On the surface, Carlo Ratti Associati’s proposal for the Italian Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020 seems innocuous enough: three boats turned upside down to form the roof of a building. The architecture firm says the design explores the ways in which “beauty connects people,” the exact theme of Italy’s participation in next year’s World Fair. But critics say the boats carry a dark and perhaps unintended symbolism in regards to the country’s ongoing reluctance to accept immigrants.

Carlo Ratti Associati's design for the 2020 Italian pavilion, with three upturned boats making up the ceiling.

Set to open between October 20th, 2020 and April 10th, 2021 in Dubai, U.A.E., the Italian Pavilion was made to celebrate the long lineage of explorers who sailed the seas over many centuries, weaving together a shared Mediterranean cultural heritage. CRA — along with Italo Rota Building Office, F&M Ingegneria, and Matteo Gatto & Associati — was tapped for the project after winning a contest to design the pavilion, which itself will take up around 3,500 square meters (about 38,000 square feet) and stand over 25 meters (82 feet) tall.

“Reusing the ships once on land was an act that had a profound appeal to us: not only because it is laden with historical value, but because it represents the realization of a circular architecture from the project’s beginning,” says Carlo Ratti, founding partner of CRA and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He adds that “the ships that become part of the pavilion can continue to be used in different ways even after the end of the Expo.”

Carlo Ratti Associati's design for the 2020 Italian pavilion, with three upturned boats making up the ceiling.

In a recent piece for Domus, architect Giovanni Comoglio offered a sharp rebuke of the concept and the connotations it carries given Italy’s hostility towards asylum seekers. The recently passed Salvini law cracks down on asylum rights by abolishing humanitarian protection permits, eventually leading to the closure of asylum centers. Italy has also closed its ports to rescued migrants, reportedly driving up the number of deaths at sea.

It’s this connection to the imagery of upturned boats that has people like Comoglio questioning how nobody involved in the process of designing and approving this project seemed to see a potential problem.

“The narrative of three capsized hulls — the only disclosed visual to powerfully reach the public — was given a stormy reception, and submerged mostly by critiques of the highest historical inconvenience,” he writes. “Representing by some upturned boats a country that has recently faced a period of harsh polemics concerning policies of closure to migration, implicitly and explicitly connected to several fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, may surely result to many, in times of instant visual communication, as a proper communication stumble.”

Carlo Ratti Associati's design for the 2020 Italian pavilion, with three upturned boats making up the ceiling.

“A Tower of Babel of incommunicability has arisen out of the dust of a debate consisting mostly of statements circulating on social media. The conversation blurred the borders between critique of design and critique of a communication concept. To be fair, the Italian-Italian nature of the architectural component of the debate has to be remarked. Still, something of a more general value comes out of the sands of Babel, the most formidable critical issue, at least for critics: it is highly difficult — if not plainly unnecessary — to make a properly architectural critique of such architecture.”

Dodi Moss and Eduardo Tresoldi's runner-up concept for the 2020 Italian Pavilion.
Dodi Moss and Eduardo Tresoldi's runner-up concept for the 2020 Italian Pavilion.

A runner-up in the competition designed by Dodi Moss and Eduardo Tresoldi generated a decidedly more positive reaction on social media. Their team’s proposal features a path through layers of transparent materials and greenery for a ghostly effect meant to conjure an Italian identity that has its roots in thousands of years of cultural history.