As part of the World Expo in Shanghai, China, the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion commissioned New York-based ESI Design to create a design that would express its dreams for Shanghai’s future, better life through growth, and commitment to social and environmental responsibility. Dubbed the “Dream Cube,” the pavilion is a 40,000-square-foot public experience that uses advanced multimedia and building technologies to demonstrate that, through collaboration, the people of Shanghai and the corporate community can create a better city.

ESI Design garnered its inspiration in part from the fourth-century Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream. In the story, Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly, but when he woke he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi. That idea of shifting perspectives and the theme of transformation became the central pillars to the design. In the cube, virtual butterflies become the symbols of people’s dreams for Shanghai’s future.

The 20-minute visitor experience features visual and audio effects and is divided into four areas: a queuing area, the Ascent to Dreams escalator, the Dreamer’s Path, and the Dream Cube Control Room.

The queue area includes thousands of LED rods that pulse with light. From there, the escalator is surrounded by bluish light and soft music, leading into the heart of the Dream Cube. The Dreamer’s Path is a visual story of the city of Shanghai from its rural village beginnings to the mega-metropolis it is today. The path, which is filled with virtual butterflies, changing seasons, and images of city life, leads to the Dream Cube Control Room, a circular theatre where visitors watch a video narrated by actress and director Xu Jinglei, who plays Professor Butterfly in the Dream Cube story. The 360-degree screen immerses the audience in the sights and sounds of Shanghai through visual flyovers and special effects while Professor Butterfly invites them to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the city. She praises the strength of its citizens and encourages them to work together to create a better city. In the final moments, Professor Butterfly reveals live-feed images of the exterior façade and rallies the crowd to wave their arms in the air. In response, the cube’s exterior pulses with color in time with the crowd’s collective actions.

Throughout the design process, ESI Design invited people to contribute photos via the Web that would become a part of the collaborative composition of the Dream Cube. More than 20,000 photos were submitted to the People’s Archive, which was orchestrated by curators HS Liu and Karen Smith.

Rather than being designed from the outside in, the Dream Cube was designed from the visitor experience outwards to create seamless synergies between the exhibit and architectural experience. Interior spaces are shaped as a series of free-flowing organic forms, unencumbered by traditional walls. Forms are embedded within a dense, infrastructural network of recycled rods that house millions of LED lights.

The pavilion features a solar thermal system that collects solar energy to produce hot water and generate electricity that powers the pavilion. The external façade comprises polycarbonate transparent plastic tubes made from recycled materials filled with LEDs. After the Expo, the plastic tubes can be recycled. Rainwater will be collected, recycled, and used for the building’s misting system that keeps visitors cool and helps to create the ethereal dream-like effect of the building’s exterior.

The Dream Cube is about 206 feet long, 157 feet wide, and 75 feet tall. Thousands of miles of cable are woven through it to power the experience. The cube comprises a 40-mile-long grid made from plastic tubes spaced half a meter apart with LEDs every 10 inches. About 26,000 people can visit the cube each day; 2,000 people can be in it at any given time.

In addition to ESI Design, other team members include architect, Atelier FCJZ Architects, China; media producer Spinifex Group, Australia; lighting by Full Flood, USA; systems integrator PRG, Production Resource Group, Germany; and exhibit fabricator Shanghai Pico Exhibition Services Co., China.