Learning about the importance of Expo through the people who work there
Photos by Paul Williams; Interviews by Tina Kreitlow
Expo 2020 Dubai boasts 192 participating countries, each with their own pavilion. Over half of the pavilions are housed in small, boxy buildings in the central portion of Expo’s three themed areas: sustainability, mobility and opportunity. Even though these countries have smaller spaces to work with many have fascinating exhibits. The Syria pavilion, for example, introduces visitors to the world’s first alphabet and the first known written song, while featuring Syrian art that touches on some of the country’s challenges.
Roughly 70 country pavilions are housed in custom-designed, architecturally unique buildings. These are the pavilions many expo visitors talk about and seek out. For more on the Expo experience and some pavilion highlights, be sure to read Carissa Baker’s piece “A coalition of great design minds: Expo 2020 Dubai.” During InPark’s visit to Expo 2020 we also wanted to get the perspective of people who work in the pavilions, find out what Expo means to them and perhaps even learn why having an Expo is important.
The Iraq pavilion is conceptually simple, yet effective. A wave-like canopy is perched above a series of LED walls of differing widths and heights connected together to create a sort of crooked hallway. The LED walls represent the paths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the height of each screen represents the water level at that point of the river. Around the pavilion a series of markers in the ground demarcate the borders of Iraq, giving visitors an immediate sense of the importance of the two rivers to the country. Guides take guests on a short tour between the two rivers, pointing out landmarks and highlights that appear on the LED walls. At the end of the tour visitors can explore pieces from Iraqi artists.
Sarah Al-Qaisi is one of the Iraq pavilion’s tour guides and has been working at Expo since mid-October. Like many others, Al-Qaisi is excited to share information about her country with visitors. Many people, particularly those from Western countries, have notions that are based on a narrative that other countries have crafted for Iraq. Expo provides a space for countries, and people, to share their own stories.
“I want them to change the image that they have about our country,” says Al-Qaisi. “We have a very rich culture and great art. People need to see it and they need to understand it’s not the same as it’s being portrayed sometimes in the media.”
As an architect, Al-Qaisi has enjoyed touring many pavilions at Expo and she understands the importance of challenging those pre-conceived notions not only through exhibits but through a building’s design itself.
“It’s amazing. I go and I see each and every pavilion is different than the rest. Each building incorporates their culture and their country in very modern way,” says Al-Qaisi. “Then I can go inside and get to know about a culture and get an idea about each country.”
Intriguing architecture can be found across the Expo site, including at The Netherlands pavilion. Industrial and imposing, the building is constructed of giant metal sheets, like what is used to build a marina or a breakwater.
According to Magnus van Haaren, ambassador for the Netherlands pavilion at Expo, a Dutch company builds the metal supports, which have also been used in creating the Palm Dubai as well as many other sea barriers around the world.
Unlike Iraq, which is telling a story mostly about their country, the Netherlands pavilion is focused on Expo’s core theme of sustainability, while still promoting Dutch companies and ingenuity.
Once inside the pavilion visitors see a preshow depicting how water, energy and life are all interconnected. Visitors are handed white umbrellas and enter into the heart of the pavilion, the inside of a giant cone shaped structure. As the main show starts, guests open their umbrellas and see a video projected directly onto their own private umbrella-turned-screen. They learn that the entire pavilion is designed as a way to capture solar energy, extract water and use both to grow food.
“What we present is a major innovation for Expo and for the world to showcase our knowledge of sustainability,” says van Haaren. “We present a solution for how you can generate water in the desert.”
The pavilion uses a patented machine that uses solar energy to extract humidity from the air and, through condensation, generates a robust water supply.
“Around 800,000 liters of water are generated every single day, and we use that water to give life to a vertical farm, which is symbolic of Dutch knowledge about sustainability and vertical farming,” says van Haaren. “Here you can find basil, mint, asparagus and tomatoes. And everything is edible.”
The Netherlands pavilion is one of many conceptual pavilions at Expo, but it is one of the best examples of combining entertainment and information into a solutions-focused format, creating a blueprint for how to live sustainably in challenging environments.
While the Netherlands pavilion is metallic and angular, the Pakistan pavilion is bright and colorful. Its curved walls lean in to create a courtyard and path towards the entrance. Once inside, guests explore the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan.
Visitors see cultural artifacts and images of Pakistan’s topography while learning about the history of the country. After crossing a bridge over the pavilion’s entrance courtyard, the narrative shifts to Pakistan’s current technology capabilities and plans for the future, including ideas for how to combat global warming.
Like many other pavilions, Pakistan uses Expo as an educational opportunity to help people better understand the country and all it has to offer. Amna, a Pakistani worker who preferred to use only her first name, says people were often surprised by the pavilion.
“The one thing we get a lot of feedback on is that people didn’t know Pakistan had such diversity, in terms of the landscapes, in terms of the religions and the culture. It is so deep and so rich in history that people didn’t know about,” explains Amna. “People are very surprised to see this face of Pakistan.”
Amna is also proud of everything Pakistan has accomplished. And Expo provides an opportunity to share that with the world.
“Looking back 20 years and then looking at the current situation, there’s so much more empowerment of women now, and so much more development in the field of education,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
It is amazing. And it is precisely that sense of pride that pavilion staff have for their homelands that makes Expo really special. Yes, Expo is a showcase for technology, art and architecture. Yes, the experiences, entertainment and food are a major part of Expo. But the best part of being at Expo is having the opportunity to meet and interact with people from all around the world. The types of interactions we had with Sarah, Magnus and Amna were replicated time and time again across Expo.
There simply is no other place where one can connect with so many different people and cultures in a single day. Particularly as we become more custom to virtual interactions with one another, we cannot underestimate how important it is to meet someone new face-to-face (mask-to-mask) to share our experiences, our knowledge and our passions. This is the heart of Expo and a core value it brings to the world.