The Contemporary Architecture Heterotopia of Expo 2020 in Dubai

Published Categorized as Architecture, Blog, Exhibitions

Expo 2020 in Dubai

The Contemporary Architecture Heterotopia of Expo 2020 in Dubai that aim to transform people by inspiring them. The Universal Expositions (Expos) are a global opportunity for innovation. They are held every 5 years with occasional special expos happening in between. The expos aim to transform people by inspiring them and introducing them to novel ideas. One enters into the site, sees and experiences the pavilions and exhibitions and comes out as a new person.

The Dubai Expo 2020 opened on October 1st, 2021 and lasted for 6 months until the end of March 2022. It was the largest universal exhibition to date. More than 20 million people have visited it from all over the world, which is even more remarkable considering that it was held during a global pandemic. It showcased architecture, global culture and innovation and included over 200 participants: nations, multilateral organizations, corporations and educational institutions. The theme of the Expo was “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” underscoring how the modern world is interconnected and the need to generate sustainable solutions to global problems.

The expo asked one of the most important questions: “What kind of future do we want to create?”. It started a global conversation around this and pushed every country to think about it and respond in its own way. This alternative future was co-created at the Expo, building a utopian world where nations, races and cultures can live together in peace, abundance, happiness and joy.

Analysing Expo 2020 in Dubai throw the conceptual framework of Michel Foucault’s heterotopias
Analysing Expo 2020 in Dubai throw the conceptual framework of Michel Foucault’s heterotopias

Michel Foucault’s heterotopias concept

It is worth using the conceptual framework of Michel Foucault’s heterotopias to analyze the Expo. In his article, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, he gives us some of the keyprinciples though which we can  understand the Expo as a temporary event that helps us create a different reality – as a festival that exposes the outside “real” world as an even bigger illusion that can be transformed.

Dubai as a city is the perfect example for a heterotopia. It’s a collection of places, spaces, symbols from other cultures until it became the local culture. The miracle of Dubai is to build a city in the desert that became the capital of the world during the Expo 2020. In fact, the Expo itself is a celebration of Dubai’s success and significance. It’s also a celebration of human civilization – always able to adapt and innovate, ready to learn and move ahead. In some ways, Dubai and the expo offer us a glimpse of a utopian future where the world has solved its problems and is here to enjoy and celebrate life. What Foucault describes in the sixth principle of the heterotopias is precisely what happened at the Expo:

Sixth principle. The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains. This function unfolds between two extreme poles. Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory. Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled. This latter type would be the heterotopia, not of illusion, but of compensation, and I wonder if certain colonies have not functioned somewhat in this manner. In certain cases, they have played, on the level of the general organization of terrestrial space, the role of heterotopias.

During the Expo, in a world ravaged by a major pandemic and then a war, countries were able to unite and create an event that brings together all nations to connect and co-create a hopeful future. The expo creates a perfect world of abundance and excellence where all people share the best  from their countries.

A horse sculpture at Expo 2020 in Dubai
A horse sculpture at Expo 2020 in Dubai

More than just contemporary architecture

The Expos originated as a meeting point of the world. The British Empire wanted to bring people from all over the world in one place, with the goal of showcasing their latest products and viewing what other places have to offer. Thus, they held the first Universal Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The building was a true miracle of architecture, built in a really short time, and it used the most advanced materials of the time: cast iron and glass. This first global gathering started the tradition of the Universal Expos that are now celebrated every 5 years.

The Expos are becoming more and more Total Works of Art  (Gesamtkunstwerk) as defined by Richard Wagner – they contain architecture, costumes, objects, music, dance, cinema, etc. Some of the top artists from all over the world contributed to the event and its success.

The expos are also an opportunity for cities to reinvent themselves, upgrade existing neighborhoods and create new ones. Oftentimes, the infrastructure of the cities is updated for the expo:  new transportation and hospitality hubs are built, and major buildings and technologies are developed. This expo was conveniently situated between Dubai and Abu Dhabi so the connection between the two emirates was activated by a new destination.

The masterplan of Expo 2020 in Dubai
The masterplan of Expo 2020 in Dubai

Masterplan and pavillons design

The masterplan of the Expo is an intersection between 7 roads covered with a canopied roof. The shape looks like a clover leaf with its stem. At the end of each of the leaves are the three large thematic pavilions: sustainability, mobility and opportunity.

The architects HOK say about their Masterplan design:

The design features three pavilions symbolizing opportunity, sustainability and mobility. These three zones emanate from a central plaza named the Al Wasl, the historic Arab name for Dubai meaning “the connection.” Inspired by the layout of a traditional Arabic “souk,” or marketplace, the design places larger pavilions on the perimeter while smaller exhibit spaces cluster toward the center to aid pedestrian flow and interaction.

The UAE is a country that is focused on the future. It attracts some of the most innovative companies and people from all over the world and invests in creating the Future in the present.

Dubai has the ambition to become one of the world capitals of the 21 Century. It always wanted to be on the forefront with the best and most innovative infrastructure. It certainly was the capital during the 6 months of the expo and attracted the global elite and visitors from all over the world. 

Dubai and the UAE are good examples of how a new civilization is created in a short time and with limited resources. For many old civilizations, history is the weight that they carry while Dubai doesn’t have it. Only 50 years ago, it was mostly a desert, and in this short time it became a global reference and power. 

The key to success is to have a vision for the future and to believe in it, and with the expo, it is quite evident that Dubai’s rulers have a huge ambition for their country and people. Historically, what remains from a civilization are the buildings, and this impressive UAE pavilion will remain as one of the symbols of the country, spreading its wings from the center of the expo to create and harness connections with the rest of the world. 

A bird view of Expo 2020 in Dubai
A bird view of Expo 2020 in Dubai

Only the future will tell what the impact of the Expo will be. Some people have raised the question “Was it justified to invest so much time and resources in the Expo?” “Why didn’t they spend it on direct action?”. However, the world evolves on the basis of action. Yet, the world needs creativity and exchange of ideas to build the new. Hopefully, the architecture,the showcased themes, and the events held at the expo will have a lasting effect and will inspire many to take action in the world.

Dubai Expo 2020 has set the bar really high for future Expos. It has been one of the largest, most visited and well executed events. Dubai has a lot to be proud of and so do the different participating nations as well. We look forward and hope that the lessons learned from the Expo will make a difference in creating a better world.

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