Watering hope in a desert: the blooming of the Dutch Biotope at Expo 2020 Dubai

STIR speaks to Michiel Raaphorst, founding partner, V8 Architects and Marjan van Aubel who preach sustainability with their biophilic design for The Netherlands pavilion at Dubai Expo.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Oct 14, 2021

The collective realm of Dutch architecture and design have long displayed an obsession with all things sustainable, technological, and powerfully evocative of nature. The Netherlands pushes ahead with their contribution to Expo 2020 Dubai with their plant dressed pavilion called the Dutch Biotope, a temporary circular climate system that ties in water, energy and a self-replenishing food system drawing from the desert air to irrigate an 18-metre-high food cone. On show from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022 at the Sustainability District in Dubai, UAE, the biophilic design by V8 Architects is given a uniquely colourful makeover in the form of shimmering organic solar-panelled skylights designed by Marjan van Aubel that power the mini biotope. Once the Expo concludes, all the building materials will be relocated or returned to the earth, the pavilion’s plot resumed as found, as a fitting, healthy and effective ode to a circular design economy.

Inside the Dutch Biotope | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
Inside the Dutch Biotope Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch

STIR caught up with Dutch architect, Michiel Raaphorst, founding partner of V8 Architects and Marjan van Aubel to discuss the Dutch Biotope that is on display at the ongoing Expo 2020 Dubai, the shortcomings of the global architectural and design disciplines and creative ways to overcome them.

Jincy Iype (JI): “It is not a building in the traditional sense, but a temporary circular climate system – a biotope – with an intense, sensory experience.” What is the core concept for the Dutch Biotope and what makes it a multifunctional, sensory, and bio-based design?

Michiel Raaphorst (MR): As architects we found a challenging and fundamental gap between the context and the brief. In the middle of the desert where scarcity is severe, we were asked to birth a meaningful nexus between water, energy, and food solutions. So, we decided to design a machine that would harvest these three crucial elements and bring them together in a functioning biotope, where architecture is experienced as a smart fusion between technology (both prototypes and mature solutions) augmented with art. Spread over 2,170 sqm, this hopeful structure in the desert would emerge as a natural phenomenon, to inspire people with a sensory and thoughtful experience.

With the Dutch Biotope, we imagined a conscious space that would trigger all senses, to show people how human ingenuity can create a symbiosis with the power of nature. – Michiel Raaphorst, V8 Architects

The spatial sequence becomes a meditative centrepiece amid the continuous buzz of the Expo 2020 Dubai. Seen from the temporary character of a world exhibition, we chose a radical way of construction.

Entrance | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
Entrance Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch
The spacial sequence becomes a meditative centrepiece | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
The spacial sequence becomes a meditative centrepiece Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch

To ensure that we leave our plot behind as a ‘Tabula Rasa’, exactly like we found it, the harvesting machine is designed and built on circular principles such as employing civil engineering materials (an ode to Dutch design and traditions) that will later be handed back to their local owners, or using biobased materials which will return to nature. A pragmatic and poetic approach is applied to every aspect of The Netherlands Pavilion, blending vertical farming with enormous sheet piles, steel tubes, delicate textile fabrics, ducts, pipes and tiny leaves of vegetation into an unreferenced architectural and generous gesture.

JI: How does it tie back to the Expo’s theme 'Connecting Minds, Creating the Future'? What impact do you foresee with it?

MR: As Dutch designers and architects, our aim is to encourage people, to display Dutch innovations as well as our circular approach to design, and how they contribute to solving global challenges. Only by relating to our planet in a better way, finding a harmonious dialogue between nature and technical solutions, will we be successful in creating an inclusive, healthy future for all, and that is what underscores the sustainable design’s intent.

The pavilion design relates to Dutch design principles of creating a circular, self-sustaining economy | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
The pavilion design relates to Dutch design principles of creating a circular, self-sustaining economy Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch
V8 Architects make it rain inside a desert | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
V8 Architects make it rain inside a desert Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch

JI: How is the Biotope being received at the recently opened Expo 2020 Dubai?

MR: Honestly, we were overwhelmed by people’s reactions. So much positive feedback, especially on the consistency of our concept and our core message. Our initial idea, to make it rain in the desert as part of a circular climate system has solidified into a reality. It is heartwarming to see them cheer and applaud when the rain falls!

JI: Please explain the workings of the pavilion in detail - how will it “harvest water, energy and food through innovations including a cone-shaped vertical farm”?

MR: Via an innovation of Ap Verheggen, a Dutch artist, the water for the farm is harvested from air - it is basically a multiplier of water, also called a “growing waterfall”. Starting with a small amount of water and using a closed environment with condensation principles, the machine is able to harvest 800 litres a day, even in dry conditions.

