by Ivan Parati

Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

Expo 2020’s public realm is one of the most impressive and successful part of the whole operation. The pavilions are certainly important, since they are the contents that attract the public with imaginative architectures, small and large shrines that conceal precious exhibitions and a busy calendar of events made up of concerts, conferences, symposia, exhibitions, presentations, round tables, shows of all kinds that constantly alternate.
Then there is the form, the container of an Expo, which, in its transience, is generally an element to which not too much attention is usually paid, beyond functional characteristics, such as the clear urban layout, simple and universal signage and service spaces that benefit those who work behind the scenes.
In this sense, the cardo and the decumanus, beyond their identity, can still teach us something.
Expo 2020 seems to break this bond of precariousness of public spaces, anticipating, with its permanence, a sustainable future for the area in which it stands, where, in a near future, it will be reborn as the new district of Dubai, District 2020, where part of the pavilions will also be reused as commercial, residential and administrative buildings.

The general masterplan of Expo 2020, which saw the collaboration at various levels of some giants of architecture, urban and landscape planning including HOK, Populous, Arup, AECOM and SWA, presents the characteristic trefoil shape, like a flower blossomed from the arid desert, where each petal forms a thematic district with its own iconic architectural jewel. These three pavilions and the related districts are that of mobility, sustainability and opportunity.
The mobility pavilion, by Foster + Partners, is called Alif from the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, recalling the value of mobility as the origin of civilization. It is a sinuous bundle of chrome slats evoking the engine of a futuristic vehicle with retro details. It hosts a journey through time, beginning with the great Arab explorers – reproduced by supersized hyper-realistic sculptures over 10 meters high – ending with the conquest of Mars, already practiced by the Emirates for some time.

The sustainability pavilion, called Terra, by Grimshaw Architects, is a large satellite disc surrounded by a forest of photovoltaic trees that track the position of the sun. This large umbrella shelters a partially underground structure, to ensure optimal thermal insulation from the summer heat that often reaches over 50 degrees. The outdoor experience, that creates winding and pleasant walks through the various Emirati ecosystems, is dissolved inside in a somewhat outdated model of museum exhibition, very scenic but with few important contents.

The Mission Possible pavilion of the opportunity area is designed by AGi Architects: it is conceived as a large covered square with tubular structures covered in technical fabric, gifting the pavilion with the lightness of a kite hovering above the solid terracotta masses. Here too, while the outside invites exploration and creates different places to casually enjoy as in a real square, the experience inside the pavilion, which would like to encourage each visitor to take action to improve the Earth’s future, gets diluted in unnecessarily oversized spaces.

Shaded outdoor spaces are an Expo 2020 constant trait: in fact, even if the fair took place during the cold months, the mid-day sun can be annoying. The large avenues that separate the thematic areas are covered by a retractable shader called I-Mesh produced by the Italian S.I. of Ancona, a company that from its experience in the nautical sector has managed to create a product that meets the needs of architectural technical fabrics.

Each one of the thematic pavilions is in front of the entrances, welcoming visitors arriving by private means, while a further large access to the area comes from the subway stop, connecting the residential district that houses the workforce employed at Expo 2020 and a new exhibition center that hosts conferences and trade fairs. At the thematic entrances, visitors are welcomed by large carbon fiber portals, a further urban architectural marvel that leads to the control area, structured like an airport checkpoint with metal detectors and scanners for personal items.

The large portals are impressive from a distance, working as a catalyst for the visitors’ flow coming from the car parks and bus terminals. While approaching them, their semi-transparency begins to declare the intertwined mesh, which is still able to enchant for the rigorous shape and the imposing but light cubic mass. They were manufactured in Germany and designed by Pakistani-British architect Asif Khan: 21-meters high and assembled from full-height modules, they were transported night-time on the Bavarian highways and delivered in 9 shipments to Dubai. At a closer look the structure of the modules is simple, a continuous carbon fiber ribbon that intersects at a regular distance with one stretched in the perpendicular direction. The smart shape clearly respects the original intent of creating an ethereal architecture, like a hatching drawn in the air, taking inspiration from a mashrabiya, a typical Islamic decoration. It is usually an intricate lattice structure that traditionally screens windows and balconies to shelter from the heat and for privacy, allowing to see without being seen. It is a structure that can be made in the most diverse shapes, from complex geometric patterns to floral arabesques. With thousands of contemporary declinations, in recent decades it had never been synthesized in such a minimal and effective way. The two large doors hinged on one of the open sides can be opened at will according to the occasion, emphasizing even more the poetic aspect of a solemn but translucent portal that, instead of forcing outside, invites inside.

