelope and fading at the edges. Additionally, rods inside the pavilion created a multiple curved plane.

Spain pavilion, Expo 2010 Shanghai

An opposite approach was created in Spain’s pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue, with an impressive multi-curved skin combined with traditional materials. The unconventional form was made using a complex steel structure covered with wicker panels. The bent wall was alleviated thanks to the homogeneous surface of the envelope and the natural material. Openwork panels formed an outer protective layer. They provided shading of the glass façade and an unconventional aesthetic effect. The panels were made of hand-woven wicker. Each of them had an individual shape, colour and execution. The success of the pavilion was provided by a spectacular skin and a folkloristic material. The pavilion was especially appreciated for the application of handicraft to contemporary architecture. The architects skilfully combined individual material with the modern curved geometry of the building.


Light-weight concepts

Another group of World Expo innovations, originating from both aesthetical and rational backgrounds, is the light-weight concept or lightness in general. Most of these solutions are based on a desire for the rational management of the Earth's resources, like reducing the consumption of building materials and more ecological applications.8

Visual lightness of Expo pavilions may be the result of both form-finding and the use of transparent or lightweight materials. The delicate and thin roofing of Portugal’s pavilion at Expo 1998 Lisbon, by Alvaro Siza, achieved probably the most graceful concrete structure in the history of architecture.

Innovations to reduce building weight make use of lightweight structures and cover materials, bringing the envelope to the limits.9 The most advanced high-tech skin foils, such as PVC or ETFE, are made from durable materials and weigh almost nothing. The culmination of this was achieved in the semi-transparent Thirst Pavilion by Enrica Ruiz at Expo 2008 Zaragoza, using air-inflated bubbled skin and which reached an outstanding weight of 600g/m2. To compare, the former Expo record holder, the Biosphere from Expo 1967 Montreal, weighed 58kg/m2!

"Visual lightness of Expo pavilions may be the result of both form-finding and the use of transparent or lightweight materials"

Japan pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover

On the other hand, Expo pavilions experiment with high-efficiency envelopes, managed by non-advanced techniques and low-energy construction. Such a sustainable approach accompanied Shigeru Ban designing Japan’s pavilion at Expo 2000 Hannover. The pavilion combined the maximum available ecological solutions with simple technologies. The three-dimensional barrel vault envelope was made exclusively from natural and recycled materials like bamboo tubes, ropes and cardboard. The whole roof was covered by paper membrane to provide water resistance. The experimental skin was the lightest self-supported structure to be constructed with such a small amount of material at that time.10 In the case of demolition, all the elements could have been reused, being intended to produce as little amount of waste as possible.

At the same time, the pavilion distinguished itself with lightness, the transparency of its outer layer and its structurally creativity. The pavilion achieved the same level of advancement as other high-tech solutions. The low technology structure became a well-known element used by Shigeru Ban and his architectural signature.

Pavilion UBPA-B3 2, Expo 2010 Shanghai

The high-tech strategy of lightness was applied in the UBPA-B3 2 pavilion (Urban Best Practices Area) by Archea Studio at Expo 2010 Shanghai. The outer layer of the façade was created by rhomboid aluminium panels combined with stretched silicon foil, limiting the weight of the façade to extreme minimum.

The lightness effect of the envelope was strengthened by curved corner panels. Rounded horizontal and vertical lines created the continuous surface effect of the façade, covering all the building with a single homogenous material. The impression of curved skin was illusionary, because covering the roof with the same material was unnecessary. The lightweight envelope had a dynamic visual effect - the silicon layer gently vibrated in the wind, underlining the delicacy of the building skin.

Non-aesthetic solutions

The above-mentioned experiments found their background in aesthetics. Innovations are motivated differently in response to various conditions. Contemporary experimental pavilions concentrate on the ideas of ecology, environmental protection and sustainable development. In addition to visual attractiveness, recent pavilions took over responsibilities for energy-efficiency and comfort. Nowadays, pavilions save energy, react to changing weather and climatic conditions, such as sun exposure (depending on the time of day) and wind power. Most of the technologies relate to the envelope that is also metaphorically compared with human skin and its complex functions related to the protection of the body, temperature and humidity control, and response to external stimuli.11

Investigating the functional design of recent pavilions, three main tendencies may be distinguished: resource efficiency, energy efficiency and user related comfort. Effective and usable solutions are largely related to the use of solar radiation. Most of the solutions are based on two basic principles: the active method, consisting of direct energy production (the Theme Pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai was at the time China’s largest solar roof) and the passive method, consisting of energy saving and indirect energy gains (the Lotte Pavilion by Daehong Communications for Expo 2012 Yeosu gained energy through fully glazed façades).

