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Expo 2020 Dubai will be remembered for its architectural richness

Vladimir Belogolovsky visits Expo 2020 Dubai where spectacle-driven architecture is the core of the new smart city of the future; shares his list of 20 must-see pavilions.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Nov 04, 2021

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 happens to be an eventful year—the Olympics took place in Tokyo this summer, Venice Architecture Biennale is being held until late November, and Expo 2020 Dubai kicked off on October 1. All three events were originally planned for 2020. This year’s Expo is special for a number of reasons. It is held for the first time in the Middle East. Its grounds are built as the core for a new smart city of the future—District 2020 on the southern outskirts of Dubai. And the current Expo is the most ambitious yet. Occupying an immense area of 438 hectares (1083 acres) or 4.38 square kilometer (1.69 square miles), the fair is hosting 192 nations; for the first time, each country was encouraged to construct its own freestanding pavilion. Including special theme pavilions, there are over 200 of these structures. This is what the organisers surely hoped would make Expo 2020 Dubai particularly remarkable for—its architectural richness. To be sure there is no shortage of spectacle-driven architecture here, whether this effort will succeed as a strategy for creating a new city, sometime after March 31, 2022, when the Expo ends, remains to be seen.  

Historically, World Fairs, that debuted with the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, used to take place sporadically every few years; in 1939, following the Great Depression, two World Fairs were held simultaneously in America—one in San Francisco, the other in New York. Starting at dawn of this century with Expo 2000 in Hanover, these gatherings are being assembled in a more orderly fashion—once every five years, although there are still Specialized Expos that seem to happen quite randomly. Themed "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future," Expo 2020 Dubai, designed by the American firm HOK, is laid out in the form of a flower. Its petal-shaped theme districts are named: Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability. The districts are outlined and crisscrossed by such symbolically named circulation arteries as Horizon Avenue, Sky Avenue, Sunrise Avenue, and Hope Avenue among others. The centerpiece—Al Wasl Plaza, which means “the connection” in Arabic—is topped by 130-meter in diameter and 67-meter-high translucent dome. Its canvas-covered steel trellis forms a dynamic 360-degree projection screen; its design is inspired by the Expo 2020 Dubai logo. The main purpose of the domed plaza is to host nightly large-scale audio-visual performances, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Bright projections that are visible both from within and outside the plaza turn the dome into a lively beacon that connects all pavilions and orients the visitors.

Al Wasl Plaza | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
Al Wasl Plaza Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

The dome and five surrounding 10-13 story buildings, now used as restaurants, shops, and Expo offices, are designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the architect of Dubai’s ultimate attraction—world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa, built in 2010. The firm also planned the future expansion of District 2020, anticipating construction of a new international airport, convention centre, and building millions of square meters of mixed work-live-learn development. There are plans to retain at least 80 per cent of the Expo-built infrastructure and to add offices, housing, hotels, education and entertainment facilities, and whatever else necessary to turn an assortment of buildings into a livable city. 

World’s Fairs are natural places to introduce never-seen-before technological breakthroughs—in the past, they debuted inventions from Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Elisha Otis’ safety elevator, and live television broadcast to Heinz Ketchup, carbonated soda, and the ice cream cone. However, we now live in such fast-changing times that inventors are no longer willing to wait for special occasions to announce their discoveries. So, chances are this Expo will not be remembered for innovations that may be responsible for changing our lives in any significant ways. Nevertheless, while the participating pavilions are showcasing messages that in all kinds of formats—in addition to sophisticated exhibitions, a jam-packed program of entertainment includes up to 60 live shows daily—celebrate local culture, creativity, cuisine, technology, opportunities, future aspirations, and promote practices to better protect and preserve natural environment, what surely will be remembered is its focus on spectacular architecture. After all, this is Dubai, the city of palm and world-shaped artificial islands, canals lined with pedestrian promenades, and numerous towers with unusual, if not bizarre silhouettes topped by eccentric spires and crowns.

While our profession’s most prominent forum—Venice Architecture Biennale that has been tracing architectural global currents and pretty much sets the tone of global architectural discourse—has been firmly rejecting the role of a single authorship and no longer celebrates image-driven design over the last several editions, here at the Expo it is iconic architecture that still enjoys reverence. In addition to the already mentioned Al Wasl Plaza by Adrian Smith, two pavilions—UAE and Qatar—are designed by Santiago Calatrava. Foster and Partners and Grimshaw were commissioned to design two of the three main theme pavilions—Mobility and Sustainability respectively. Singapore Pavilion was designed by WOHA, German Pavilion by LAVA, and Russian Pavilion by Sergei Tchoban, to mention just a few most relevant examples. 

