Friend of UW, Wolfgang Buttress is a world-renowned artist with major large-scale pieces of public art around the globe.

Currently exhibiting a collection of his work in the UK pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo known as ‘The Hive’. Wolfgang’s design is themed around the lifecycle of a bee their contribution to the Earth’s health. The main feature is giant cube honeycomb structure made from nearly two-hundred-thousand individual pieces that visitors can enter into, supported by a glass floor. The Hive is also connected to Nottingham by lighting effects and music that plays directly in response to the activity of a bee hive in our home town.

We had the pleasure of visiting Wolf in his studio in the Lady Bay area of Nottingham to find out more about the recent project and the book he has published to celebrate it:

Wolfgang Buttress


Wolfgang Buttress


Wolfgang Buttress


Wolfgang Buttress


Wolfgang Buttress

Entering the Pavilion competition was actually suggested by Tom, who works in my studio, and at first I was very sceptical. I was aware of its history of spectacle, from the Eiffel tower, to Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere, to Paxton’s original Crystal Palace, so I knew it’s usually architects or engineers who get the commission and I just thought that there would be so many people going for it, which meant it was such a long shot.

But after more discussion with my wife Joy Buttresss, who is also an artist and the rest of my team I got into the idea and we were lucky enough to be chosen. This year’s theme behind the expo is “feeding the planet” so the initial idea was to take a section of the British countryside over to Milan as I wanted to do something that was a lot quieter and calmer. Although it needed to have impact and be spectacular to look at it, I wanted it to be immersive. I wanted to make sure that the idea was simple enough for a four-year-old to understand as well as an academic or someone from a completely different culture. So eventually we got on to the idea of the Bee.

As we all know the bee is in real crisis, because of pesticides, monoculture and climate change and because the bee is around a hundred million years old and so exquisitely tuned to the environment, it means you can almost see the bee as a sentinel of the planet: the healthier the bee, the healthier the planet. The worse the bee… you get what I mean. Bees are responsible for the pollination of over thirty percent of the worlds food so it is something that will have a massive impact on the human race, so we decided to use this thought as a metaphor with our design.

So, expanding the idea of taking a section of the British Country side over and having a walk through, we wanted to make sure that there was something or an event, something that was happening in real time. I was introduced through a friend to Dr Martin Bencsik, a scientist at Nottingham Trent University who is doing amazing research into the communication of bees. They’ve got their own language, and from his research he can understand things, like when a colony is going to swarm. Their communicative sounds can’t be heard with the naked ear but there are many energy levels they use to communicate and it’s just amazing.

I was thinking that this issue with the bees is a global problem and also something that is a local interest, as it is being studied in Brackenhust, just north of Nottingham so we thought it could be amazing to transmit this communicative energy from Nottingham and send it to Milan in the form of light and sound in real time within the “Hive” structure.

Each pavilion had to say something about their home country but for me it has to also be something that’s universal. The fact that you can send these signals from Nottingham to Milan really simply, it changes the exhibition into an experience and a conversation with Nottingham. We planned for the pavilion to change over time, to be fluid and like nature. We didn’t want it to be like walking into a dead and static museum. We wanted it to be alive, and it was this simple idea that sort of gave the whole thing its power. We knew the Expo was going to last six months so it had to be fluid, as things change naturally anyway; the flowers change, the grass has changes. It all looked very different back in May compared to how it does now at the end.

To get it done there was a budget of six and a half million quid which sounds like a lot but it was actually tight, I think it’s one of the least expensive pavilions in the whole of the expo, other pavilions had two, three, four, ten times that budget. The money and contract was there from the start before they chose the idea from the competition. We only had one year for the detail design, fabrication and installation. It was really tight and tough to get it done, as ordinarily I think for this project you’d be looking at closer to a two or three year. We made sure the fabrication worked right from the start, with multiple iterations of tests, drawings, models to ensure we could do it.

Over sixty percent of the pavilion is landscaping or trees which are sustainable and recyclable and also relatively cheap which meant most of the costs could go into the “Hive” structure. To make it work, a lot of people did things in favour, because they were behind the idea. If you take the examples of the musicians we worked with on this, we started off really small with a couple of fellas that I know from a band called Spiritualised who helped make the soundscape.  But then, as the project started growing, it was sounding so good that people just wanted to get involved, like the string section from Sigur Roś, Youth, John Coxon, and we didn’t really give these guys much money for their work, they got on board because the really liked the idea. This gave the project a sort of energy and a sense we were doing something that was important which helped massively.

The opening was a little scary too, to get things done we had to immerse ourselves in the project. The whole year was pretty mad, but the last six months were non-stop, working weekends and evenings to get it done! Our first launch was a sort of soft launch for Salone design furniture festival which was happening in Milan at the same time, which had all sorts of press and designers and all of a sudden, I realised that people would make a comment on this thing I’ve been working on for the past year, and it was terrifying! Thankfully people said kind things and we won some awards but there was that moment where we had no idea how people were going to react to it.

I felt really naked. But also, there was a point maybe two weeks before it opened when the scaffolding came down and it was myself, the architects, the musicians, the scientists and the graphic designers all stood in the hive and it was late at night so no one else was there, the music kicked in and the lights were on and I had this little epiphany and it all just felt like it made perfect sense which was an amazing feeling.

Good news for those who didn’t make it to Milan to see the work as unlike many of the structures on the Expo site, which will be demolished after the six-month exhibition concludes, The Hive is designed to be dismantled and rebuilt on another site in the UK.