Thursday, February 29, 2024

Dubai 2021 and beyond

World expos upcoming, proposed and planned

By James Ogul

ABOVE: The Al Wasl dome at Dubai Expo 2020 has projection mapping to highlight and alter the architecture. All photos courtesy of Dubai Expo 2020.

Expo 2020 Dubai, the first world exposition to be hosted in the UAE, was to have taken place this year but was rescheduled due to the pandemic. The six-month event will now run from 1st October 2021 to 31st March 2022. The request by the organizers for the expo to be postponed and to keep its original “2020” title was approved by the executive committee and member body of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based organization that oversees and regulates world expos.

The onset of the global pandemic has not only forced the event to be delayed by a year, but organizers have also had to rethink the logistics behind it in terms of protecting public safety once the gates are open. This includes social distancing and other health and safety measures.

The BIE noted recently on its website that preparations for the event are continuing following precautionary measures established by UAE authorities, stating, “All participating country pavilion construction is set to be completed by the end of 2020, with the BIE and its member states, the UAE government and the Expo organizer jointly developing guidelines to ensure a safe and Covid-free Expo site.”

Building construction has continued with new worker safety protocols. In a recent article in Construction Week, the vice president for Worker Welfare at Expo 2020 Dubai, Emma Seymour, was quoted saying: “With tens of thousands of workers to protect, while keeping the UAE’s largest construction project on track in a safe way, we implemented a far-reaching program of precautionary measures across the entire site, in line with guidance from the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention and the Dubai Health Authority, and the latest information and advice from the World Health Organization.” Expo 2020 has set up three medical and Covid-19 testing facilities on site, which are open around the clock, seven days a week. 

Expo “starchitecture”

The organizers of Expo 2020 Dubai have moved aggressively to complete their thematic pavilions. When it comes to world’s fairs, a six-month expo is the big one – an enormous, global showcase of many things, one of which is architecture. There’s a tendency for it to become a platform for creativity by leading architects around the globe. That’s a substantial part of the aesthetic appeal of a world’s fair for the public; professionally, a world expo project confers status on the designers, organizers and exhibitors.

In past decades, expo buildings were often torn down after closing day. In today’s more sustainability-conscious time, there’s a post plan for the site and for repurposing or responsibly disposing of buildings that is integral to the planning and operational strategy of the event and informs the design from the start. Expo 2020 Dubai is no exception.

The Expo centerpiece, the Al Wasl Plaza, designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) Chicago and Beijing, is complete. According to the firm’s press announcement, “Al Wasl, which is 150 meters in diameter, was designed to have not only the ‘wow factor’ but also to be a central hub during the Expo and beyond. Expo 2020 Dubai worked with AS+GG on the design of the space after the firm beat competition from some of the biggest names in the industry to win the contract. The plaza is topped by a 65-meter-high domed trellis that was inspired by the shape of the Expo 2020 Dubai logo. The trellis will act as an immersive 360-degree projection surface. As the dome is translucent, the projection will be visible to both those inside and out. The numerous other features of the plaza include restaurants, fountains, and parks.”

Al Wasl Plaza connects the three thematic districts – Opportunity, Sustainability and Mobility – and the other main concourses, including the Dubai Metro link and the UAE Pavilion, through its seven entrances and exits. The Sustainability Pavilion, designed by the New York and Dubai offices of architecture studio Grimshaw, is surrounded by solar tracking trees to provide electricity to the pavilion. It is largely completed and will reopen as a science museum after the expo.

The Mobility Pavilion, designed by Foster + Partners (New York) is also largely complete. The pavilion will include a 340-meter track for visitors to see vehicles in operation. The Opportunity pavilion is designed by AGi Architects (Kuwait and Madrid). The adjacent UAE pavilion is designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and resembles a falcon in flight.