Sustainability Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
Sustainability Pavilion Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

Finally, one question remains—can we expect to find any trend-setting architecture at this year’s Dubai Expo? Not really. However spectacular, buildings gathered here are rather refinements of what we already know and they follow all possible schools, being: literally green, sustainable, iconic, environmentally-friendly, non-single-building environments, program-driven buildings, thrill-buildings, buildings as art objects or conceptual installations; in short, they are “decorated sheds” and “ducts” that demonstrate boundless originality and diversity, celebrated and enjoyed throughout. And it is this display of originality and diversity that’s particularly valuable this year, as Expo 2020 Dubai offers a perfect escape at the time when international travel remains uncommon. So, if you still plan a trip this year or next, where else would you rather go?! Come to Expo 2020 Dubai and experience the world! What follows are my top 10 highlights and a list of ten additional not-to-be-missed pavilions. Based on my own experience at least four days should be allocated to enjoy this global gathering.

01. Brazil Pavilion, JPG.ARQ, MMBB Arquitetos, and Ben-Avid

  • Brazil Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Brazil Pavilion Image: Courtesy of Ben-Avid
  • Brazil Pavilion - Interior | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Brazil Pavilion - Interior Image: Courtesy of MMBB Arquitetos

What is immediately gratifying about this pavilion’s simulated reality in the spirit of The Truman Show film-like setting is that it succeeds so well in the creation of a truly immersive environment—visually delightful and experientially pleasant beach-like atmosphere that makes visitors believe that the surrounding hot desert climate of Dubai is gone. This elegant transformation, such a beautiful manifestation of Brazil’s famed mid-20th century modern architecture—fluid, bold, and structurally adventurous—is enabled by a tensile enclosure made of white steel frame and a light white fabric, raised seemingly in mid-air along the perimeter of the pavilion’s 4,000-square-meter squarish site. Get in under the “skirt” of the Pavilion’s minimalist structure to find chic Brazilian late architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha-designed chairs scattered along the irregularly outlined shallow water basin. A restaurant that serves Acai bowls and other Brazilian culinary specialties can and must be tried in this relaxed setting, which at night is further intensified by projected colorful images of Brazilian ecosystems and cities, accompanied by the country’s unique rhythms and sounds.

02. Bahrain Pavilion, Christian Kerez

Bahrain Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
Bahrain Pavilion Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

Aluminum-clad, 24-meter high cube is an apt representation of this island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Although seemingly randomly cut with long thin windows, each punctured by a short portion of a sticking pipe, the exterior may not suggest what could possibly await on the inside, it is intriguing just enough to want to discover what’s inside the cube. It is not until the winding underground thick-concrete-clad path brings you to a large heavy door that finally would reveal the interior—all at once—an entirely hollow singular cubic volume. Sitting on a concrete floor, all walls and ceiling here are clad in shining foil-like aluminum, while 126 steel columns, 11 cm in diameter and 24-meter-high each, crisscross the entire space. Evocative of weaving needles and meaning to represent the traditional art of weaving, these pipes are joined at several points to form a structural network to support one another, the weaving stations set up on table-like “floating” panels, the walls of what could be an eight-story building, and the roof over it. All aluminum-clad surfaces showcase Bahrain’s top export item after refined petroleum. The dense forest-like space, evocative of a lightning storm, wonderfully animated with bright linear glares, was designed by Christian Kerez, Venezuelan-born, Zürich-based, Swiss architect whose work, described by him as “intellectual minimalism” and is known for its rigorous structural systems that reduce buildings to their primary ideas. His Bahrain Pavilion is likely to be the most well integrated project at the current Expo where architecture, interior, and exhibition all come into singular unity. After the fair, the pavilion will be dismantled and rebuilt permanently in Bahrain.