The vertical cone farm is watered by harnessed desert air that helps grow mushrooms inside | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
The vertical cone farm is watered by harnessed desert air that helps grow mushrooms inside Image: © BuroBelén

This water trickles inside the cone, and as collateral, a steady flow of cold air is generated. This flowing air, the water and the dark surroundings create perfect conditions to grow edible oyster mushrooms inside the cone, which also produce a lot of CO2. This generated carbon dioxide is used outside to feed the 9,300 species of plants including mint, basil, asparagus, asystasia and cherry tomatoes, which dress the cone’s external skin. By photosynthesis, these plants grow and produce oxygen for us. The water we harvest is used to irrigate the plants.

JI: The ‘biotope in the desert’ is led by materials that are indisputably sustainable and run by a clean energy source. Can you give us a low down of how this is achieved and why you think it is crucial for this energy to be attractive, in the most basal sense?

MR: It is obvious that we need sustainable technology to answer global challenges, but if this remains abstract, it helps no one. If we are able to make it aesthetically appealing, integrate it into our day-to-day life, in our homes and workplaces, we can relate to it and find value in it. Marjan’s beautifully iridescent PV panels integrated into the skylights harvest energy for the pavilion design and create these beautiful colour projections inside and throughout the space, almost like a classical cathedral with stained glass windows. It enhances the experience and goes against the perceived notions of functioning sustainable design looking cumbersome and dull.

  • A glimpse inside the Dutch Biotope | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
    A glimpse inside the Dutch Biotope Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch
  • The pavilion is powered by the sun | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
    The pavilion is powered by the sun Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch

JI: How did Dubai Expo approach you to design The Netherlands Pavilion and what was their brief?

MR: It all started with winning the tender competition organised by the Dutch Government, a competition where participants had to show their conceptual interpretation of the water-energy-food nexus and had to design a sustainable pavilion that could be dismantled after six months. And well, the rest is history.

JI: A wonderful departure from the bulky, almost dull aesthetic of solar panels, you make them delicately fit on a sheet and lend them colourful patterns. How is that achieved?  

Marjan van Aubel (MVA): The solar cells (also known as organic photovoltaics, OPV) are circular, transparent, and made of non-toxic materials and printed on thin PET foils. These are placed between two sheets of glass on the roof and are connected electrically. These solar cells were realised together with ASCA, our German manufacturing partners. The colours chosen for the design were selected to filter the right spectrum of light for the plants growing inside the pavilion. By selecting certain colours for the solar roof we can curate which light is let through and shines onto the plants, infusing the insides with a thrum of positive energy.

Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel adds iridescent solar panel sheets to the pavilion design | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel adds iridescent solar panel sheets to the pavilion design Image: Courtesy of Marjan van Aubel Studio

JI: What will happen to the farm and the pavilion once the Expo is over?

MR: We leave an empty plot, a minimised footprint. The fundamental idea is that all used materials are reusable or recyclable. Instead of using prevailing materials of construction, we rent it locally from the building industry and return it to them after the Expo ends. These materials are normally used to create building pits of harbour basins. A unique materiality emerges with the use of biodegradable materials, such as biobased curtains, floor tiles and wall panels made out of mycelium.

MVA: The solar roof will be repurposed and used for another new project, while the glass will be returned to the manufacturer in Dubai. Other parts of the Dutch Biotope will also follow the same route, leaving the desert behind as we found it. We are still in the process of finding new locations to shift to once the event is over, so if you have any leads, let us know!

JI: Which part of the experience did you enjoy designing the most?

MR: The cone is the key element where everything comes together and where it rains in the desert, as a miraculous source of all life. Three years ago when we began the project, we asked ourselves: can we make it rain in the desert? The answer is in front of you.

The thin solar panel sheets light up the biotope’s insides like stained glass windows in a cathedral; the pavilion being set up before Expo 2020 Dubai | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
The thin solar panel sheets light up the biotope’s insides like stained glass windows in a cathedral; the pavilion being set up before Expo 2020 Dubai Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects

JI: Do you use solar fueled designs in your personal life as well?

MVA: I live in the centre of Amsterdam and it is challenging to power your house using solar energy, as many of these buildings are monuments. But in my work sphere, I apply solar power in fresh ways to environments through design and this is how Sunne, a solar light that brings the sun indoors was created. It hangs on my window at home and turns on as the sun sets, it is pretty resourceful. In the future, I hope to develop more solar-powered products to fill my life with and hopefully others.

JI: “I believe in solar democracy, solar energy for everyone, everywhere”. How can creators world over learn and design with a similar ethos?

MVA: The fact that shocked me and got me started on this solar journey was that in one hour of fully-fledged sunshine, enough energy is created to power the entire world for a year. So solar democracy shows all of us that is, in fact, widely possible. We just have to find ways to harness it properly.  

