My Journey of Giraffes

December, 2019

 

In 2011 China was selected by the AIHP (Association of International Horticultural Producers) to host the 2019 International 

Horticultural Exposition which officially opened 29 April. Named Expo 2019 Beijing, it was to be the largest horticultural exhibition held to date. I was commissioned by Vanke, the sponsor of the Botanic Pavillion, one of the four main buildings constructed on this 500 hectare floral wonderland, to create a tall installation to adorn the roof deck of the building.

 

 

With the theme "the wisdom of Plants" to guide me, I proposed, after much contemplation, to build a family of Giraffes. They are our tallest extant herbivore and munch on some 35 kilos of leaves a day. Their relationship with the wide spreading Acacia tree is an amazing story and reinforces the wisdom of plants as both Giraffe and Tree try to outsmart the other through evolutionary mutations; the giraffes’ necks lengthened to take advantage of the fresh acacia leaves sprouting high in their canopy. The Acacia trees developed thorns to protect those same leaves. The Giraffes’ tongues became highly versatile, slinking around the thorns and grasp a bunch of succulent leaves without a scratch! The acacia trees developed a defence mechanism by releasing horrible smelling tannins to dissuade even the hungriest giraffe. On top of this, the Tree developed an early warning system by communicating with their neighbouring trees of impending attack. Plants ARE wise and I felt the Giraffe was a perfect animal to illustrate this.

 

 

The installation would have to be 11m high to make it visible from afar. It was required to withstand 260km/hour winds, earthquakes, sub-zero temperatures, constant lightning strikes  and a highly exposed position. My ability to create monumental animal sculptures of long dead wood is well known. Engineering the sculptures to withstand such harsh elements would nonetheless be incredibly challenging!

 

 

Work on the giraffes started in earnest early in 2018. I bought over 10 tons of high grade stainless steel in different thicknesses, each individual piece conforming to the approved engineering detail submitted to the Beijing Institute of Architecture and Design. I used over 500kg of

welding rod to form the spaghetti like armature upon  which the driftwood is held. 20 tons of decades dead wood was amassed for the project, each piece sliced into two halves and gouged out to fit the section of curved metal shaft that it was destined to cover.

 

 

Each piece of wood is attached to the metal structure by both bolt and 

glue, ensuring that the wood will remain fast for many decades. By the end of November all three giraffes were standing, their structures solid, and I started to apply smaller curly driftwood. The trick to making the curly pieces strong is to insert stainless steel shafting along their length. I’ve developed a special technique for boring a shaft through these curved branches allowing me to push metal to their very tip. Once the metal is in place, the tip is welded onto the main stainless steel structure.  The curly pieces mimic the striking skin pattern of the giraffes, bringing them to life.

 

 
The last major hurdle to negotiate was the loading and installation plan. Manoeuvring unconventional loads the size and weight of a bus is potentially lethal and a lot of care has to go into the planning. In order to fit the Bull into the container I engineered a docking frame that turned the 3 ton beast onto its front, then rotated him 30 degrees sideways so that he could clear the door jam. His neck removed in order to fit him within the container and after reassembling the neck a balancing bar was used to lift the 4 ton load to the roof deck.
 
Last February, on an unusually calm day, I oversaw the lifting and installation of the sculptures onto their custom built base on the roof deck of the Botanic Gardens.
 
Ten months on, the Giraffes had garnered a huge amount of attention as one of the highlights of the Expo 2019 Beijing. It was voted the most instagrammable site of the exposition. Now the Exposition has finished the Giraffes are helping the Botanic Garden transition from a component of this massive horticultural show to a long term learning destination to inspire in kids and adults alike a love of nature and reinforce education in the importance of sustaining and protecting our environment.
 

I made, with the help of Rolando Pascua, a five minute video detailing the making of the Giraffes. If you have five minutes to spare please do watch it for some extraordinary footage of the project!
 

 

James Doran Webb