Construction work of the giant pawn shop is proceeding as planned, but that of the rabbit lantern pavilion has undergone drastic changes. “Except for the shape of the rabbit, we have changed completely both the exterior and interior of the original design,” said Christiana Ieong Pou Yee, Director of the Office for the Preparation of Macao’s Participation in the Shanghai World Expo. “Thanks to the hard work of various teams, we have transformed a little rabbit into the Jade Rabbit Imperial Lantern, which will provide a dazzling visual experience for visitors who walk in,” she said.
The original plan was to build an all-transparent rabbit-shaped structure that would be largely hollow inside. The idea, created by architects Carlos Marreiros, Tang Meng Wai and Lei Sai Cheong, was based on the winning proposal of the Macao Pavilion Concept Design Competition held in May 2009.
Visitors were to move on a long sliding ramp up the pavilion, while learning about the history of Macao, as shown on the plasma television and LED screens hanging around them. There were also to be two small cinemas to show Macao-related films for a maximum of 45 people in both sessions.
Now, after a complete makeover, “the pavilion has become a more attractive, high-tech place to showcase the many developments of our city,” said Ieong. There is now a five-storey high escalator installed in the middle; surrounding it are ground-to-ceiling videos and other moving images to tell visitors the story of Macao’s growth from a small fishing port into a world-famous destination. The story, told through the journey of a young boy through history, continues to unfold when visitors finish their escalator ride and move on to a ramp where they see more stunning sights and sounds.
Ieong said the transformed pavilion will be able to host a maximum of 4,000 visitors a day, five times more than the proposed plan. “We hope to receive close to 700,000 visitors within the six months of the Expo.”
The many revisions were made for safety and other practical reasons. “The proposed design was made from a purely architectural point of view. We have revised it with many other considerations such as people traffic, and most importantly, the need to complement our pavilion with the neighboring pavilions of the central government and Hong Kong,” Ieong explained.
The rabbit concept was picked out of 31 entries for the design competition “Many of the participants submitted dragon designs, which we did not choose, because the dragon symbolises the whole of China and we wanted to be modest and not claim to be a dragon. We picked the rabbit instead because this small and agile animal embodies the qualities of Macao. We thought that the cute animal could at least attract children to take a picture outside our pavilion and then bring their parents inside.”
But, when Ieong and her teams started working on the details, they encountered problems in how to turn the design on paper into a structure that met the requirements of the Expo organiser and Macao’s own marketing objectives for the event.
Ieong herself flew to Shanghai every few weeks for on-site inspection and coordination work between the various international teams hired for the work. They include award-winning Israeli, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao producers, engineers and interior designers. Construction and engineering designs were mainly prepared by Tongji University of Shanghai. The main contractor is Shanghai Construction Group, the contractor for the China Pavilion.
“We started to have second thoughts about the proposed design when we looked and failed to find a way to move visitors smoothly to the top of the pavilion. If we had kept the proposed draft, guests would have to move up and down the pavilion on the ramp, an arrangement which would not meet the minimum safety standard of the Expo. The Expo authorities were also concerned about how we would regulate the flow of people on the ramp,” she said.
The planned 100% transparent, curved external wall also posed problems, as it was technically difficult to construct and any leakage would require extensive repair work. In the revised plan, only ten per cent of the structure is transparent and the hollow space inside is turned into a 360-degree multi-media exhibition area. “Suddenly we have much more space for exhibits and this will create a bigger visual impact on visitors than the original small television screens that were proposed. The external wall will now be made of reflective glass.” Ieong added: “With the new design, visitors will be able to see the reflection of the China Pavilion on our pavilion screen and this means we have China in our hearts. We have also added a LED screen outside and this has created more exhibition space area and will attract crowds from afar. We are making many changes to ensure that our exhibition is of a high standard, that it will meet the technical requirements of Expo and will complement the China Pavilion. We have also been working together with Hong Kong on the management and decoration of the common public area.”
The ramp is now much shorter but the visual exhibits placed next to it still require much work. “As the ramp is slanted and curved, we have to use a large number of projectors and meticulously adjust them to the same angle of the curving ramp inch by inch. This process is painstaking, like making an Armani dress,” she said jokingly.
The rabbit’s head now looks very different from the draft. It now moves sideways, rather than up and down, the latter of which Chinese interpret as the ominous act of a person hanging himself. Its ears, eyes, tails and wheels are now painted red, not the cyber silver originally suggested. “When I went to the site and saw the China Pavilion was painted all red, I knew that our rabbit had to be of the same kind of red to complement it.”
Ieong also managed to convince Expo officials that the rabbit’s height had to be 19.99 meters, a reference to the year of Macao’s return to China. “They did not want the pavilion to exceed the height limit of 20-meters. I explained that the Jade Rabbit, with its 10-meter tall head, is an imperial lantern that beckons people to visit the China Pavilion. To echo the Expo theme of “Better City, Better Life”, we have come up with our own “Return to the Motherland, Macao a Better City”. In addition to symbolising harmony and family, the Macao Pavilion also symbolises Macao’s return to her motherland. This is the success of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.”
All participants were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, so that no-one could disclose any information or promote their own company. On the challenges of working with an international team, Ieong said, “As an international team with many parties involved, we have to work around the clock, as we live in different time zones. My office has to work on the exhibition content and co-ordinating the whole team.”
“At times we were under tremendous pressure because we were always competing with time. Even though there were so many problems with the original design, we all enjoyed the process. It is like making the impossible possible – we have successfully transformed a little rabbit lantern into a Jade Rabbit Imperial Lantern to welcome the Expo.”
By Nuno Mendonça in Macao
(Issue N. 2, January 2010)