If we all work together, we can power the world with the sun. – Marjan van Aubel, Marjan van Aubel Studio

The sun is free and in abundant supply, it is available for everyone and therefore, I believe, that designers should design with it, to start powering the world. I have started The Solar Movement together with Pauline van Dongen because we believe in that power, and you see it in action across my designs, as well at the Biotope. In 2022, we are organising the first-ever Solar Biënnale to gather people from around the world to educate, share and stimulate conversations on how the sun can be utilised more in the realm of design.

  • The solar roof | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
    The solar roof Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch
  • Detail of the solar roof | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
    Detail of the solar roof Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch

JI: In terms of design living, what do you think the post-pandemic world lacks, and how are you contributing to bridging the gap?

MR: Humans in general lack an appreciation for what nature gives us. It is instantly powerful and humbling. As thinkers and creators, we want to design a better world by creating generous, accessible, and smart architecture, crafting spaces and buildings that give more than they take. Architecture is circular as our whole ecological system that wastes nothing, gives, respects and thrives.

MVA: During the pandemic, we all realised that things need to change, and not just on a superficial level. We have realised the impact of our behaviour on the environment. I was hoping we would transform these realisations into actions that bring about necessary change. But the world still seems to be a bit scared. I know we are capable of being bolder. We must act, and the present is the most appropriate time to do so.

"Soon is not as good or powerful as ‘now'."

The Dutch Biotope is one contributive example. I am demonstrating and building a solar roof that generates sustainable energy, that looks pretty doing it. It is possible!

12 mins watch The story of creating a biotope _ Netherlands Pavilion EXPO 2020 Dubai | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
The story of creating a biotope _ Netherlands Pavilion EXPO 2020 Dubai Video: Courtesy of BIND & Kossmanndejong

JI: What are some inspiring works pushing the envelope in the field of sustainable design?

MR: We are very much inspired by nature. All the solutions we are looking at are in fact engineered by and existing in nature already. We just need to understand them better. Fewer algorithm processes and spending a lot more time with the earth would be a powerful catalyst. Creators of any kind using biobased material to create, be it designers using algae to fashion clothes or architects using solar cells to power their structures, are dedicated to pushing the envelope in sustainability. For us, this is the future of construction. It has to be, it is the only way.

MVA: I am inspired by people that not only design new things but also think about what kind of impact it will have on our behaviour, on the planet we inhabit and build systems for a more inclusive space. For example, Edison not only created the light bulb, but he also built the electricity grid to make sure people could actually use these lights. The same goes for Tesla. They make electric cars, but also build their charging networks. I know there is a lot of negative feedback on this, but if you zoom out, they have fundamentally changed the way humans use light or power cars.

  • Section | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
    Section Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects
  • The pavilion under construction | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
    The pavilion under construction Image: ©Faisal Khatib Photography

JI: In the context of the pavilion, what are some learnings from your journey in design, and creating with the sun?

MR: Creating a pavilion at an Expo is not only about the design and construction, but more about explaining your design principles to a broad international crew of construction workers, local authorities and the Dutch government, who was our client. Putting a global message into a local and contextual set of codes and guidelines was challenging. Technically, it is not a building that can be assessed in a traditional way, it is an experiment. Luckily, we had a willing and open-minded team, both in our office and our collaborative partners, our client and the Dubai Expo, team.

MVA: Every designer makes mistakes along the way; it is part of our design process. I make small mistakes often, but I believe that experimentation has always led me to find solutions or experts who I can learn from. Making mistakes is learning right?

JI: What has the pandemic taught you, as a designer and as an individual?

MR: It is essential to meet and speak to people physically. We are social animals, and we need to work together, skin to skin, to establish fruitful works. We should cherish that and make sure we do not fall back into choosing isolation again.

MVA: The pandemic has shown me that more and more people are interested and open to working more sustainably in design. They are becoming more conscious about their impact on the planet and I am excited to see how this will continue to trickle into the design industry as a whole. I am continually looking towards sustainability, and I am hopeful that other designers will join us in this endeavour.

The vertical cone is a message of hope in the desert | Dutch Biotope at Dubai Expo 2021 | STIRworld
The vertical cone is a message of hope in the desert Image: Courtesy of V8 Architects, ©Jeroen Musch

JI: What is next for you?

MR: To be honest, we do not know and we find that very comforting. Driven by curiosity, we will take on challenges from which we can learn and contribute, with our creativity and a ‘make-it-happen' attitude. This venture was our first Expo pavilion, and we are currently working on our very first football stadium design and a skyscraper. It is great to step into these adventures, connect with specialists, engineers, artists, and others for the same. That is how we learn, and it is in that field of creativity that we can inspire, design, and convince.

MVA: At Marjan van Aubel Studio, we are presently developing more solar-powered products. It is exciting to see every surface as an opportunity, a perpetual experiment. After the successful Kickstarter launch of Sunne, we saw that there is a community of people interested in solar-powered products, so this year, we hope to share our second product with the world.  

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