For centuries, the World’s Expo — or World’s Fair — has brought innovation, architecture, and experience together to unite the globe and celebrate our unique differences.
We were grateful to spend 2 days at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai and was able to see countries showcase the best of architecture, technology, and sustainability all in one place.
Below are just a few design and architecture trends we witnessed from the overall master plan to some of the best country pavilions.
The historic event has introduced the world to some of the most eye-catching inventions over the years such as the elevator (1854 New York), the phonograph (1878 Paris), the ferris wheel and zipper (1893 Chicago), the ice cream cone and electricity (1904 St. Louis), the television set (1939 New York), and even the mobile phone (1970 Osaka).
While this year didn’t introduce a specific revolutionary innovation, the expo’s theme of ‘connecting minds, creating the future’ was palpable throughout every country’s pavilion and common areas.
Expo 2020 is the first World Expo to be staged in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. This year also made history by being the first time that every country had representation in a pavilion, for a total of 191.
The 1,000-plus acre master plan, designed by American firm HOK, was divided into three zones — opportunity, sustainability, and mobility — shaped into a petal formation intertwined with pedestrian walkways, plazas, and more. At its core, the design clusters into a central plaza named Al Wasl, the historic Arab name for Dubai meaning “the connection”.
2020 World Expo’s Centerpiece
(this year’s Eiffel Tower or Space Needle)
Ever since the first Expo in 1851, iconic architecture has been a core tenant like the Crystal Palace built in London that year.
The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Since then, the World’s Expo has been the site for global landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, and the Křižíkova Fountain in Prague.
For Expo 2020, the Al Wasl plaza is a dome with a 150-meter diameter designed as the central hub for performance space surrounded by restaurants, fountains and parks.
The spherical space is truly a wonder to experience and given its translucent material, the space complements the sky at all varying moments from sunrise to sunset.
It will also act as an immersive 360-degree projection — the largest in the world. During the Expo, regular performances celebrated space travel, Emirati culture, nature, world unity, and much more.
TERRA: Sustainability Pavilion
The main funnel-shaped canopy of the pavilion is covered with photovoltaic panels that power much of the exhibit. The shape also collects rainwater and shades the landscape beneath that is mostly built in-ground to keep it cool. A short hiking trail loops around the rim providing views and relaxing alcoves in native landscape. The building intends to be a LEED Platinum certified structure and serve as a net-zero energy facility.
Smaller, solar “trees” surround the site that move with the direction of the sun. And below ground, the “roots” monitor the weather and humidity to tell exactly how much water is needed to the surrounding landscape — allowing to save up to 70% in irrigation water.
Country Pavilion: United Arab Emirates
The size of this pavilion is truly massive, as you can see in trying to get full photos of the structure. Its winged shape is meant to represent the strength of the falcon that has a great importance to the country and its people.
The wings flip out once the sun rises and reveal solar panels that shift with the sun for optimal power. At night, you see the wings shut awaiting a new day.
Country Pavilion: United Kingdom
The UK pavilion pierces the sky with its cross-laminated timber structure with a global message on the end of each piece. Inspired by Stephen Hawking’s final project, “Breakthrough Message”, which invites visitors to answer ‘if you met someone from outer space, how would you describe Earth in just a few words?’. AI then generates a poem compiled from visitor submissions that rotates every few minutes.
Country Pavilion: Italy
In one of the most astonishing displays (that was even hard to capture in a single photo), Italy’s pavilion has a roof wrapped by a trio of giant boat hulls. Long ropes dangle from all side that were made from recycled plastic as well.
This was meant to demonstrate the power of using existing materials in construction, an important concept in the future of sustainability of our built world.
Country Pavilion: Luxembourg
Country Pavilion: Luxembourg
This unique design is like a mobius strip, the looping geometry of a single structure with no beginning or end. Also a fun fact, Luxembourg was the sole provider of steel and glass that made up the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world in downtown Dubai.
Country Pavilion: Morocco
The building block structure of Morocco is made of rammed earth, a historic material that could again prove worthy in sustainability efforts as being an alternative to steel or concrete.
