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Set designer Es Devlin picked for UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

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Celebrated stage designer Es Devlin has been selected to create the UK’s showcase pavilion at the next world expo in Dubai in 2020

The London-based artist, who has worked internationally on high-profile events including stage sets for the London Olympic Closing Ceremony and shows by Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kanye West, U2 and Adele, is the first woman to win the high-profile commission since world expositions began with The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Her practice – the predominantly female Studio Es Devlin – was chosen for the £1.7 million design contract ahead of a shortlist which included Tonkin Liu, Mangera Yvars Architects, Paul Cocksedge Studio, Steven Chilton Architects and BDP, which designed the Milan 2015 pavilion with Wolfgang Buttress.


The victorious multidisciplinary team features executive architect Veretec, brand experience agency Avantgarde, structural engineer Atelier One, and sustainability engineer Atelier Ten.

Devlin’s winning scheme will be expected to build on the UK’s track record of Expo pavilion successes. Both the Shanghai 2010 pavilion by Heatherwick Studio and the Milan 2015 pavilion by Wolfgang Buttress and BDP won ‘best in show’ prizes, while Asif Khan’s pavilion for the smaller Astana 2017 Expo won a silver design award.

The appointment follows the tradition of selecting artist-led teams to design the UK’s world expo pavilions. Studio Es Devlin, however, features a majority of architect-trained members, including four Part 2s and a Part 3.

Visitors to the UK pavilion in Dubai will enter through an illuminated maze featuring augmented reality-enriched exhibits of British advances in artificial intelligence and space exploration. The interior will feature a choral soundtrack featuring choirs of every continent.

Commenting on her appointment, Devlin said: ‘The UK has an unparalleled record in Expo design: from instigating the very first Expo in 1851 to the recent breathtaking pavilions of Thomas Heatherwick, Wolfgang Buttress, Asif Kahn and Brian Eno. It’s a true honour to be invited to take part.

‘We urgently need to address the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering, art and maths. I’ve learned from my collaboration with the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli that the evolution of scientific thought is often through the contribution of artists, musicians and philosophers as well as physicists.

My hope is that this female-led project will inspire girls and young women to investigate science and technology

‘My hope is that the fusion of architecture, poetry, music and science in this female-led project will attract and inspire girls and young women to investigate areas of science and technology that they might otherwise have felt weren’t for them.’

AL_A founder Amanda Levete and Sadie Morgan of dRMM were named as judges of the design contest in July. Other judges included artist Idris Khan, Architecture & Design Scotland chief executive Jim MacDonald and British Council head of architecture Sarah Mann.

Dubai is the most populous city in the UAE and will be the first city within the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia region to host a world expo. HOK and Arup were selected four years ago to masterplan the £4.75 billion exhibition, which will be located next to Dubai World Trade Centre’s 440ha Jebel Ali development. The six-month-long event is expected to attract 25 million visitors and will run from October 2020 to April 2021.

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The jury

  • Wendy Hall, professor of computer science and executive director of the Web Science Institute, University of Southampton
  • Idris Khan, artist
  • Amanda Levete, founder and principal of AL_A
  • Sarah Mann, head of architecture, design and fashion, British Council
  • Jim MacDonald, chief executive, Architecture & Design Scotland
  • Stephen Metcalfe MP, member of the Science and Technology Select Committee
  • Kathryn Parsons, founder and CEO of Decoded

Q&A with Laura Faulkner, UK commissioner and project director, Expo 2020 Dubai

Laura Faulkner, UK commissioner general Expo 2020 Dubai

Laura Faulkner, UK commissioner and project director, Expo 2020 Dubai

What is your vision for the UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai?

As the first World Expo to take place in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia region, and the first to be hosted by an Arab country, the opportunities to connect with one of the most dynamic, young, and fastest growing regions in the world are immense. The expo will create a ‘world in one place’ environment with an expected footfall of 25 million visitors from across the Gulf States and all over the world including all of the UK’s key trading partners.

We anticipate a highly innovative and creative design which should bring to the fore new technologies and innovations which the UK is currently developing. The design is expected to build on the success of Asif Khan, Wolfgang Buttress and Thomas Heatherwick who have previously designed expo pavilions for the UK.

The UK’s presence will consist of a self-build Pavilion in a large plot within the Opportunity District of the Expo site.

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai

How will the UK’s Pavilion in Dubai match the UK’s award-winning presence at previous expos?

The UK’s presence at the Expo will be designed around the theme ‘Global Britain – Innovating for a Shared Future’. The UK will deliver an outstanding presence at Expo 2020 Dubai, building on its award-winning presence at previous Expos in Shanghai, Milan and Astana. The brief is seeking a high-impact, innovative and creative solution that promotes the very best in British design and technology. The UK Pavilion will form the centrepiece of all the UK’s activity in the UAE, the Gulf and beyond for the period of the expo. As with The Hive in Milan and The Yurt in Astana, the UK Pavilion will offer a unique, and unforgettable experience for all visitors.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • What a sad day that they select a poor copy of Heatherwick. Waste of public funds.

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  • Phil Parker

    But who did Heatherwick copy it from?

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