Most Influential Projects 2021

22 Expo 2020 Dubai

Architecture | Middle East & North Africa
Expo Dubai 2020


For working around COVID-19 to make a mega event even bigger

The pandemic postponed the original schedule, but it couldn’t stop Expo 2020 Dubai. Project leaders for the US$8.2-billion megaproject regrouped, pushing back the global spectacle by a year to open in October 2021 and run through March 2022.

Organizers expect the event to pull 25 million visitors to the region, helping spark a rebirth for global travel. And that’s a win for project leaders and political stakeholders alike, as government leaders look to diversify the country’s economy and shake off one of the worst recessions in five decades. The event is expected to boost Dubai’s economy by US$33 billion and create about 300,000 jobs.

Held every five years, the World Expo sees hundreds of countries showing off the latest in architecture and technology in meant-to-impress pavilions. This year’s event marks the first to be held in the Middle East, Africa or South Asia, and it’s also the first time that each of the more than 190 participating countries will have its own pavilion.

Here’s a look at some of the wow-worthy attractions at the long-anticipated expo—and what it took to turn those wildly ambitious ideas into reality.

Sprawling Scale 

Massive feels like an understatement when describing the Expo 2020 Dubai’s project site. Located on the outskirts of the city, it spans 4.4 square kilometers (1.7 square miles)—roughly the size of 600 football pitches. With a master plan created by U.S. architecture and engineering firm HOK, the project includes dedicated public transportation lines and highway exits, an exhibition center capable of holding 20,000 attendees at a time and more than 200 pavilions. 

Immersive Innovation 

Al Wasi Dome
Situated near the center of the expo is the Al Wasi Dome, a tech-laced gathering space nearly as wide as two Airbus A380 aircrafts laid wing to wing. Designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, it boasts the world’s largest 360-degree projection surface. The world got a glimpse of its dazzle factor on 9 February when Dubai officials used more than 250 laser projectors to illuminate the dome’s interior a deep, ruby red to celebrate the UAE Space Agency’s Hope probe reaching Mars’s orbit. 

Bird’s-Eye View

Santiago Calatrava
The host country wanted to build a pavilion that reflects the UAE’s evolving influence and ambitious goals for the future. So it turned to Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who designed a falcon-in-flight-inspired hub to be “a symbol of the UAE’s bold and daring spirit, reflected in what is poised to be the most inclusive and global Expo in history,” he said.

Located near the center of the expo, the four-story, 15,000-square-meter (161,459-square-foot) pavilion also meets LEED Platinum sustainable building standards and features exhibitions throughout that showcase UAE culture and achievements. UAE minister of state for international cooperation and director general of Expo 2020 Dubai H.E. Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy called it “one of the expo’s greatest icons” and said it evokes “the pioneering spirit and power of connections that transformed the UAE from a collection of small, desert communities into a global connection point.” 

Purpose and Repurpose

District 2020
From the very start, project leaders have been planning for the project’s post-expo legacy. To that end, the 200,000 square meters (2,152,782 square feet) of LEED-certified structures built for Expo 2020 will be repurposed into District 2020, an integrated, mixed-use community that easily slots into the Dubai 2040 urban masterplan unveiled in March 2021. Siemens, Accenture and Atlas Holdings have signed on as project partners for the undertaking, including integrating Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and blockchain technology throughout District 2020. And Route 2020, a 14.5-kilometer (9-mile) extension of the Dubai Metro built to connect expo visitors to the bustling city center, will seamlessly transition from attendee to resident riders. 

Starting With a Celebration

Celebration Expo Dubai
Dubai’s more-is-more philosophy was evident right from the expo’s start: For the 90-minute opening ceremony, project leaders managed an elaborate, culturally diverse team of more than 1,000 performers and crew members. To balance all that optimistic togetherness with the realities of a global pandemic, project leaders are requiring—in a change from earlier policies—all participants and attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within the previous 72 hours (with free tests available onsite for those who don’t have either when they arrive).

Aiming for Impact
Along with serving up all the dazzling attractions, organizers of Expo 2020 Dubai are also looking to start a conversation. The event’s Programme for People and Planet is billed as a “platform for the free and open exchange of new ideas and innovations” centered around five tracks exploring “humanity’s most pressing challenges through a cultural, social, environmental and economic lens.”

Nadia Verjee, the expo’s chief of staff, says the series “will not only form an essential part of our event-time activities, but will also catalyze a one-of-a-kind movement to shape the legacy that Expo 2020 leaves the world … resulting in a meaningful and measurable impact for generations to come.”