Inside the 6-story structure, a continuous ramp winds upward to reflect the streets of Moroccan medinas.
Country Pavilion: Singapore
It seems fitting for Singapore that its pavilion has no defining line between architecture and nature.
Counting the outside and inside in an immersive 3-dimensional greenery, there are 80,000 plants from 170 different species.
To top it all off, the rainforest is powered by a self-sustaining ecosystem with net-zero energy produced.
(It is worth mentioning, if you haven’t noticed already, that we were not able to go inside many pavilions. As the final week of the Expo, fast passes and large crowds — 500,000 one day! — made it impossible to truly experience what’s inside. However at the bottom of the article, we provided a link to a virtual Expo they set up that allows you to explore the ins and outs of every pavilion.)
Country Pavilion: Pakistan
The Pakistan pavilion is a true testament of when architecture becomes art. Renowned artist, Rashid Rana, transforms the pavilion with 24,000 unique glass pieces that are only fractionally different from each other in size and shape.
The piece, Unity of All that Appears, creates a colorful display of an optical illusion that all melds together in harmony. The building is meant to represent Pakistan’s immense “diversity it has to offer — geographically, climatically, culturally, ethnically and racially” says Rana.
As an honorable mention, Bahrain’s cubic, steel structure was pure beauty especially contrasted next to Pakistan. Kudos to whoever placed that pairing together.
Country Pavilion: Sweden
In my personal favorite pavilion, Sweden uses pieces of vertical lumber to surround the pavilion lifting up some structures like treehouses.
They mean to use the forest as a metaphor for co-creation — a form of collaborative innovation where ideas that are shared are improved upon together.
Country Pavilion: Switzerland
Talk about a red carpet entrance. In one of the most unique facades at the Expo, Switzerland’s name isn’t used once on the building, but rather reflected from the red carpet below. The pavilion is composed of mirror-like windows and designed with sharp angles converging at the entrance.
The entrance perfectly reflects the carpet reflecting the country’s flag. To make things more fun, every attendee entering receives an umbrella to hold — to keep them shaded from the desert sun, but also as a fun marker embellished with markers to play with upon your red carpet entrance.
Country Pavilion: Czech Republic
Metal tubes run in all directions wrapping the Czech pavillion like a nest. Until you dive deeper, you don’t realize these have an important function to the building as they twist from the roof to the gardens and back and forth — explaining why they labeled the building as a spring.
The pavilion’s main design is built around S.A.W.E.R. — a unique technology developed at the Czech Technical University in Prague. This system produces drinking water from the air humidity, even in the driest desert conditions. As you go inside, the metal tubes continue but now with glass bubbles filled with air and water that lead down to a pool of water, or a spring rather.
The system — standing for solar, air, water, earth, and resources — can work autonomously without any connection to the power grid, so it’s suitable in areas with little infrastructure.
Public Space: Entrance/Exit gates
Talk about a first impression. These massive carbon-fiber composite cubes, designed by Asif Khan, physically open and close as the literal gates, or portals, to the Expo site.
The size and intricacy of the structure — 21 meters high and 30 meters wide — is truly something to behold. Three of them sit at each of the entrances.
Public Space: Intersecting, shaded walkways
As massive as the Expo site is, walkability and access were never forgotten. The next-level urban planning is all connected with wide walkways and paths weaving through greenways, retail, and more. Technology walks with you in the form of autonomous robots, automatic retractable roofing, and a harmonious flow fit for what comes next with District 2020 — a 15-minute smart city.
Well, that’s it! It was truly a magical experience full of wonder of architecture, innovation, sustainability, and strong sense of unity. As the smart city gets built, may the site be something we can all experience at some point and be a beacon for how future construction and urban planning can be done when all work together.
The Expo 2020 may be over, but in true Dubai fashion has been digitized for all to experience. Take a look and explore the site for yourself at https://virtualexpodubai.com/.
All photos in the article are the author's own unless otherwise specified.