After a year’s delay – unprecedented in modern day Expo history – the much-anticipated Dubai Expo 2020 opened on October 1st, 2021. For a city-state whose extravagant projects, such as Palm Island and the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – has captured international attention for decades, the Expo is almost an anticlimactic event. However, as a first for not only the United Arab Emirates but also the entire Middle East and with the added uncertainties and challenges of the worldwide pandemic, by any measure Dubai Expo 2020 is a remarkable achievement. As history concerning this Expo continues to be made, it will be some time before we can assess the temporary and long term impacts of the event, but as of January of 2022, architect and urban planner and Expo Book ME Associate Rupak Chatterjee has made multiple visits to the Expo and has prepared the following comments and observations:
Since the first Great Exhibition in 1851 in London, international expositions have continued to be a vital force and testimonial to and celebration of mankind’s achievements and creativity. Not only have World Expos premiered the technologies of their times, but also left architectural landmarks – notably, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, and Brussels’ Atomium.
While the World Expo offers many things including long-term strategic promise of international trade promotion, regional regeneration and revitalisation, elevated urban image, and the means of addressing world issues, at the ‘pedestrian level’ it aspires to enthral its visitors who are simply visiting for a leisure day-out.
As the hype, media, and news surrounding an Expo fade away long after the event itself, what remains in the memory of visitors and ppublic opinion are mainly the experiences of the public realm and event spectacles. And Dubai Expo has put up quite a show in this regard – complimented by its impressive theme and country pavilions.
The Al Wasl Plaza
Having visited the Expo several times during its first three months of operations, it was apparent that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a typical visitor to ‘see it all’. Visiting multiple pavilions on a visit is also a challenge given the covid-related interior-occupancy limitations in pavilions and long-lines outside.
Not surprisingly then, visitors find that the majority of on-site time is spent in the public realm in the Expo’s central arena – the domed Al Wasl Plaza. Arabic for ‘the connection’, Al Wasl was, historically, a lesser known name of Dubai, recognizeing the city’s role as a trading hub between east and west. Reflecting the Expo’s theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, the centrally located Al Wasl Plaza serves as the beating heart and soul of the six month event.
Visitors enter and exit the site by one of four gates. With a variety of pathways and structures affording access throughout the site, the place where all visitors share a common experience is the domed open-air-theatre – the geographic epicentre for the Expo’s three thematic districts of Mobility, Sustainability and Opportunity.
With the dome’s 130m (426 ft) diameter and 67m (220 ft) height, the structure’s presence commands one’s attention at first sight from afar. As the tallest structure on the site, the steel mesh dome provides a literal interpretation of the circular logo which brands the Expo itself. From inside the plaza, the dome provides a unique visual attraction with its internal translucent surface serving as the screen for 360-degree panoramic projections including spectacular light-and-sound experiences each night. During the day, visitors enjoy the shade and unique landscaped environment provided by the dome and plaza.
During the Expo, the Plaza serves not only as the principal venue for all large-scale performances and events such as Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and UAE National Day, but also daily cultural performances, media and news events, and countries’ national days. Recently, football fans were drawn to the Plaza as sports superstar FC Bayern Munich’s, Robert Lewandowski was interviewed centre-stage.
All visits to the Expo involve leisure-walks through its maze of pavilions and pathways. The Expo site circulation network is organized as three ‘petals’ radiating from a central ‘pistil’, the Al Wasl Plaza. This arrangement creates view-corridors towards the imposing central dome from most areas of the ‘petaled’ circulation pathways.
The Entry Experience and ‘Petaled’ Circulation
Sited adjacent to the main urban corridor of Dubai-Abu Dhabi, the Expo is accessed by metro, buses, and private vehicles. The main axial entry from the new Expo metro station leads through a somewhat-ceremonial tree-lined pathway straight to the Al Wasl Plaza. The other three entry points at the tip-ends of the three petaled circulation corridors are crowned with three iconic landmark-buildings featuring the three Expo themes – Mobility, Sustainability, and Opportunity.
Walking along the Expo’s main pathways is a pleasure for the senses: the paths are wide and lined with country pavilions on both sides. A grid of smaller pedestrian walkways weave through and around pavilions offering the visitors smaller-scale courtyards and sit-outs. The Dubai Expo takes one on a journey packed with engaging and immersive content and experiences.
Given Dubai’s sunny climate, shading has been innovatively incorporated along the pathways, alleys and courtyard spaces. All main pathways have retractable foldable-canvas-like shading, reminiscent of shading found in old Dubai souks and neighborhoods. Retracted during daytime and opened during evenings, the shades offer an aesthetic frame for a walk down these main pathways. Complementing these, the branching alleys and courtyards feature innovative towering funnel-shaped free-standing shading features – reminding one of Singapore’s funnel-shaped canopies of Gardens by the Bay.
Note: In the run up stages of bidding and initial planning, Gordon Linden acted as an advisor to Thailand’s bid and later to Izmir, Turkey. After sanctioning, Dubai’s Project Delivery Team engaged Linden to assist in reviewing the overall Master Plan. Linden’s prior experience in Dubai with Bechtel and Parsons on several major projects including the aforementioned Palm Island, gave him insight to the unique characteristics of the planned location and likely challenges including transport, visitor circulation and climate.