The pandemic came at a bad time for the organisers of some of the world's major sporting and cultural events: The Tokyo Olympics, Euro 2020, Glastonbury and even the Eurovision Song Contest, to name a few, were all postponed or delayed amid shutdowns and travel restrictions. But perhaps none of them had as much riding on them as Dubai Expo 2020, which closes at the end of the month.
Having visited 'The World's Greatest Show,' it was a delight to experience the range of ideas and experience an overwhelming amount of goodwill. It's just a shame the world couldn't catch much of what it set out to do. Delayed by twelve months and held during the rise of the Omnicom variant, the event suffered from a lack of international visitors and profile, but it is an extraordinary coming together of ideas and identity.
Staged every five years, World Expos extend a tradition stretching back to 1851 and the Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace that bequeathed London its world-class 'Museum quarter' in South Kensington. Celebrated for being the launchpad for new technology, Expos have claimed to have previewed the mobile phone, X-Ray technology, ice cream cones and the Zip fastener over the years - and they have left the world with a series of one-off marvels, including the Eiffel Tower.
You're now more likely to witness a product launch recorded in Cupertino, and of course, it now takes seconds to transmit an idea around the globe. But given the state of the world, it's easy to argue that countries and cultures should be brought together to develop a shared understanding and exchange ideas - particularly on global issues such as preserving the natural environment. There is little doubting the excellent intention behind this Expo, with a theme of "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future". It's also the first event of its kind in the much-misunderstood and maligned Middle East.
It's challenging to think of a better city to showcase the future than Dubai. Seriously dedicated to innovation (think Blockchain, Hyperloop, and desalination) the city has just celebrated the opening of the Museum of the Future. Particularly for visitors, the city has traded on doing the seemingly impossible since the first injection of petrochemical billions: The world's tallest building, year-round skiing despite the average temperature never falling below 14oC, and the seemingly endless number of visitor attractions, theme parks, performances and displays in public spaces and malls.
At the Expo site, organised in the shape of a three-leafed flower, the vast welcome gates designed by Asif Khan lend promise to the scale and quality of what lies ahead. At first glance, one of three theme - or anchor - pavilions are instantly visible. These cover Opportunity (designed by AGi Architects), Mobility (Foster + Partners), and Sustainability (Grimshaw). Like much of the central part of the site, these anchor buildings will remain after Expo has closed as part of the Expo site's second life as a science and research park.
Moving past the statement buildings lie another 200 pavilions, 191 of which represent participating countries. Laid out in double rows and easily navigable along wide shaded walkways, together the pavilions represent the largest number of countries brought together for a World Expo. Collectively, they deliver a rich and varied experience; many are striking concept buildings pushing architecture, materials and technology to their limit.
The 'here only for one day' visitor's challenge is where to invest time. Many of the pavilions had queues: we were advised not to bother trying to visit the Japanese, German and UAE pavilions due to the wait times. We took them in by walking past. However, the Swiss mirrored pavilion won the 'just passing' award, with Korea and Kazakhstan notable too. We managed around 15 national pavilions: The experience of each attempted to be unique. They were undoubtedly varied; some are really just tourist information points or business meeting spaces in buildings that will remain after the main show.
Others are blockbusters, such as Saudi Arabia's 360 degrees AV presentation within a cantilevered, mirrored structure. Most attempt to capture the spirit and priorities of their nation, almost all of them touched on their natural environment and commitment to sustainable futures.
This was easier to absorb in the beautiful, sensory space delivered by New Zealand and the tranquil space celebrating Finnish design and materials. Given the need to stand out, engage and leave visitors with a memorable experience, most used large-format screens and high definition films to express the current priorities of their country. Most pavilions featured music, arts, the environment, ideas, and cultural expressions to ram home their points.
The exceptions to this were more memorable; Poland celebrated its culture using a beautifully constructed multi-layered table that illustrated its topography and natural resources. Brazil hit the mark with a temporary structure with the internal route visitor marked by a raised path within an interior lake.
Some of the national presentations were baffling. After a succession of world-beating contributions to recent Expos, the UK over-cooked the concept. Despite Es Devlin's impressive architectural contribution, the visitor experience was contrived, mixing the English language with algorithms to generate paragraphs that may - or may not - be sent to space! In contrast, the national food on offer (Danish hotdogs, Belgian waffles etc) was a delight. Lunch with live music in the street food set up as part of the Australian pavilion was a highlight before plunging into a rich visual presentation inspired by an aboriginal dream.
It's natural for there to be a favourite, and for us, it was the Netherlands. It took an honest look at future issues: food security, water, energy and innovative new materials all in a brilliantly designed structure: there temporarily, the design thinking was compelling - and it was reasonably clear it will live up to the Expo-wide ambition of leaving the entire site clean and clear - exactly as it was when before the festival arrived. No mean feat, given it had 40,000 workers on-site during the peak building year.
From the 1850s to the present day, the Expo encapsulates a grand ambition to bring the latest thinking to a single site; these events' ability to deliver soft power and provide a platform for connections - business and culture - shouldn't be underestimated. In Dubai's case, they nailed it. Set in a beautifully landscaped space covering 4.5 square kilometres with cycles for hire, a new dedicated metro station at the centre is perhaps the star of the whole thing: The Al Wasl Plaza: An iconic centrepiece and focal point of the celebrations - a stage set like no other. It delivers scale and drama as the world's largest 360 projection surface in true Dubai style and the finest traditions of World Expos!