But the real show are the visitors who reflect the 200 and more nationalities present in the Emirates, including the locals, the natives: at Expo 2020 they all drag the whole family to daydream about a future that has fascinated them for forty years, when they were still children, when they made the dromedaries toiling on the dunes and occasionally received a visit from the sheikh by helicopter, to mediate a clash of land or flocks. They were born when the Emirates united exactly fifty years ago, and this jubilee was a further pride to celebrate with pomp.

Once inside the fair, one would expect that the real protagonist of a universal exhibition would be the pavilion of the country hosting the event, but even in this case the Emirates manage to surprise us. The beating heart of the entire neighborhood is a square, a reference that has little to do with the Middle East where the few noteworthy open urban spaces are intended for religious worship on the front and in the inner courtyard of large mosques. The infinite spaces are still the undisputed domain of nature, with the desert and the sea kept at bay, together with prying eyes, by the high walls that surround the perimeter of the buildings, giving life to a maze of narrow shaded alleys. Within the Al Wasl square, “connection” in Arabic, this reconciliation with nature takes place through a huge hemispherical dome, the most impressive architectural structure of all Expo 2020 with its 67 meters in height and 130 meters in diameter. The microclimate created in the space below is guaranteed by the shading of the fabric elements that facilitate the circulation of air between the steps and the palm trees of the verdant gardens. The Buckminster Fuller of Dubai are called Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and, together with SOM, they are among the minds behind another giant of contemporary architecture, the Burj Khalifa. The Al Wasl dome is a jewel of technology and worldwide collaboration, forged in 3 continents to be partially assembled in Italy by Cimolai Richmond before arriving in the Emirates for the final on-site welding with 5 mm tolerances, so confirming the motto of Expo 2020 «Connecting minds, creating the future». Also, its 252 Christie projectors guarantee the record of the largest 360-degree projection surface in the world.

The radial avenues, that unfold from the center of the district, form the large thematic petals spanning to the entrances. They are further connected in the middle by a loop that allows to move easily through the entire fair. This leads to all the public facilities where the main activities take place, to the two parks with play areas for children, the large stage, the amphitheater, the fountain, the lift garden, the catering area, the food truck pitches and the artistic commissions that dot the neighborhood. Among these spaces, there is the monument to the workers who participated in the construction of Expo 2020, a colonnade of 38 elements engraved with the names of over 200˙000 unskilled workers, a curious tribute by a country often accused of having built its achievements on the exploitation of low-cost labor, mainly coming from the nearest Asian countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Everything seems designed for a multiple experience, for the avid solitary explorer who does not want to miss an emotion and for the chaotic family happy to enjoy large public spaces and attend some engaging shows or performances by talented street artists. If you linger after the sunset, you might see the great digital lion strolling through the avenues, a 15-meters long and 5-meters high puppet with sinuous and realistic movements, moved by a dozen animators. Other curious characters that one can meet in the avenues are the ranks of robots created by the Chinese Terminus. The autonomous workers chase each other through the avenues, while engaged in a series of activities, from body temperature control and the invitation to wear masks to the delivery of meals at special stations, to the distribution of maps to help people find their way around. Robot cooks are also the protagonists of the restaurant pavilion managed by a leading food delivery company.

The fountain is another popular element that attracts masses of visitors and presents an innovative concept for this type of urban feature. Dubai has been hosting for years a record dancing fountain at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, an evocative choreography of high-pressure water jets that are fired at tens of meters to the rhythm of the music, contributing not only to fascinate thousands of visitors mesmerized by the fluidity of the movements, but also to cool down the surrounding areas.
At Expo 2020, rather than having a body of water that gushes upwards, the water falls from the walls of an amphitheater where people occupy the stage, while the most reckless visitors try to climb the walls between the waves that fall to the rhythm of specially composed musical pieces. The curved walls that simulate a cobbled surface absorb the swarms of water that is recycled for the continuity of the show without dispersing towards the audience.

