Milan Trade Fair
"The idea of the sail came to me first," the architect recalls. "But we were never sure until the end that the two levels would work together." The 500,000-square-foot (47,000-square-meter) canopy extends over a two-level main street with moving sidewalks and marble walkways lined with eight glass-front pavilions each the size of a small U.S. convention center. "I wanted to create the feel of a city," Fuksas says.
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After the sail came the concept of the "logo," the volcano-shaped symbol for the Milan Trade Fair. The logo loosely resembles a three-dimensional yin-yang form with a crater on one side and the 121-foot- (37-meter-) high volcano on the other. Together, the canopy and logo imitate the landscape of the snow-peaked Alps running parallel in the distance.
Engineering the Sail
The free-form glass and steel structure, which looks light and airy, didn't come easily. The steel grid structure is made of geometric modules connected together with nodes. or circular joints at the intersections of the steel rods or struts.
"When they first started constructing the sail, they said it couldn't be done," Fuksas admits. "It was the first time in history that they used the nodes in this way. Each of the more than 26,000 nodes were unique in that they had to be customized to adapt to the particular form at each connecting point to create the apparent undulations of the sail.
German engineering firm Schlaich Bergmann used specialized software to aid in realizing the design, while Mero GmbH developed the elegant structural system to support the glass. But creating a fully exposed steel structure to realize the design presented challenges.
In metal-clad free-form architecture — like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — the underlying (and often unsightly) metal support structure is hidden. By contrast the steel structure of the Milan Trade Fair became an integral part of the aesthetics, and the architect and engineers worked with it as a fully visible element. In the actual construction, Fuksas says, "it took three months to do the first 330 feet (100 meters) of the sail, and then it took only eight months to complete the rest."
Fuksas, who considers his love of risk-taking to be an impediment to entering the U.S. market, says, "we architects are part of the artists' world. We need to evoke emotion." His design does just that, thrilling visitors with the unpredictable rises and dramatic descents of the structure that resembles lacework.
Rather than mimicking the hangar-like style of most convention centers, the Milan Trade Fair creates a sense of a protected playground under the open glass canopy. Fuksas adds to the futuristic fantasy with four steel-clad pods that serve as conference rooms. These stand on insect-like legs over shallow black reflecting pools. The play of reflections continues on the pods' shiny steel walls mirroring the orange fronts of buildings across from them.
But the glass canopy structure invariably attracts the most attention. Having over 26,000 nodes, the steel structure is woven together in diamonds and squares and supported by tree-like structures. According to Fuksas, the challenges included not only the sheer size of the area, but also the complexity and innovations required to create the unusual free-flowing form.
The nodes were all different to adapt to the varying angles of the form and were bolted rather than welded. The glass-covered grid pushed the technological boundary out well beyond current standards.
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