After a long-awaited beginning, the International Expo 2020 has finally opened, much to the cheer of the 192 participating countries. Postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the Dubai-hosted event will be an ongoing fiesta from October 2021 until March 2022. A period of 6 months may seem like a lot, but as anyone who has been to an Expo before can relate, it would hardly be a sufficient amount of time to explore all visual delights on display. Every country, keen on displaying its technological might, has several captivating exhibits that showcase its best innovations. The experience is spread over more than a 1,000-acre land between the borders of Dubai & Abu Dhabi, with each member country being allotted its own ‘pavilion’. Expo 2020 is the third most celebrated global event after the Olympics & FIFA World cup. With an estimated daily visitor footfall of over 1.5 lakh, the scale of the venue matches its ambitious scheme resulting in a grand spectacle.

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Visualisation of the central plaza at Dubai Expo 2020_©Populous

A fete of such extravagance called out for the best creative resources to craft a unique vision for its theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’. Pioneer architectural firm HOK has done just that and more with their design of the master plan which finds inspiration from the concept of a traditional Arabic ‘souk’ (marketplace). A giant plaza or ‘Al Wasl’ (Arabic for ‘connection’) is placed at the nucleus of 3 surrounding ‘districts’ designated after the 3 sub themes of ‘Sustainability’‘Mobility’ and ‘Opportunity’. The country pavilions are segregated into these districts with larger pavilions at the perimeters and smaller ones clustered inwards, thereby encouraging effective circulation & interaction. Each district has a dedicated pavilion of its namesake, designed respectively by leading architectural firms Grimshaw Architects, Foster & Partners, and AGi Architects. As physical embodiments of the subthemes, they aim to generate awareness about each subject and its impact on society. Apart from main pavilions, plenty of other structures dot the landscape – organizer pavilions that aid visitors in navigation, corporate pavilions for sponsor companies, women & children’s pavilions, parks, and even a Mosque that caters to religious needs.

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Expo 2020 – A sense of the Master Plan_©

When a site is this large and logistics this complex, transportation & circulation become key aspects of planning. While pedestrian friendliness and differently-abled access are elementary, quick & efficient transportation is equally important for the smooth circulation of all users. This has been addressed through integrated public transport (metro & buses) and on-site shuttle services (gondola links). For those who may feel disoriented, kiosks, 3D maps, and clear signage help in getting their bearings. Additionally, the towering Al Wasl is less than a 15-minute walk from any corner of the site. With spill-out spaces, food courts, auditoriums, etc, the venue offers a common meeting ground for innovators, policymakers, investors, and others from across the globe to interact and curate collaborative opportunities.

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Photovoltaic panels shade pedestrian walkways while storing solar energy to produce an illuminated display at night_©HOK
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Photovoltaic panels shade pedestrian walkways while storing solar energy to produce an illuminated display at night_©HOK

Sustainability District: Terra

The hope for the Expo is to bring world technological innovations into a shared spotlight, using state-of-art digital experiences like innovation pods, VR & AR, smart screens, AI, surround sound, etc. Along with other facilities, the Expo aims to set a high precedent of advancements in the field of sustainability through measures such as solar power generation and wastewater recycling. Many pavilions in the Sustainability district, ‘Terra’, are showcasing experiential exhibits that educate the public on climate change and its impact on the future. To name a few, Brazil’s ‘Walk through a waterfall’, Czech Republic’s ‘Water the desert’, Singapore’s ‘Enter a rainforest’ and Netherlands’ ‘Enter a miniature world’ bring threats faced by global ecosystems and how they can be preserved to the forefront.

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A collage of visualizations from Terra district exhibits; from L to R: Brazil, Czech Republic, Singapore and Netherlands_©Varsha Arun

District pavilion Terra is a Platinum-rated LEED-certified structure; a status achieved through measures such as photovoltaic roof systems and alternative water usage. For many in the industry though, the sustainability index of a steel, concrete & carbon fiber structure is defined by more than operational performance parameters that form the basis for LEED certifications. When carbon emission percentages at the construction stage are accounted for, the sustainability of Terra can in fact be questioned along with the decision to cantilever its roof which has been noted to ‘release significant unnecessary emissions’ (Sturgis, 2021).