The audiovisual element of the whole fair has been particularly taken care of. Each experience seems to transform itself at sunset, giving it new perspectives. The great canopy of Al Wasl Square from a shading system becomes a dome of light, while the splashes of the water feature change into tongues of fire that lick the astonished visitors while the musical notes emphasize the drama of the set. Even when walking from one area to another the music coming from the different devices does not seem to overlap in a cacophonous way, but rather to blend harmoniously with the sounds of the indigenous dance drums. The enlightenment effect is designed to extend the moment of sunset indefinitely with a variety of devices scattered within the common areas. Another Italian pride, I-Guzzini, has guaranteed a large part of the supply.

In the past, the great universal exhibitions have remodeled entire metropolises, which have thus succeeded in securing their entry into modernity. The fact that most recent editions have not produced icons such as the Eiffel Tower, Mies van der Rohe’s German pavilion or Fuller’s Biosphere is clear to everyone, also because in recent decades the impact of these mega-events has not been limited to the area occupied but has pervaded other areas of the city and the province. In Dubai, with Expo 2020, an attempt was made to recreate the iconic effect which, through architecture, redefines the visual identity of a nation and the great Al Wasl dome succeeded at least in this intent. Although the intention of extending the use of the area beyond the planned six months is commendable, it will certainly not be the well-designed and built public spaces that will contribute to the longevity of a project that by its nature is born as ephemeral. Dubai often seems to repeat the mistakes of the past by creating exclusive bubbles that end up segregating the residents of the various neighborhoods, rather than generating attractive poles with different functions that gravitate people’s lives through complementary and synchronized ecosystems. A glimmer of hope is given by the fact that infrastructures and public transport anticipated the establishment of Expo 2020, helping to connect it with the rest of the metropolis in a concrete way. Only time will tell of the success of this vision.

Photo credits:

1. Night view of the Opportunity District (Photo by Dany Eid) / Vista notturna del Distretto delle Opportunità.
2. Visitors outside Alif, the Mobility Pavilion (Photo by Katarina Premfors) / Visitatori all’esterno di Alif, il Padiglione della Mobilità.
3. Visitors walking through Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion (Photo by Christopher Pike) / Visitatori che passeggiano all’interno di Terra, il Padiglione della Sostenibilità.
4. Mission Possible Pavilion, in the Opportunity District (Photo by Suneesh Sudhakaran) / Il padiglione Mission Possible nel Distretto delle Opportunità.
5. Aerial view of the Mobility Portal (Photo by Dany Eid) / Vista aerea del Portale della Mobilità.
6-7. The Sustainability Portal (Photo by Dany Eid) / Il Portale della Sostenibilità.
11 Night view of Al Wasl Plaza (Photo by Suneesh Sudhakaran) / Vista notturna di Al Wasl Plaza.
8. Opening Ceremony (Photo by Katarina Premfors) / Cerimonia di apertura.
9. Night view of Al Wasl Plaza (Photo by Suneesh Sudhakaran) / Vista notturna di Al Wasl Plaza.
10. Opening Ceremony at Al Wasl Plaza (Photo by Ryan Carter) / Cerimonia di apertura in Al Wasl Plaza.
11. The Opti and Patrol robots at the Sustainability Portal (Photo by Isaac Lawrence) / I robot Opti e Patrol al Portale della Sostenibilità.
12. Children visiting the Water Feature (Photo by Stuart Wilson) / Bambini che visitano la Water Feature.
13. Visitors inside the Dodecalis Luminarium by Architects of Air at Festival Garden (Photo by Anthony Fleyhan) / Visitatori all’interno del Dodecalis Luminarium di Architects of Air al Festival Garden.
14. Aerial view of the Mobility Portal (Photo by Dany Eid) / Vista aerea del Portale della Mobilità.




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