Participants’ pavilions near completion

On site construction by international participants is proceeding. U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and U.S. Pavilion Commissioner General, John Rakolta, Jr. has announced that building construction for the pre-fab United States Pavilion is scheduled for completion by November 15.  The U.S. Pavilion which has had a troubled funding history is now on track thanks to $60 million in backing from the UAE. Building construction will be followed by interior fit-out. The exhibition is being designed by Thinkwell Group and will consist of six exhibit galleries totaling 16,000 square feet, a performance stage and a VIP facility. Ambassador Rakolta has said the UAE’s contribution will be supplemented by private sector donations. Pepsi is a confirmed sponsor.

As of September 28, Austria had completed its building construction. The pavilion, designed by Viennese architect Querkraft, consists of 38 cone structures in various heights. It can be dismantled at the end of the Expo and reassembled elsewhere. Next will be interior fit-out for the pavilion which will take place over the coming months leading to the October 1, 2021 opening.

Finland’s Pavilion, designed by architecture firm JKMM, is 90% complete. As reported in Gulf Today, Commissioner General of Finland at Expo 2020 Dubai Severi Keinala said: “Our decision to postpone the final construction elements of our pavilion was made to ensure the final aesthetic elements are as fresh as possible for the Oct. 2021 opening. In particular, the exterior membrane of the pavilion will be added closer to the opening date, as this white surface is what will bring our Snow Cape to life.”

Work on the structure of the Belgian Pavilion, designed jointly by Assar Architects and Vincent Callebaut Architectures working with Besix construction company and scenographic designer Krafthaus, is scheduled to finish in December, after which the building will be closed off for two to three months. In March, work will start on the interior finishing and the installation of sensitive equipment and the many plants and trees that will adorn the pavilion. It is planned to be fully completed by the end of August 2021.

The UK pavilion is looking for music artists to provide source material for its pavilion.  The design team is led by Es Devlin and the agency Avantgarde, with Atelier Ten providing sustainability and engineering services. People from around the world are being invited by the UK to collaborate and contribute to a seven-minute long composition by British sound designers Polyphonia. Talking to Construction Week about the current construction progress, UK Commissioner General Laura Faulkner said: “We have mobilized 100%. The substructure which is critical is 96% complete. The façade is about 50% and the superstructure is about 40% complete.” Faulkner said by December 2020, the pavilion could be viewed in its “entirety,” except for the technology that will go within the exhibition and curation of the visitor journey.

Groundbreaking for the 25-meter high Italian Pavilion took place in November 2019. The pavilion covers an area of 4,900 square meters and is located near the pavilions of India, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and the United States. The pavilion features three inverted ship’s hulls over its roofline and ropes integrating LED lighting technology. Designers are a consortium of Italy’s Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA), Italo Rota Building Office, F&M Ingegneria, and Matteo Gatto & Associati. RAQ Contracting is builder.

Site preparations continue in Dubi in advance of the delayed Expo.

Overall, interior fit-out for all pavilions will require careful planning by each participant given the long delay until opening, with most countries opting not to install all their high-tech show system equipment right away. Ironically for all past expos it has been a rush to the finish line to complete pavilions in time but new thinking is required here to properly pace installations over months of preparation time.

Attendance projections

As for the question of whether the one-year delay will affect attendance, there are currently no revised visitor targets for Expo 2020 Dubai. Pre-coronavirus, organizers had forecast attracting 25 million visits over the six-month expo.  

Sumathi Ramanathan, director of destination marketing at Expo 2020 recently stated, “We believe it’s premature for us to be making any meaningful revision to the data, but by quarter one next year we will be able to share the revised visitation numbers.” She went on to say, “I think more than the revised visitation numbers, what we are really able to see is the appetite and demand for Expo is very strong, particularly from the business community. We will be able to attract a new portfolio of visitors to Dubai because of this event. That will include multinationals, it will include academic institutions, non-profits, a huge number of entities that are interested in technology, in sustainability.”