"Nowadays, pavilions save energy, react to changing weather and climatic conditions"


Architecture technologies tend to become obsolete and some innovations from the end of 20th century may already be seen as old-fashioned today, like the expression of technologies in the style of the UK pavilion at Expo 1992 Seville (Nicolas Grimshaw) or eccentric wind turbines on the rooftop of the Netherlands pavilion at Expo 2000 Hannover (MVRDV). Current solutions enable a variety of aesthetics through miniaturisation and integration of photovoltaics with façade materials called BIPV mostly combined with glass façades, membranes and solar roof tiles. For example, the BIPV solar panels system integrated with the operable glass façade used in the Alsace pavilion in Expo 2010 Shanghai’s Urban Best Practices Area (Alsace Architecture Design Institute) generated an additional 6.6kW of energy, at the same time reducing solar radiation in the interior by over 60 per cent. Modern effective systems use kinetic solutions.13

Positive experiments concern passive ways of using solar energy with the application of glass façades. The method is associated with different climate or weather design models throughout the year. Energy benefits in cold climate conditions are based on increasing gains and limiting heat losses, while in warm climates, methods concentrate on reducing the excessive influence of the sun on the envelope of the building. Glass atriums enabled energy gains and natural ventilation in Italy’s pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai (Giacomo Imbrighi), achieving inner temperature control and comfort management.

Future innovations lie with kinetic façades. The early phase of this development already made use of positive sun energy thanks to the movement of façade elements. These types of solutions are both functional and visually attractive, as they generate a variable image of the building envelope. The advanced kinetic roof created for Kuwait’s pavilion at Expo 1992 Seville (Santiago Calatrava), with the ability to operate, made the space below pleasant while opened and sheltered when needed.

United Kingdom pavilion, Expo 1992 Seville

The highly advanced UK pavilion at Expo 1992 Seville, designed by Nicolas Grimshaw, represented an active solar innovation. Due to the high temperature and illumination, advanced reduction methods were needed to prevent the building from overheating. The shading solutions were chosen depending on the orientation of the façades and the degree of solar radiation. The southern façade applied stretched PVC material. The west side was indicated as a thermal buffer constructed by containers filled with sand and water, delaying the impact of sun radiation. Moreover, the roof was covered with raised photovoltaic panels in the form of roof shades that eliminated the possibility of overheating and enabled electricity production. The electricity was used to cool down the innovative east glass façade that was chilled with water circulating on its outer surface. This solution, innovative for its time, allowed to limit sunlight penetration into the pavilion and provided a unique aesthetic result. The use of these solutions enabled to maintain the internal temperature below 26°C (when it was up to 40°C outside), without any additional mechanical ventilation devices.14

Madrid pavilion, Urban Best Practices Area, Expo 2010 Shanghai

More subtle ways of incorporating energy-efficient solutions were applied in Madrid’s pavilion in Expo 2010 Shanghai’s Urban Best Practices Area (Alejandro Zaera-Polo). The most important technology here was the double skin façade with the glass as an inner layer. The outer skin was made with an openwork bamboo coating made with movable shutters. It reduced the impact of the warm climate on the interior and lowered the energy consumption necessary for building operations. The openwork shutters were individually operated to regulate indoor sun illumination. Used on south, east and west façades, bamboo panels reduced the amount of sun reaching the interior and enabled ventilation between layers. Another, different façade was designed on the north side. A double skin glass façade illuminated the interior with reflected sunlight. Ventilation operated in shaft system between the glass layers due to chimney effect of warm air. The system extruded exhausted air from interior and eliminated overheating of the building.

Folding panels provided total freedom in shaping a unique building skin. The possibility of change was wide, from a hermetic box to having completely opened balconies, especially in daily and seasonal schedules. The façade was practical, provided comfort, and offered an unconventional visual effect.

