An international exposition provides the rare opportunity for nations to showcase the positive characteristics of their own cultural heritage and technological achievements. The design of a national pavilion is a challenging endeavor, as architecture is burdened with the responsibility of expressing the varied and complex identity of an entire country within a single building. Lighting design is equally demanding, as light plays a critical role in delivering an optimal visual expression of this identity for Expo visitors. It is especially notable when lighting design and architecture are successfully integrated in the expression of a united conceptual trajectory.

For its design of the Danish Pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai (one of approximately 200 pavilions from different countries), the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) sought to highlight mobility as a means to achieve the Expo theme of “Better City, Better Life.” Given the historic reliance of both Denmark and China on the bicycle as a form of environmentally friendly transportation, BIG imagined the Danish pavilion as an “infrastructure for bicycles.” The form of the pavilion is a sweeping, curvilinear tube, which the architects claim to be reminiscent of “a bicycle lane, looped around itself.” The radial structure frames a large basin containing 1 million liters of water shipped from Copenhagen Harbor. In the center of this basin sits the beloved Copenhagen landmark—Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid statue—whose temporary loan to the Expo and relocation to Shanghai created quite a stir back home.

The opportunity to create a thematic structure based on flow prompted the design team to celebrate the dynamic qualities of the pavilion experience. The spatial choreography of the pavilion anticipates a series of connected episodes: Visitors enter at grade level where they view the basin, traverse the sloped gallery space to the roof, ride a bicycle through another exhibition space, and return to the main Expo area. In collaboration with the Centre for Advanced Visualization and Interaction (CAVI) at Aarhus University, Denmark, and lighting manufacturer Martin Professional, BIG sought to emphasize the constantly changing nature of the building with advanced lighting sensors and controls.

The most visible component of this strategy is an interactive façade that pulsates with animated yet subtle energy at night. The media wall incorporates over 3,500 full-color LED lamps, each of which is controlled by custom software that interprets data from daylighting and temperature sensors placed throughout the pavilion. Martin's Leif Orkelbog-Andresen says that “by incorporating dynamic lighting as an integrated part of our surroundings, we can vitalize the spaces around us and expand their possibilities so that in addition to being sites for profitable business they are communicative and interactive; in other words, living façades, which fascinate, inspire, and inform.”

Originally conceived as a billboard of the Copenhagen skyline, the exterior media wall underwent a design transformation based on input from Arup, the structural engineer for the project. Because BIG desired a column-free space, Arup suggested that the envelope become more structurally rigid—thus eliminating the possibility of the original, delicate filigree pattern. However, the architects embraced the loading diagram of the new diaphragm, which allowed the perforation of holes of different radii in locations where forces were not being transferred. According to BIG associate partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann, “This in turn informed where we could perforate or not, and thereby we lost the skyline, but instead we gained the admiration of all engineers who worked on the building as it was the first time in their professional lives that their stress calculations could be seen in real life.”

LED fixtures were incorporated within this structural diaphragm unobtrusively. Each perforation was wrapped with sandblasted acrylic tubing between the outer and inner faces of the wall, and a single LED fixture was mounted 5 to 30 centimeters above each tube. The translucent plastic transforms the point source of light into a ring of evenly distributed illumination. The apparent effect is that the entire interior cavity of the exterior wall is illuminated by a diffuse, hidden source.

Once the locations of the perforations were finalized, the coordinates of each LED source were mapped within an AutoCAD model of the project—allowing the Aarhus University consultants to translate the coordinates of the holes into pixels for their custom animations. “We now use the functionality on several projects which is the key to get smooth-moving graphics on odd-shaped and changing pixel distances within the same project,” Orkelbog-Andresen says.

In addition to its cleverly illuminated structural envelope, the Danish Pavilion also exhibits technical features that would not have been possible with previous lighting technologies. The LED strips integrated within the seating and countertops, for example, only became available in the appropriate size and light output within the past year. According to Orkelbog-Andresen, “Most of them are only 14 millimeters wide and 9 millimeters high including an aluminum bar and encapsulation for an IP67 rating. Also the LED in the façade was not available technology just a year ago. We actually tested several new technologies on the project.”

It is the seamless integration of these technologies that sets the Danish Pavilion apart from many others. Form, light, and structure are completely assimilated in support of a strong conceptual framework. As a result, Expo visitors are impressed by the coalescence of art and technology embodied within the pavilion—an inhabitable sculpture designed to celebrate movement, bathed in simulated Nordic light.

To learn more about Brownell's visit to Expo 2010 in Shanghai and his impressions, read his “Shanghai Diary” series, part of his Mind & Matter blog at,