Chapter 2
Architecture Art Sustainability

Algae, Coffee and Plastic – materials the future is built on

Carlo Ratti

Director of MIT Senseable City Lab & Founding Partner of the international design/innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati

Algae, Coffee and Plastic – materials the future is built on

Why Italy’s Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020 was a stepping stone for the Next Renaissance

Italy’s Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020 is an experiment into reconfigurable architecture and circularity. This piece explains the relevance of multidisciplinary innovations to build better—and thus to empower the green transition of cities, communities and economies to a Resilient Renaissance.

The project puts forward an all-encompassing vision for reconfigurable architecture and circular design involving some of Italy’s most innovative companies. The pavilion features a multimedia façade made with two million recycled plastic bottles, new types of building materials—from algae and coffee grounds to orange peels and sand—and an advanced system for climate mitigation that constitutes an alternative to air conditioning. Reusing is also fundamental to how the structure was conceived. The pavilion utilises three real-sized boat hulls, which could potentially set sail after the event, to create and shape the roof of the building.

The Italian Pavilion building at Expo Dubai 2020, designed by CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota Building Office, with Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria, was officially unveiled on October 1st, 2021, as part of the first World Expo ever held in the Arab world. It envisions an architecture which challenges how buildings are usually developed for temporary events such as a World Expo, in which a lot of newly-built structures end up as landfill after just a few months. Contrary to that approach, the Italian Pavilion was conceived as an architecture that is able to transform itself through time, in a sustainable fashion.

Architecture that transforms itself

The roof —and its reuse

The three boat hulls that form the pavilion’s roof vary in length from 40 to 50 meters. They were produced with the contribution of Fincantieri, the largest shipbuilder group in Europe. The hulls are supported by more than 150 slender vertical steel pillars, each 27 meters high. In turn, they support a wave-shaped roof membrane made of ETFE pillows and a layer of perforated thin metal sheets that filter the sunlight. Seen from above, the hulls are coated in an innovative paint developed by paints and coatings company Gruppo Boero.

The wall—and its reuse

The pavilion has no conventional walls. Instead, a curtain facade made of nautical rope, which also incorporates LEDs that can be lit to transform the facade into a multimedia surface, delineates the exhibition space. The nautical ropes are produced in recycled plastic, using the equivalent of roughly two million bottles, and form an intricate vertical meshwork that stretches almost 70 kilometers (43,45 miles) in length. At the close of the Expo, they will be reused again, in accordance with the logic of the circular economy. The use of the nautical ropes and a localised cooling system integrated with misting allow for extensive shading, natural ventilation, and better thermal comfort. The project strives to showcase more sustainable ways to cool our buildings and cities in the future.

The Energy—and its resilience

CRA and Italo Rota also designed an installation for global energy company Eni, titled “Braiding the Future”, which focuses on biofixation of carbon dioxide. It recreates a microalgae cultivation using a spectacular cascade of 20-meter-high technological liana vines. Within each of the luminescent lianas flow the microalgae: the see-through circuit becomes a spectacular interpretation of the production technology of these unicellular organisms, which produce high-value compounds through a natural photosynthesis process. The technology of intensified biofixation of carbon dioxide that inspired the installation was developed in Italy by Eni, Politecnico di Torino, and start-up Photo B-Otic. It allows the intensive cultivation of microalgae through photobioreactors, lit through LED technology optimized on specific wavelengths. Located at the entrance of the pavilion and suspended at full height over a body of water, the installation is a clear reference to Eni’s concrete commitment towards a sustainable future, including possible fixation and enhancement of carbon dioxide.

A Building as role model for purpose driven innovations

Hailed from the start as one of the most recognisable designs at Expo Dubai 2020, the Italian Pavilion has won the prize for the Best Entrepreneurial Project of the Year at the prestigious Construction Innovation Awards that are given every year in the country hosting the Exposition. The pavilion is an interdisciplinary construction, planned for deconstruction and re-use from the very start, built on innovations in several disciplines, empowered by an architect—or let us say, by a best-in-class innovation management and architectural team, enabled by a joint vision: This vision—and the people inhabiting it to make change happen—are also the “materials” the future is built on.


The pavilion was designed by CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota Building Office, with Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria.

All pictures: © Michele Nastasi; Carlo Ratti Associati

Carlo Ratti Associati – Picture Gallery

Browse through more pictures by Carlo Ratti Associati in the gallery below and experience architectural innovation.
All pictures in the gallery: © Michele Nastasi; Carlo Ratti Associati


Prof. Carlo Ratti

Director of MIT Senseable City Lab and Founding Partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati, Turin

An architect and engineer by training, Professor Carlo Ratti teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Laboratory, and is a founding partner of the international design and inno-vation office Carlo Ratti Associati. A leading voice in the debate on new technologies’ impact on urban life, his work has been exhibited in several venues worldwide, including the Venice Biennale, New York’s MoMA, London’s Science Museum, Barcelona’s Design Museum and Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. Three of his projects – the Digital Water Pavilion, the Copenhagen Wheel and Scribit– were hailed by Time Magazine as ‘Best Inventions of the Year’. He has been included in Wired Magazine’s ‘Smart List: 50 people who will change the world’. He is currently serving as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization.

Picture: © Sara Magni