Though architectural history is replete with bricks, stones, and steel, there is no rule that states that architecture must be ‘solid’. Sverre Fehn, one of the most prominent architects of postwar Norway, regularly made use of heavy materials like concrete and stone masonry in his projects . In this way, his proposal for the Nordic Pavilion at the Osaka World Expo in 1970 could be seen as an atypical exploration of a more delicate structure. Representing a very different aspect of ‘Modernity’ than his usual work, Fehn’s “breathing balloon” pavilion stands not only in contradiction to Fehn’s design canon, but to that of traditional architecture as a whole.
Born in Norway in 1924, Sverre Fehn described himself to have “...[come] of age in the shadow of Modernism.” He, along with several other contemporary Scandinavian architects, formed the Progressive Architects Group Oslo Norway (PAGON), a regional branch of the International Congress of Modern Architecture. PAGON, while based in the universal ideals of Modernism, specifically sought the expression of particular regions and times through materials. Fehn himself gained international acclaim for his work in exhibition pavilions, notably the Norwegian Pavilion at the World Exhibition at Brussels in 1958 and the Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale of 1962. It therefore comes as no surprise that he would again submit a proposal in 1968 for the Osaka World Expo of 1970.
Despite its stunning transformation from an agrarian, feudal society into an industrial powerhouse at roughly the same time as most Western nations, Japan had never hosted a world’s fair before the Expo ‘70 in Osaka. The exposition’s theme, “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” focused on using contemporary science and technology to create lasting peace and a better standard of living for all of humanity. The Nordic Pavilion chose to focus on environmental protection in industrialized societies, informing the ideological basis of Fehn’s proposal.
Seeking to highlight the adversarial relationship between industrial pollution and pristine nature, Fehn conceived of a space contained within two massive balloons. The combined structure, measuring approximately 45 meters long and 24 meters high, would function as an enormous artificial lung. The upper balloon, by varying its internal air pressure, would expand or contract its form; in doing so, it would also affect the form of the balloon beneath it, which was designed to maintain a consistent internal pressure. The main exhibition space was to be located in the lower balloon, where projectors would display vivid tableaus of Scandinavia’s natural splendor along the gently heaving walls of the pavilion.
Fehn’s pavilion was not intended to function as an entire building in itself. Rather, the concept was designed to fit within a larger structure designed by Danish architect Bent Severin, which would serve as both shelter and formal counterpoint to the inflatable pavilion within. While Severin’s outer shell would serve as a weather barrier, the inner balloons would serve as an air barrier, creating and protecting a sanctuary of clean air in the otherwise heavily industrial city of Osaka. The pavilions were to be ventilated by a mechanical tower outside the structure, regularly circulating air and moderating the internal pressure of the balloons. A single exit and entrance would allow approximately 100 patrons to pass through the pavilion at a time.
77 countries ultimately contributed to Expo ‘70, which became one of history’s most popular world’s fairs, attracting over 64 million visitors. However, none of those 64 million guests would pass through Fehn’s innovative inflatable exhibition space – his proposal was ultimately not chosen for the Nordic Pavilion. Fehn would pass away in 2009, having never seen his breathing architecture transition from the drawing board to reality.
Fehn’s idea, however, would later prove to outlive the architect himself. Some time after Sverre Fehn’s death, the Norwegian National Museum commissioned Manthey Kula Architects to develop a concept for a modern realization of the breathing balloons. Though the initial vision called for a working scale model, Manthey Kula soon proposed that the structure be built at full scale within a museum pavilion designed by Sverre Fehn himself. The resulting installation is not an exact replica of Fehn’s original design, but it is an interpretation that seeks to preserve the essence of his vision for generations of museum visitors to come.
Though it was originally conceived of in 1968, Fehn’s concept for Expo ‘70 has lost none of its relevance in a world that continues to struggle with declining air quality as a result of mounting industrialization across the globe. According to the World Economic Forum, rising pollution accounted for 1.2 million premature deaths in China alone in 2010; that the effects of population are felt so heavily in developing nations places great significance on Expo ‘70’s goal to improve global standards of living through technology. And while Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion by no means represented a global solution to the dilemma of air pollution, it continues to serve as a visual reminder of the importance of protecting the very air we breathe.
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 Ji, Zou. "Rising Pollution in the Developing World." World Economic Forum. Accessed March 16, 2016. http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/top-10-trends-of-2015/6-rising-pollution-in-the-developing-world/.