In summary, plans for Expo 2020 Dubai are proceeding toward the new opening date of October 1, 2021. Reem bint Ebrahim Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director-General of the Expo 2020 Dubai Bureau, stated, ”Expo 2020 Dubai’s core purpose – to bring the world together to develop solutions to challenges that affect us all – will be even more relevant when the Expo begins on October 1, 2021. We firmly believe that we will see huge advances in preventative interventions and medical treatments in the coming months. After all, how far we have come in the few months since Covid-19 was recognised as a global pandemic. That’s why, for now, we are sticking with our expectation of 25 million because the world will be very different in just a few months, let alone the next 13 months that we have until the event time.”

Looking beyond Dubai 2020

Upcoming world expos registered with the BIE include the International Recognized Exhibition, Expo 2023 Buenos Aires and the International Registered Exhibition, Expo 2025 Osaka Kansai, respectively a three-month and six-month event.

Buenos Aires, Argentina has earned BIE approval to host Expo 2023. The expo will run January 15-April 15, 2023. Buenos Aires prevailed over bids from Lodz (Poland) and Minnesota.   

Japan will be the host country of Expo 2025. Japan submitted a definitive implementation plan, known as a registration dossier, in January 2020. This dossier is in review to prepare for the formal registration of Expo 2025 Osaka Kansai by the BIE General Assembly. The Expo will open April 13, 2025 and close October 13, 2025. Its theme is “Designing Future Society for Our lives.”

The BIE will be taking bids for Specialized Expo 2027-2028 and World Expo 2030. There are no official bids so far for these two slots although Minnesota, MN (US) and Malaga (Spain) have publicly indicated interest in 2027-2028 and Houston, TX (US) and Busan, (South Korea) on 2030.

Specialized expos

Specialized, three-month expos, known officially as “International Recognized Exhibitions,” are sandwiched between the larger, six-month events. Their exhibition area can span up to 25 hectares.

The BIE requires governments of a country wishing to host a specialized expo to submit a letter of candidacy to the BIE no sooner than six years prior to the date of the event, after which any other country wishing to compete has six months to bid. In January, BIE Secretary General of the Bureau International des Expositions Dimitri S. Kerkentzes visited the Spanish city of Malaga to discuss preparations for a potential bid to host a specialized expo in 2027. The Mayor of Malaga, Francisco de la Torre, previously visited the BIE headquarters in Paris in October 2019 to discuss the project. Following this meeting, the Mayor invited the BIE to visit Malaga to meet with the team working on the potential bid and to visit the site the city is considering for the event. The area earmarked for the Expo project covers an 80-hectare zone in the Buenavista area of Campanillas, located in the east of Malaga.

The state of Minnesota (US) plans to submit a letter of candidacy to host the 2027 Specialized Exposition. Its theme would be “Healthy People, Healthy Planet.”  The proposed expo would last for three months opening on May 9, 2027.  

World expos

World Expos, known officially as “International Registered Exhibitions,” take place every five years and run six months with no limit on size. A country must submit its bid to host to the BIE between six and nine years before the proposed opening date. After one country has submitted its application to the BIE, all competing countries have six months to submit their own bids. Applications must mention the host city, the theme, the dates, duration, a guarantee of the fulfillment of its obligations, and the legal status of the organizers.

Houston, Texas may be bidding on World Expo 2030.  The Expo Houston Facebook page states, “It has been 35 years since the US hosted a World’s Fair. It’s time to bring the World’s Fair back to America!”

South Korea may bid to host in Busan in 2030. The country has previously hosted two three-month expos: Taejon 1993 and Yeosu 2012. The proposed expo would run from May to November 2030 with the theme, “Sharing the Wisdom of Human Coexistence and Prosperity – Connecting Human, Technology and Culture.” 

Since retiring from the US State Department in 2011 after a 30+ year career in world expos, James Ogul has remained on the scene in an advisory and consulting role. He writes regularly for InPark Magazine about world’s fairs. His book, “Tales from the Expo” is free online at

Jim Ogul
Jim Ogul
Since retiring from the US State Department in 2011 after a 30+ year career in world expos, James Ogul ([email protected]) has remained on the scene in an advisory and consulting role. He writes regularly for InPark Magazine about world’s fairs. See his free online book, Tales From the Expo.
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