Extreme Place-making: SWA’s Public Realm Design for Expo 2020


SWA Principal
John Wong
tells the story

As Expo 2020 opens in Dubai, the first world fair ever to be held in the Middle East, visitors will experience a stunning array of innovations, beginning with the marvel of the Expo itself— a 1.7-square-mile site (4.38 square kilometers) accommodating distinctive pavilions from nearly 200 countries. SWA Group’s design of the major public open spaces – the site’s extraordinary plazas, parks, and connecting pathways – fulfill Expo’s ambitious placemaking agenda in dimensions both pragmatic and poetic.

SWA’s public realm design includes more than 1,000 acres of plazas, parks and pathways to connect EXPO’s major areas and pavilions.

Working closely with the Expo team, SWA created a landscape that literally grounds the event in a compelling evocation of Dubai’s culture while also uniting the diverse architectural expressions of the pavilions. Public spaces are designed to provide an inspired setting for the event as well as an enduring structure for its legacy as Dubai’s future innovation district.

“The design of the public open spaces offers an exciting way to reveal the magic of Dubai to the world,” said John Wong, Principal Designer of Expo, SWA Group. “The sequence of spaces, the palette of native plant materials, the cultural resonance of the geometric paving patterns, the integration of art and innovative construction— all combine to offer enchantment as well as wayfinding and respite between pavilions.”

SWA’s open space network is designed to mitigate extreme climate conditions and to provide experiential connectivity and wayfinding, sensory delight and distinctive place-making. With millions of visitors expected, the site has to accommodate the movement of crowds yet also offer smaller nooks comfortable for individuals.  The resulting series of spaces allows visitors to encounter the distinctive characteristics—cultural and environmental—of Dubai at this moment when it welcomes the world.

SWA’s dazzling 10-meter-high shade structure with its suspended forms in the shape of birds, results in fantastic shadows by day and whimsical wayfinding by night.

Visitors are welcomed with a dramatic progression of experiences upon arrival from the metro station, commencing with a broad Welcome Plaza, which narrows to a central, tree-lined promenade that doubles as home to the leadership pavilion and provides for a formal procession to the heart of Expo, the phenomenal domed Al Wasl Plaza, co-designed with Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects. This central plaza, where ground-scape and structure merge almost seamlessly, serves as the spiritual and actual center of the site. Here visitors can access the base of the three themed districts where all the pavilions and exhibits will be housed.

SWA’s design of The Loop, a dramatic shaded pedestrian promenade, encircles the site, allowing visitors to access Expo’s three districts without having to return to the center.  Overhead, SWA’s dazzling 10-meter-high shade structure is composed of suspended forms in the shape of birds, resulting in fantastic shadows. The Loop’s is lined with Ghaf trees, the national tree of UAE.

From the Loop, visitors can also access substantial landscaped spaces between the pavilion neighborhoods, including two major parks – Jubilee Park to the south and Al Forsan Park, the Ghayath Trail to the north, and the Oasis.  Each park accommodates added programs and offers a particular character, enabling visitors to find variety in their respite and insight into the depth of Expo’s themes and their underlying foundation in Middle East culture.

Tempering the extreme climate, open spaces also offer comfort and relief for Expo visitors in ways that are both subtle and overt, natural and built. Throughout the site, interpretive elements of the landscape dance gingerly with the surrounding structures, and take cues mostly from the native landscape itself: paving patterns and forms are introduced to evoke wadi (seasonal rivers), sand dunes, and mountains. Water is used sparingly to serve planted materials and occasionally extravagantly for special effects and to express a generous welcome from the host country.

Cooling is achieved through the strategic integration of plantings and water which reduce the ambient temperature, while also offering visual and auditory pleasures of reflection and shadow, gurgle and whisper.  More than half of all the plants used on site are native and adaptive species.  Further, paving materials exceed SRI solar reflective standards and prevent the buildup of heat island effects.

“The open spaces are an expression of hospitality, a welcoming and sensory platform that is uniquely Dubai. We are excited that the open space platform for Expo will live on as legacy for Dubai’s newest district as it embraces the UAE’s Vision 2030,” added John Wong.