Non-aesthetical innovative solutions also derive from optimising user comfort inside the pavilion that by adjusting the daylight, natural ventilation and acoustics. Expo pavilions have experimented with high-tech solutions based on natural ventilation. One of the most interesting examples – the Japan pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai (Yutaka Hikosaka) applied solar chimneys on the façade to extrude the exhausted and hot air from the interior. The idea created sophisticated horns as additional attraction to the curved, uniformed skins, compared to the giant pink worm.

Hall 26, Expo 2000 Hannover

The compilation of innovative solutions was applied in Hall 26, by Thomas Herzog, at Expo 2000 Hannover. The large span of the roof structure carried the risk of low exposure in the centre of the pavilion or significant electricity consumption due to artificial lighting. To neutralise the problem, a novel interpretation of the saw-tooth roof was applied, integrating a daylight redirecting and diffusing system. Horizontal louvres were placed just in front of the glass façade to redirect the daylight into the interior. Radiation was guided onto the bottom surface of the curved roof, which evenly distributed the reflected light inside the pavilion. In addition, roof skylights with steel mesh diffused part of the radiation without causing excessive overheating of the interior. The saw-tooth roof also served as a natural air circulation system, which eliminated the need for mechanical ventilation. The air was blown into the interior at the bottom of the walls and distributed inside with glass tunnels. Gradually warmed air floated to the top where was sucked out by automatically controlled outlets, arranged at the highest point of the roof. The suction resulted in wind force pressure. This experimental solution proved its significance in practice. It was possible to limit the energy requirements in the building of this size by up to 50 per cent. The innovative architecture of the building resulted entirely from an energy-efficiency concept. The form, structure and materials were subordinate to general idea of improving ventilation and the daylight effect.


World Expos pavilions are characterised by their experimental nature and through the years have proven to be laboratories for innovations. This is especially the case because temporary architecture enables testing unproven techniques and technologies that would be too risky for permanent objects. After checking, appropriate solutions may be adapted to everyday architecture. The nature of every experiment is both a success and a failure. In many cases, Expo pavilions had failed in aesthetic or function. Among all, only a small number of objects deserve to be mentioned, while the rest is just the background to emphasise novel solutions. Contemporary pavilions continue positive approaches determined by former icons and emphasise the focus on aesthetics, which may be a preliminary goal itself. Although the impact of pavilions is not as strong as in the past, Expo objects are still worth mentioning in the case of innovative architecture. Pavilions do not always pioneer innovative solutions; in World Expos, positive concepts are tested and improved in what can be understood as an innovative approach.

The only difference is that the innovations formerly derived from national competition for volume and techniques has been replaced by contemporary innovations concentrating on aesthetics, lightness and sustainability.

"The nature of every experiment is both a success and a failure"

A need for functional solutions created new opportunities and, with the help of modern techniques and technologies, this has determined the exterior attractiveness of pavilions. In the beginning, innovations focused on energy-efficient concepts were visually neutral or even unattractive. The importance was placed in functional results rather than architecture image. Today, such solutions are developing dynamically and the visual effect seems to be taken under consideration. Modern techniques and technologies allow a broader approach with both functional and aesthetic results. Recently, the right choice of a skin solution seems to be made more rational than it used to be in the past. However, such an approach has not yet created attractive architecture. Not until a complex methodology focused on both functionality and aesthetics is introduced will an interesting and useful solution be created.

Distinguished examples confirm that despite the technical nature and the use of modern technologies, aesthetics has not been lost. It was exactly the opposite. By the end of the 20th century, the attractiveness of the exposed installation and engineering solutions became evident. The façade automatically became a carrier of information on the building technologies used. As a result, a recent canon of beauty has transformed and now is still evolving into functional one. Today's technologies are becoming smaller, more efficient and a lot more attention is paid to their visual appeal.

Innovative energy-effective functions tend to create new building skin features. These concepts affect geometry, structure and exterior materials and determine building techniques, specific technologies, layers and additional façade elements. Contemporary innovations requires a balance between functionality and aesthetics. Effective solutions give the building a sense of existence, while an impressive visual attractiveness allows it to exist among all the beautiful solutions.


This article was first published in the 2021-22 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled "World Expos: Architectural Labs".



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