03. The Netherlands Pavilion, V8 Architects

  • Netherlands Pavilion, V8 Architects | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Netherlands Pavilion, V8 Architects Image: © Jeroen Musch
  • Netherlands Pavilion Section | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Netherlands Pavilion Section Image: © V8 Architects
  • Netherlands Pavilion - Interior | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Netherlands Pavilion - Interior Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

What we are about to see and enter here is one of the most beautiful projects at the Expo, although its creators point out that, while other pavilions are more concerned about how they look, the Netherlands Pavilion is about how it works. Nevertheless, the building is a perfect fusion between its shell and program within—both are perfectly intertwined visually and experientially. It was conceived as the nexus between water, energy, and food, representing a circular climate system, a natural habitat or a biotope. The pavilion’s centerpiece is a harvesting machine, a food cone covered with over 9,000 edible plants and oyster mushrooms. The cone, visible from outside through inflatable ETFE film, produces all three crucial elements—water, energy, and food. The water is collected from the air and then used to irrigate the plants. Natural phenomena such as condensation, solar energy, photosynthesis, fungus production, humidity, and temperature transmission are all utilised here to create a climate system. To enter, the visitors go down to the bottom of a 4-meter deep pit, formed by rusted-out steel sheet piling. Before entering a circular theater under the cone each visitor is handed an umbrella. When opened it turns into a personal projection screen with audio-visual presentation about the science behind the biotope. The entire pavilion is made of just a few elements—all made of rust-covered steel—enormous sheet piles, tubes, ducts, pipes, delicate textile fabrics, vegetation, and open-grid gravel pavements. After the Expo, all these fetishized materials will be returned to the local construction industry.

04. UK Pavilion

  • UK Pavilion, Es Devlin | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    UK Pavilion, Es Devlin Image: © Alin Constantin Photography
  • UK Pavilion, Es Devlin - Interior | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    UK Pavilion, Es Devlin - Interior Image: © Alin Constantin Photography

Being one of the most original designs at this year’s Expo, the UK Pavilion is conceived as a curious object, a performance art piece. Called the Poem Machine, it is constructed from cross-laminated timber, which was grown and assembled in Europe, and shaped like a giant wooden conical musical instrument. The Pavilion is designed by Es Devlin, a London-based artist and designer who is known for creating large-scale installations and environments that combine music, language, and light. The Dubai piece continues a series of her projects that explore machine-generated poetry. Here poems are created from words submitted by visitors as they login by scanning a QR code through the browser app. Advanced algorithm then generates the cumulative collective poem written in English and Arabic and displayed with LEDs both within the Poem Machine’s accessible interior and on its 20-meter-diameter facade, which is assembled out of protruding slats. Curiously, both conceptually and visually, this work builds on the legacy of the UK Pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai called Seed Cathedral by Thomas Heatherwick, as his key strategy was to design a pavilion whose architecture was a direct manifestation of what it was exhibiting. As a result, Delvin’s art piece avoids the need to brag about her country’s environmental record. Instead, her Poetry Machine is willing to work with spontaneous thoughts and ideas to let the AI sort through it and inspire us all.

05. UAE Pavilion, Santiago Calatrava

  • UAE Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    UAE Pavilion Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky
  • UAE Pavilion - Interior | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    UAE Pavilion - Interior Image: Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava
  • UAE Pavilion, Sketch Falcon | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    UAE Pavilion, Sketch Falcon Image: Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava

Situated on its own block and face to face with the central domed Al Wasl Plaza, the UAE Pavilion for the host country, is expectedly, by far the biggest one at the Expo—about three times as big as the China Pavilion, the second biggest national pavilion. This truly magnificent structure is designed by Santiago Calatrava who effectively relied here on his often used bird-in-flight metaphor. The building’s design is inspired both by the traditional Bedouin tent and falcon, the national bird of the United Arab Emirates, with its wings thrown forward as it lands. This dynamic image led to creating an unusually elegant building. Set deep into the ground it steps back from the surrounding sidewalks to allow for a large sunken refuge garden with trees and reflecting pools at the front. The building is accessed both by two symmetrical long bent ramps and via a ceremonial bridge that shoots right to what would have been the bird’s chest. As with other Calatrava-designed buildings the Pavilion’s most spectacular element is its roof, composed of 28 movable carbon fiber “wings” that make the building feel “alive” as they continuously open and close in a synchronised series of graceful swings. They overhang far beyond the building in their impulse to protect it fully and almost touch the ground around it. As the wings open, they let the hidden photovoltaic panels absorb the maximum amount of sunlight to harvest energy, which is then returned to the main power grid. When closed, the wings shelter and protect the panels from rain and sandstorms. The exhibits inside are fully isolated and the main intrigue here is to see the oculus skylight at the apex of the roof, which is arguably the most dazzling thing at the entire Expo. Landscaped areas surrounding the Pavilion are also of interest.

