Architectural icons: Foster’s Mobility Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Foster + Partners’ remarkable Mobility Pavilion will symbolise Expo 2020 Dubai, breaking new ground in both architectural form and construction engineering. Expo’s Director General Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy and Foster + Partners’ Head of Studio discuss this highly innovative building

Defying gravity

The design for the Mobility Pavilion is as distinctive as it is bold: in elevation it appears to defy gravity, soaring upwards and outwards like a bowl. In plan form, or helicopter view, it is revealed as a trefoil, like a three-leaf clover, evoking connections with the spokes of a wheel or three-bladed propeller. The structure manages to be both classically graceful and strikingly modern. The building will look even more impressive after sunset, when it will be revealed as sitting at the centre of an illuminated multi-level plaza that projects the edifice outward into a wider dimension.

Essential tensions

From the outset, Foster + Partners were faced with multiple puzzles in tackling the Mobility Pavilion brief for the Expo 2020 architectural competition.

Similar dilemmas have faced the architects of almost every Expo structure since Joseph Paxton created his startling glass and iron Crystal Palace for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. These include combining distinctive aesthetics with functional utility, working against tightly defined schedules whilst creating a building that remains timeless, and, perhaps most complex of all, how to combine the particular requirements of a specifically themed pavilion with one that provides a lasting legacy.

Foster + Partners also faced a unique challenge in resolving the essential tensions between the static form and the need to evoke the dynamics of mobility. “Mobility” in the sense of actual movement is, of course, a characteristic that architects and engineers normally seek to avoid in a building. However, in the context of Expo 2020’s sub-theme, Mobility relates to the dynamics of breaking down barriers of time and distance, in the role of modern communications in creating new networks and clusters, and in the influence of emerging technologies and social trends to revolutionise how we move physically and virtually across the planet.

Fluid and dynamic

Sweeping fluidity is delivered in the use of curved shapes and interconnecting spaces while the dynamism is reflected both in the bold trefoil form and also in the adoption of advanced materials and cantilevered construction methods.

Form follows function

“The design of the building and the exhibition evolved in lock step right from the outset,” explains Foster + Partners’ Head of Studio, Gerard Evenden. “The sub-theme of Mobility is split into three distinct sections concerning the mobility of people, goods and data. The tri-foil plan of the building directly conveys this and the diagram has developed around the creation of three volumes, each of which will house a dedicated space.”

Form also follows function when it comes to the surrounding plazas. The exterior landscape of the building will form a dynamic approach and exit for the pavilion with the adjoining areas serving as a platform for interactive shows and experiments that explore the notion of mobility.

Together, the three internal spaces are designed to allow the pavilion to deliver a fast-moving and highly dynamic environment, for which Foster + Partners’ illustrious track record in grand public spaces such as airport terminals and railway stations design is highly relevant. Like these, an Expo pavilion is essentially a hub building that attracts people in, allows them to flow comfortably around but keeps them moving. A great hub has to move people in both senses: allowing constant physical circulation but also striking and memorable individual experience and interaction.

“We are looking to create immersive and thought-provoking displays and interactions that are experientially different from each other while conveying the main Mobility theme,” explains Evenden.

Expo 2020 2
The Italian Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 showcased the country's culture and traditions related to food and eating

Avoiding pitfalls

The essential job description of an Expo pavilion is to deliver a unique and memorable visitor experience that never feels crowded or penned. The Foster + Partners team, working with Land Design, themselves highly experienced Expo stylists, were very conscious that a classic pitfall is to create a structure that looks magnificent but all too often delivers delays, queues and frustration inside.

“People flow will be an important factor in the building’s success. We hope to create a building that can cope with high levels of visitors and in which queues are kept to a minimum,” says Evenden.

Distinctively Dubai

As with every other aspect of Expo 2020, the Mobility Pavilion must symbolise and deliver a vision that is global and universal while also being ‘Distinctively Dubai’ in its context and with cultural and visual cues.

As with every other iconic Universal Exposition Structure, from the Eiffel Tower to Buckminster Fuller’s famous geodesic dome for Montreal’s Expo 67, this must be a building that any city in the world would envy but which looks uniquely at home exactly where it is. It must also be timeless in the sense of being the particular product of its own special moment while remaining unceasingly contemporary and relevant.

Sustainable legacy

The location of the Expo 2020 site near the Dubai World Central project, one of the world’s largest integrated transport and infrastructure hubs when complete, provided further inspiration for the Foster + Partners team.

“Legacy considerations have influenced the approach to the design of the whole pavilion from day one,” says Evenden. “Our research into logistics institutes around the world, were key in shaping the design to ensure it has the ability to add in additional floor area and repurpose mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. Effectively, we have had to design the building for both Expo and post-Expo conditions to ascertain what to build in from the outset.”

In keeping with the overall Expo 2020 aspiration to deliver the greenest exposition ever, the Mobility Pavilion design is heavily influenced by environmental considerations. Cantilevered and louvered facades have been used to create passive shading for the structure, as well as its surrounding landscape.