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Photovoltaic cantilevered roofs power the Terra pavilion_©Expo, 2020

Mobility District: Alif

District pavilion ‘Alif’ exudes dynamism in the design of its self-shading stainless steel fins, curving interior walkways, and an exterior track encircling the building where the latest innovations in transportation are demonstrated. Upon entering the pavilion, a giant passenger elevator of 160 capacity delivers visitors straight to the top from where they can trot down along pathways meandering through interconnected galleries, viewing mobility across the ages. Country pavilions in the Mobility district include Russia, Peru, Australia, Angola, Oman, and the Republic of Korea among others. These pavilions feature several technological & cultural displays native to the respective country; they highlight humanity’s journey from humble beginnings to achieving super-fast connectivity and exploration of new frontiers in space.  

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SS louvres & illuminated tracks add visual movement to the stationary structure_©Expo, 2020
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Center piece of the ‘Gallery of Future’ in Alif pavilion_©Suneesh Sudhakaran

Opportunity District: Mission Possible

Synonymous with its name, Opportunity district is all about interacting, collaborating & co-creating a better future that unlocks peak potential in each individual. The district pavilion, ‘Mission Possible’, is designed along the lines of openness & optimism – it features a central plaza surrounded by exhibition blocks. The airiness comes from the use of layered textile fabrics as roofs, that ‘represent clouds and dreams that we all aspire to achieve’ (Perez-Goicoechea, 2021). A walk of Mission Possible can bring visitors face-to-face with the power of AI, leading change-makers, inspiring conversations, and might just open up a world of opportunities, just as its mission declares it will do! Country pavilions of India, Switzerland, Monaco, Japan, UK, etc offer displays of how each country has adapted innovation to its geographical, cultural & climatic conditions while keeping traditional values alive. 

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A ’floating’ roof and ‘bright’ courtyard make Mission Possible a haven for dreamers & achievers_©Varsha Arun from images of Expo, 2020
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A collage of exhibits from Mission Possible district; from L to R: India, Switzerland, Japan and UK_©Varsha Arun

UAE Pavilion

Being the host country, the UAE has established its standout pavilion at the heart of the campus. Reputed for his clean lines & dynamic designs, architect Santiago Calatrava envisioned a magnificent, winged hybrid portal frame & shell structure that seems like it is about to take flight, suggestive of the daring nature of a falcon, UAE’s national bird. The structure uses its moveable wings & other elements such as an oculus integrated into its photovoltaic roof to sustainably address climatic concerns of the region. The inside is more impressive than the exterior; a spherical dome auditorium equipped with a lifting platform offers the audience a surreal experience of being transported between levels during audio-visual displays.

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Photovoltaic panels between the wings generate electricity for the building_©MOPA
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Wings in action at UAE pavilion_ ©Barbara Burg + Oliver Schuh

The oculus of UAE’s pavilion mirrors the design of the Expo logo; a celebratory tribute to the interconnected nature of the world’s shared interest in innovation, progress, and an enduring future. The Expo 2020 is truly a remarkable testament to humanity’s collective global efforts in indomitably foraging into new horizons, seeking boundless growth, and preparing a better habitat for generations to come.

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An apex oculus & defined roof lines cover the tranquil inner lobby of UAE pavilion_©Barbara Burg + Oliver Schuh

With sustainability & future in mind, Expo 2020 has been planned to evolve into District 2020, a smart city for smart minds to come together and live harmoniously in a business & innovation-driven ecosystem. The city’s built environment will repurpose 80% of the Expo structure material and combine the 3 district pavilions as a National Museum for Expo 2020.


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Populous. (n.d.). Dubai 2020 World Expo Masterplan. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2021].

Dezeen. (2021). Grimshaw’s Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai caused “significant unnecessary emissions.” [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2021].

Anon, (n.d.). Alif – The Mobility Pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai by Foster + Partners – aasarchitecture. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].

Dezeen. (2021). Foster + Partners wraps Dubai Expo Mobility Pavilion in stainless steel fins. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].

Dezeen. (2021). AGi Architects arranges Dubai Expo Opportunity Pavilion around covered plaza. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].

Lovin Dubai. (2021). The Ultimate Guide To The Three Districts At Expo 2020 Dubai. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].

ArchDaily. (2021). Santiago Calatrava Reveals Design of the UAE Pavilion for the Expo 2020 Dubai. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].

Archilovers. (n.d.). UAE Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai | Santiago Calatrava LLC. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].


As an architect, designing gives Varsha an insight into what she truly enjoys - observing people & the complex, interwoven layers of society. She may be a sceptic, but has the soul of a wanderer. She reads (mostly Harry Potter) to escape the mundane & is now exploring her writing.

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