06. Qatar Pavilion, Santiago Calatrava

  • Qatar Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Qatar Pavilion Image: Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava
  • Qatar Pavilion - Interior | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Qatar Pavilion - Interior Image: Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava

The Qatar Pavilion, also designed by Santiago Calatrava, is another image-driven design that this time pays tribute to the four elements represented on the Coat of Arms of Qatar—two crossed curved swords, encompassing a Dhow and Island with palm trees. This is the imagery that Calatrava used to create a much smaller pavilion that comprises two interconnected galleries—non-linear triangulated, all white colour spaces with highly polished white marble floor and curved fanned ceilings with pleated and patterned profiles that aptly evoke palm tree leaves. The double-room interior is effectively used to display immersive wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling projections; the sculptural forms and spaces capture movement to reflect on Qatar’s dynamic development. The building is almost entirely surrounded by a narrow reflecting pool to represent the Arabian Gulf, which encompasses the nation of Qatar. What needs to be mentioned here is how quickly this impeccably built building was realised. The architect was commissioned this in April this year, which means that the entire project delivery timeline took under six months—a lightning speed of construction by any standards, which is a great testimony to the Pavilion’s slogan “The future is now.”

07. Russia Pavilion, Sergei Tchoban of SPEECH

  • Russian Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Russian Pavilion Image: Ilya Ivanov, Courtesy of SPEECH
  • Russian Pavilion - Interior view of human brain model | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Russian Pavilion - Interior view of human brain model Image: Ilya Ivanov, Courtesy of SPEECH
  • Russian Pavilion, conceptual sketch | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Russian Pavilion, conceptual sketch Image: Courtesy of Sergei Tchoban

Situated at the summit of two centrally located avenues in the Mobility district, Russian Pavilion enjoys one of the most prominent spots at the Expo. It looks somewhat like Saturn due to its large domed form bundled with horizontally revolving multi-colour lines that imply speed, movement, and diversity of Russia. In fact, Russian German architect Sergei Tchoban, co-founder of Moscow-based SPEECH that designed and oversaw the construction of the Pavilion calls his creation “Planet Russia” to underline the country’s size and diversity of its population and culture. Here in Dubai the Pavilion’s distinctive surface is associated with coloured lines of a traffic flow and the notion of speed at night. It is worth mentioning that at night the building is lit by specially designed pole-thin LED lanterns spaced around it, which adds something of a cosmic glow, appropriately reflected in the surrounding pool of water, lit in neon blue. Among other roots for Tchoban’s design solution are colourful works by such Russian avant-garde artists as the constructivist Yakov Chernikhov and the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich. And how can we forget the multi-colour onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square?! The building is defined by a double dome structure—one within the other, like the Russian nesting doll, Matryoshka. The ground floor is partially open to the outdoors to house a reception area with shops and restaurant, and escalators to send visitors to the third floor, passing the intermediate VIP level, right into the top domed space with a high-tech multimedia exhibition centered on a huge model of the human brain. Now we are inside of a huge head, which, by the way, refers to a series of Tchoban’s explorations in his own fantastical drawings. It is important to mention that the bent aluminium tubes, coated with protective coloured polymer in six different colors, were manufactured locally. And, finally, the Pavilion was designed with the intention to remain here after the Expo to continue its mission as the Russian Culture center in Dubai.

08. Singapore, WOHA

  • Singapore Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Singapore Pavilion Image: © Singapore Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai
  • Rainforest Cone in the day | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Rainforest Cone in the day Image: © Singapore Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai

