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The dragon-inspired pavilion at the Milan Expo by Daniel Libeskind features a sinuous body and a scaly red and gold skin. The Vanke Pavilion, for China’s largest property developer, is a spiralling structure with staircases wrapping around its perimeter and a “forest of bamboo” contained inside. Libeskind described the reptilian structure as a “handcrafted dragon”. Its exterior is clad with approximately 4,000 shimmering ceramic tiles that look like scales. These tiles feature a metallic surface, so they appear to change colour from red and pink to gold and white. The architect started this project thinking about Chinese landscape, and had a big collection of books on Chinese landscape art, which has these incredible mountains and formations. But, when he finished the project everybody saw this dragon. Then he discovered that the symbol of the dragon is underlining the mountain.

Libeskind said he is using the same cladding for a housing project in Berlin, so the pavilion provided a great opportunity to experiment with the material. Each tile is fixed to a steel supporting structure, and none of them appear to touch. Because of this, shadows form underneath each one. If one looks at the form of the pavilion, it is really to be seen in the round. The designer wanted it to be interesting from different perspectives, whether one came from one entrance or another, or whether one just stumble upon it, as it will always change in light. Two grey concrete staircases are slotted in behind the cladding – one forms the entrance and the other functions as the exit route. They wind up from the ground floor towards the two upper storeys and up to a terrace on the roof.

At the entrance, the staircase also widens to provide an informal seating area. Libeskind said he developed this form entirely through traditional drawing and modelling, instead of using the parametric modelling systems favored by architects including Zaha Hadid. The designer never used a computer to develop a form. The difference between this and parametric form is that this is not an aerodynamic form. It really is a handcrafted dragon.

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