Expo 2020 Dubai: adventures in time and space

Expo 2020 Dubai is one of the most ambitious construction projects in the region. Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation, Director General Bureau Expo 2020 Dubai, examines the planning and design concepts that lie at the heart of the project

A World Expo, or Universal Exposition in official nomenclature, lies amongst the global mega-events like a FIFA World Cup or an Olympiad for profile and prestige, but accommodates millions more visitors, for far longer than either.

Indeed, an Expo, six months in duration and able to attract tens of millions from across the globe, is arguably more significant in long-term influence and its ability to bring about change.

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Joseph Paxton's 'cathedral of industry', Crystal Palace

Partly, this is because of its guiding remit: a Universal Expo is a once in five-year chance to showcase a city, country or region and also to capture and reflect the spirit of an age. It should provide, as HH Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum recently observed, “a festival of human ingenuity”. Such ingenuity is most visible in an Expo’s architecture: the physical form of the site and its showpiece pavilions.

For Expo 2020 Dubai we chose a theme: Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, which reflects the times in which we live and the profound challenges that lie before us.

It is a highly optimistic theme that recognises the need for nations to work together to build a better future. Reaching that future requires us to expand our thinking and devote our energies to creating greater Opportunities for all, providing constantly improved Mobility, both physical and virtual, and ensuring that everything we undertake works towards a more Sustainable tomorrow.

These three sub-themes: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability – point towards lives that are more rewarding, more dynamic and that honour the rights of generations to come. They also provided the bedrock of the landmark pavilion briefs, sent out to more than a dozen of the world’s greatest architects.

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An artist's impression of the Mobility Pavilion, designed by Foster + Partners

The spirit of Expo

Great architecture should reflect its time and place and yet remain timeless. The best legacies of World Expos achieve this feat. Though the original 1851 Crystal Palace, that housed the world’s first Expo, is no more, it lives on in name and the glass structures it influenced.

In its vision, technology and daring physical statement, Joseph Paxton’s iron and glass cathedral of industry perfectly embodied early Victorian determination and enterprise. Similarly, Seattle’s Space Needle, Montjuïc Park in Barcelona, the Atomium in Brussels, Montreal’s Habitat ’67 and Buckminster Fuller’s iconic Biosphere Dome have all come to define their host cities, as does the most enduring and symbolic of them all, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Each structure reflects the cultural spirit of an age and a place while pushing the envelope of available materials and technologies.

For Expo 2020 the three main theme pavilions were the subject of an architectural competition that attracted submissions from the world’s leading practices, all of whom received a multifaceted brief.

In each case, the pavilion had to turn the theme into something tangible, while also making a design statement that captures contemporary society. It should use space to integrate harmoniously with its setting and surroundings. Culturally, the pavilions should reflect the very special nature of our unique event, the first Expo to be hosted by an Arab nation and staged in the almost three billion-strong MEASA region. Then there were all the requirements that reflect the nature of Dubai, itself a profound and admired grand architectural statement.

Distinctively Dubai

Like New York and London, Dubai has an unmistakable skyline. For the selected architects, this means their pavilion must have a unique and distinctive identity too – one that reflects Expo’s Middle Eastern setting and helps define Dubai for a new age. So, the final part of the design equation was legacy. Literally constructed with legacy in mind, Expo 2020 aims to influence and shape the future, through inspiration, visualisation and collaboration. The landmark buildings had to support this aspiration by incorporating a viable and valuable post-Expo identity. Only by becoming used, enjoyed and therefore loved, can an Expo structure or building enter the ranks of timeless “classics”.

All four of the chosen centerpiece pavilions for Expo 2020 seek to fulfil that brief, but in very different ways, showing the full range of architectural boldness, ingenuity and creativity.

As we will explore in future articles, the winning entries for the three theme pavilions are all remarkable structures – visionary and worthy of the UAE’s far-sighted imagination. No less impressive is the UAE Pavilion, which will set the standard for what we hope will be an array of outstanding country and corporate pavilions – representing some 180 nations and a host of innovative companies.

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The Mobility Pavilion will be composed of fluid curves and dynamic space-age materials and cantilevered structures. Pictured: an artist's impression

The competition winners

An elegant conception by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of Copenhagen and New York, the Opportunity Pavilion follows their essential ethos that 21st-century design should reflect the confluence of cultural exchange, global economic trends and communication technology. With minimal carbon footprint, the form uses shade and the maximum photovoltaic roof surface possible for high-performance cooling power.

Accordingly their pavilion, with its arched design above a planted courtyard, combines a strikingly beautiful contemporary form that appears almost to defy gravity while still managing to convey echoes of ancient Arabic architectural memes. It is also subtle: what seems at first glance square edged, is in fact delicately curved in almost every facet, creating recesses and cool spaces that invite visitors inwards for a journey of exploration structured around a spiralling and continuous exhibition bench surrounded by “deep dive” areas for reflection.

The winning design for the Mobility Pavilion comes from London practice Foster + Partners, the force behind some of the world’s most impressive buildings. Of course, Foster + Partners is no stranger to the UAE, with important work already carried out by the practice in the ultra-ecological Masdar City. The practice’s take on Expo is a stunning tiered trefoil-shaped building at the centre of an illuminated plaza, which in plan form evokes a three-spoked wheel. The whole conception is expressed in fluid curves and dynamic use of space-age materials and cantilevered structures. This is a “smart” building and will support legacy use – possibly, as a logistics learning hub.

Form follows function

Perhaps even more remarkable in its ambition is the Sustainability Pavilion, situated in the heart of the desert. Fittingly, it is created by Grimshaw, the UK-based eco-architecture specialists who first achieved worldwide renown with the climate-controlled geodesic domes of the Eden Centre in Cornwall. Here, too, boldly futuristic structures reveal harmonies between architecture and nature as visitors pass through a natural spiral of rock, earth and plants, all shaped by its solar function.

Grimshaw’s structure is engineered to extend the envelope of self-sustaining architecture. The main pavilion is conceived as a huge tilted circular panel supported by a complex grid structure that literally funnels water into the core of the pavilion. The pavilion uses spirals that convey moisture from above, while visitors explore naturally cooled shaded areas and landscaped gardens below, surrounded by striking solar “palm trees” that swivel like flowers to follow the path of the sun.

The falcon flies

The fourth architectural jewel in the Expo 2020 crown is the UAE National Pavilion, designed by Spanish-based Santiago Calatrava. At the heart of the site, Calatrava’s moving “feathered” design, with its radiating walkways, evokes the wing of a falcon in flight to symbolise what the architect calls, “the UAE’s bold and daring spirit”, a timely symbol of our upcoming Golden Jubilee in 2021. Remarkably, the building changes form, with the “feathers” also serving as functional panels that unfold to capture the sun’s energy, so the bird “nests” as the sun sets. It will provide 15,000 square metres of exhibition space, featuring display screens, terraces, cafe areas and VIP lounges.

Each building deserves a feature in its own right, and future articles will provide “virtual tours” of each, and insights into the concepts that inspired them, the construction challenges faced in bringing them to life, and their future application in the post-2020 legacy plan for the site.