Anyone who visited this small island nation in Southeast Asia will envy its lushly-landscaped streets and parks that epitomise Singapore’s vision of becoming a ‘City in Nature’. Designed by the country’s most prominent architectural practice WOHA, known for their distinct approach to biophilic design and integrated landscaping to form new amiable relationships between urban and natural worlds, the Pavilion is a proof that nature can thrive even in the middle of a desert. In fact, according to the Pavilion’s commissioner general Larry Ng, there are 80,000 plants of more than 170 varieties here, making it by far the greenest structure at the whole Expo. Rising seemingly out of a pool of water the building represents a green, living self-sufficient ecosystem. There are three verdant thematic cones with exhibits within that showcasing Singapore’s transformational journey of becoming a sustainable city set within a garden. The cones are connected by a meandering, gently-sloping Canopy Walk capped with a hanging garden of draping vines, recreating the atmosphere of the lush tropical urban landscape of Singapore. Amazingly, there are “doctor” robots that traverse the green walls to monitor the health of the plants with their cameras and sensors to check humidity and oxygen levels. It is one of the few pavilions that did not use air-conditioning in any of its public spaces. Instead, throughout natural ventilation, deep shade, and strategically scattered dry mist fans help to fight the desert hot temperature; still, it is better to come here when the sun finally goes down, just in time to see the Biomorphosis light show, for which visitors eagerly line up every night.

09. Germany Pavilion, LAVA

  • Germany Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Germany Pavilion Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky
  • Germany Pavilion - Interior | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Germany Pavilion - Interior Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

The German Pavilion, referred to as Campus Germany is one of the most ambitious projects at the Expo and one of the most engaging, as it has been attracting a constant flow of visitors with at least 40 minutes wait time just to get in for a packed interactive program that requires at least another hour. And, if you plan to have a beer and a filling German meal to regain some lost calories, you may spend a good quarter of your day in this building. In a way, architecture steps back here; it is rather a result of what it packages within. Designed by LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture), a network of offices in Sydney, Stuttgart, and Berlin, founded by Chris Bosse, Tobias Wallisser, and Alexander Rieck, the German Pavilion presents itself as an ensemble of volumes, surrounded by various connectors—stairs, escalators, bleachers, ramps, and in-between platforms and bridges. The building’s appearance is based on so-called stacking diagram design strategy pioneered by Rem Koolhaas and exemplified in such experimental buildings as his Seattle Public Library or unbuilt Hyperbuilding, a self-contained city, proposed for Bangkok. Both designs emphasise the program, not the overall look, and combine various components that can be interchanged during the design process, while revealing unplanned enclosed voids that in turn can generate unexpected programs. The multi-level Campus Germany is a lively concoction of presentation spaces, playrooms, interactive learning labs, and video installations where visitors can enjoy the campus atmosphere at their own pace. Inevitably, the building itself serves as a connecting tool, becoming part of the featured exhibitions.

10. Water Feature, WET

  • Water Feature | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Water Feature Image: Surreal, Courtesy of WET
  • Water Feature - Detail of curving wall | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Water Feature - Detail of curving wall Image: Surreal, Courtesy of WET

The Water Feature, called Surreal, is not a national pavilion. It serves as an apt resting station, which, in my case, turned into lots of welcomed fun. Set within a garden of towering palms and fragrant plants, Surreal is a sunken plaza surrounded by a four-story high circular curving wall that releases water waves leaping down in intense cycles that repeat every few minutes. This spectacular feature occupies an area of about half a football field. The waves range from glistening sheets to bursts of water, descend to the plaza below and disappear through the spaces between black pebbles. People are encouraged to remove their shoes and play with water. The experience is accompanied by a recording of an orchestra-performed music, especially composed for the piece. At night the water is illuminated in bright colours and the plaza’s sculptural element at the very centre exhausts bursts of flames in hues of red, green, and yellow. Surreal is the brainchild of Mark Fuller, the founder of Los Angeles-based WET, a large design firm specialising in designing and developing water features worldwide. Think of the coolest fountains around the world—from Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas and HSBC Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi Airport to The Dubai Fountain and Revson Fountain at Lincoln Center in Manhattan—they were all designed by WET.

  • Finland Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Finland Pavilion Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky
  • Saudi Arabia Pavilion | Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews Expo 2020 Dubai | STIRworld
    Saudi Arabia Pavilion Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

Ten  additional pavilions not to be missed in alphabetical order:

Australia Pavilion, Bureau Proberts
Finland Pavilion, JKMM
Japan Pavilion, Yuko Nagayama/NTT Facilities
Mobility Pavilion, Foster and Partners
Republic of Korea Pavilion, Mooyuki Architects
Saudi Arabia Pavilion, Boris Micka Associates
Spain Pavilion, Amann Cánovas Maruri
Sustainability Pavilion, Grimshaw
Switzerland, OOS
USA Pavilion, Woods Bagot

What do you think?

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