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In pictures: EXPO 2020 Dubai pavilion designs

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Thirty-four nations have now published designs for pavilions at the next world expo in Dubai in 2020, including the UK’s showcase, by celebrated stage designer Es Devlin. Rupert Bickersteth takes a brief look at the history of world expositions and previews the 2020 pavilions

The world of international fairs, exhibitions, expositions – and especially their history – is sometimes confusing. But they are events that have, since The Great Exhibition of 1851 in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, inspired architectural innovation and left a lasting legacy on the built environment of the host cities. From Melbourne to Chicago, buildings constructed, often temporarily, for expos went on to remain and become pillars of the cultural capital of the city and often evolved into state or national institutions.

San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, for example, on the site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, endures as a symbol of the city’s recovery following the devastation of the 1906 earthquake.

Barcelona, similarly, is a city who’s built environment has been tangibly shaped by world expos – first in 1888 and then in 1929, when improvement and refurbishment works were carried out throughout the city:  squares were landscaped; the Marina Bridge was built; the Plaça de Catalunya was urbanised; the Avinguda Diagonal was extended to the west and the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes to the south-west.



One of three larger thematic pavilions planned for EXPO 2020 in Dubai, the Sustainability pavilion by Grimshaw Architects will sit alongside 34 national pavilions. The design draws inspiration from natural processes like photosynthesis. The form of the pavilion is in service to its function; capturing energy from sunlight and fresh water from humid air

More recently the Palavela built for the Italia ’61 Expo by Rigotti has endured. In Brisbane, where World Expo 88 landed, only the Nepal Peace Pagoda remains but the show spurred a major urban renewal and re-development of the suburb of Kangaroo Point. Whole boroughs or simply run-down, former industrial, or failing districts in international cities have expos to thank for their regeneration.

Following the spectacular success of Brisbane, world fairs became big-money events. Countries started to exploit the opportunity to improve their national image and their pavilions quickly became a vehicle for ’nation branding’. At Expo 2000 in Hanover countries invested, on average, €12 million each in to their national pavilions. Sometimes these costs cause nations to think twice before signing up to expos – which now take place every five years but generally the benefits are thought to outweigh the costs.

The Department for International Trade leads the UK government’s presence at World Expos with cross-government support, claiming that ‘they offer the UK a significant opportunity to communicate directly with millions of people, strengthening British soft power and enhancing the UK’s reputation on a global stage – also offering more tangible benefits, such as giving the UK a platform to attract investment, grow trade, increase tourism and encourage people to study in the UK’.

In 2020 Dubai will host a show expected to be visited 25 million times over its 6-month duration. The Middle East has only played host twice before, both times Specialised Expos (smaller in scope and investments than World Expos and generally shorter in duration; between three weeks and three months) and both in Israel.

The so-called Conquest of the Desert expo of 1953 was held at Binyanei Ha’uma, a convention centre in Jerusalem. It focused on the themes of reclamation and population of desert areas, and surely the organisers could not have conceived of developments in the region in the past 60 years. Whether or not it was the theme that drew them in, an astonishing 600,000 people attended in the 22 days it was open.



The Opportunity pavilion by Australian practice Cox Architecture is made from organic materials, including timber, 2,500 tonnes of stone and 111 km of woven rope – it replaces a previously mooted, much larger design by Danish practice BIG

By the time we get to Buenos Aires in 2023 for the next Specialised Expo, and certainly by the subsequent World Expo in Osaka 2025, the impact on Dubai, the the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, will be able to be better assessed, along with the rewards reaped by the nations who exhibit pavilions (34 have currently officially revealed their design and a total of 192 countries have signed-up), as well as the fortunes of the often emerging or relatively unknown architects who have designed them. Having said that, the UAE has commissioned a show-stealing pavilion by Santiago Calatrava to ensure the host nation shines brightly.

Expo 2020 Dubai’s theme – ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ – has itself spawned three huge flagship pavilions representing the theme’s tripartite ‘districts’: Mobility, Opportunity and Sustainability. Besides Calatrava, the Expo 2020 Dubai recruited other big names from the architecture firmament for the themed pavilions – Fosters, Grimshaw and BIG. The latter’s proposal has since been ditched and replaced with a design by Australian practice Cox Architecture.

The UK’s national pavilion, meanwhile, has been designed by Studio Es Devlin, which was chosen for the £1.7 million contract ahead of a shortlist including Tonkin Liu, Mangera Yvars Architects, Paul Cocksedge Studio, Steven Chilton Architects and BDP. Devlin is the first woman to win the high-profile commission since world expositions began. The AJ covered the design and shortlist more fully here.



Fosters + Partners, who opened a Dubai office in 2017 to cope with their burgeoning workload in the region, have designed the Mobility pavilion – arguably modelled on a fidget spinner 

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