Cover The entrance of the Dubai Expo 2020 designed by Asif Khan (Photo: iStock)

Despite being delayed by a year, Dubai Expo 2020 was launched in October and showcases a host of extraordinary architectural achievements—all with important messages about the future of the planet. Here are six must-sees.

Since it was launched in London in 1851, The World’s Fair has been something of an indication of the global trends. Through architecture, planning and experience, this internationally anticipated event that happens every five years was delayed last year due to the pandemic. Finally launched this year in October, Dubai Expo 2020's theme of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” seemed all the more relevant as the world is still recovering from the ravages of Covid-19.

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With equally relevant sub-themes of sustainability, mobility and opportunity, the 192 nations pulled out all the stops to deliver their message to the world through design. The fair will continue until March 2022; we shortlist six unmissable pavilions if you will be visiting this monumental event.

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Mobility Pavilion

Anchoring the Expo's Mobility District, Foster + Partners created a trefoil-shaped pavilion whose form is appropriately kinetic for its theme. Dubbed Alif, its name is in reference to the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and honours the beginning of human progress in its journey across ever expanding frontiers.  

Each of the building's three cantilevered forms contains a gallery with an immersive exhibition designed by London-based design consultancy MET Studio. This exhibition offers visitors an experience that will merge the digital world with the physical, showcasing iconic historical figures whose innovations have shaped  technology in the modern world. This pavilion will also host the world’s largest passenger elevator that can transport approximately 160 people at once.



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UAE Pavilion

Famous for his sculptural organic style, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was honoured with designing the host nation's pavilion. His design was as much a feat of architecture as one of engineering and was inspired by the shape of a falcon's wing. The 27.8m building is topped with a massive movable roof comprising 28 carbon fibre "wings".

These "wings" can fully open within three minutes, positioning themselves anywhere between 110- and 125-degree, and can be closed to shelter the roof solar panels. Built and designed to be respectful of ecological limits and natural resource constraints, the UAE Pavilion received a LEED Platinum certification.

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Morocco Pavilion

The Morocco pavilion, designed by OUALALOU + CHOI, presents a vision for more sustainable housing. Constructed of rammed earth, an ancient technique used in Moroccan villages, the pavilion was built using only materials found within a 5km radius of its location. Its planning also references traditional Moroccan Riad homes usually centred around a courtyard which is lies at the heart of this 108ft high building.

Quite remarkably very few spaces in the pavilion are air-conditioned due to the thickness of the walls which helps to keep the interior up to 15°C  lower than outside. Consisting of 22 houses stacked on top of each other and connected by a single winding street, this pavilion will be transformed into a block of apartments after the Expo ends.

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United Kingdom Pavilion

Known more for designing lavish sets for Kanye West and Broadway, Es Devlin, was part of the team that created the UK’s cone-shaped pavilion, which is made of cross-laminated timber and displays an illuminated series of AI-generated poems. Inspired by one of Stephen Hawking’s final projects titled Breakthrough Message, visitors are invited to contribute with their words which are collected and spelled out as poems that illuminate the pavilion's massive 20m high facade.

The team deliberately chose cross laminated timber as the pavilion's prime material, a sustainable alternative to concrete and steel; they were sourced from sustainably managed European forests in Austria and Italy. Crafted around LED tiles engineered in Belgium, the poetry-generating algorithm was developed by creative technologists in California.

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Italy Pavilion

Using unexpected materials which include orange peels and coffee ground, Carlo Ratti Associati's Italy Pavilion is an investigation in reusable materials and natural cooling.  The pavilion is topped with three boat hulls sporting the green, white and red of the Italian flag, and surrounded by a curtain made from 70km of recycled plastic rope.

The maritime inspiration was gleaned from the figurative journey of three boats embarking on a journey to Dubai before being converted to form the structure’s roof. When the Expo is over, the boats will be reused elsewhere. Construction materials were extracted from the ocean and comprise of orange peels, coffee grounds, mycelium, and recycled plastic. Unusually, the pavilion has no physical walls so that it is exposed to the elements. Eschewing air-conditioning, the pavilion uses natural climate control strategies to keep the interior comfortable. An adaptable façade made of LED curtains and nautical ropes create a digital layer to broadcast multimedia content.

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Sustainability Pavilion

What's a more appropriate way to anchor the sustainability district than a pavilion that generates all of its own water and energy? UK Studio Grimshaw is responsible for its spectacular design which features a 135m wide solar-panel-covered canopy. This canopy accommodates more than 6,000sqm of photovoltaic cells and are all part of the architect’s vision to explore a new way of living sustainably in an environment as harsh as the dessert.

Called Terra, the tree-like structures are inspired by dragon’s blood, a tree found only on Socotra, an island 200 miles off the coast of Yemen. In order for Terra to be net-zero for both energy and water, one of the strategies includes putting most of the usable spaces underground, cased with an earth roof system and cladding above ground surfaces with a Gabion rain screen wall which absorbs the heat while reflecting the sun. Apart from generating electricity and sun-shading, the canopy also serves as a large collection area for stormwater and dew that is used in the building’s water system. 


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