At the World Expo Pavilions, Future Visions Combine Past and Present

The countries with pavilions in the three districts of this year’s World Expo in Dubai — Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity — are each presenting their visions, combining elements of the past, the future and today. Singapore is sharing its green living principles by immersing visitors in a tropical landscape. Angola is showing how its history and current technological innovations are intimately linked. And then there’s the architect who designed the elaborate portals that lead to each district. The following interviews have been edited and condensed.

Titled “Nature. Nurture. Future.,” Singapore’s nearly 16,000-square-foot pavilion in the Sustainability District of the expo recreates a lush tropical setting. As designed by the Singapore-based architectural firm WOHA, it features three cones covered in vertical greenery with a total of 45,000 pots of plants; the interior is connected by a canopy walk that showcases various scenes reminiscent of Singapore: a rainforest, a cityscape and a flower garden.

In all, visitors can expect to see more than 170 varieties of plants and trees for a total of 80,000, including orchids, jasmines, hanging vines and ficuses.

Larry Ng, the pavilion’s commissioner-general and the registrar of the board of architects for the country discussed the concept and execution of the pavilion.

Why did you choose a tropical setting for the pavilion?

We wanted to recreate a mini-Singapore and transport visitors there. Though we have a dense urban environment, we also have abundant greenery that is incorporated within our cityscape — trees of all sizes, plants and flowers everywhere you look.

How does the Singapore Pavilion reflect the sustainability story of Singapore itself?

Our pavilion presents our vision of becoming a city in nature, which is aligned with our Singapore Green Plan 2030, a movement to advance our agenda on sustainable development. In Singapore, we use technology for our green strategy, and we are doing the same here.

For example, the pavilion is designed to be a self-sufficient ecosystem to achieve net-zero energy using renewable energy. We have 517 solar panels that will supply us with enough energy for the six-month duration of the expo. Renewable energy is also common throughout Singapore. We have solar panels floating on our reservoir that collect energy, which can potentially supply much of our infrastructure with power.

In addition, the pavilion uses solar energy to desalinate the groundwater that we use to water our plants and power 51 dry mist fans to cool the pavilion. The dry mist fans, combined with the shade and greenery, lowers the perceived temperature by 40 to 50 degrees [Fahrenheit], compared to the outside temperature, making it comfortable for visitors even without energy-intensive air-conditioning.

Again, in Singapore we have a diversified water supply which we get from four sources including a local catchment and desalinated water.

Design is also a part of your green strategy at the pavilion and in the country. Can you tell us more about the role it plays?

Singapore is big on using vertical greenery whenever we can and has more than 617 acres of it throughout the nation. This is enabled by a policy called L.U.S.H. — Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises — where the incorporation of vertical and sky-rise greenery is encouraged in our built environment. This greenery encourages biodiversity with the presence of butterflies, bees and birds. It also insulates buildings and keeps them cooler. And it’s aesthetically very attractive, which is what design is about.

By using landscaping as a design element, we are showing that the built environment does not need to displace nature but can, in fact, coexist with it.

You’re using climbing robots to care for the pavilion’s plants. What exactly do they do?

The pavilion has three prototype climbing robots, which were developed in a collaboration between our landscape architect firm, Salad Dressing, and a Singapore-based start-up called Oceania Robotics.

The robots traverse the green walls and are equipped with cameras and sensors that monitor the health of the plants and collect data such as humidity and oxygen levels. With the information they gather, we can calibrate the amount of water needed for irrigation or adjust the amount of grow lights needed for the plants to thrive.

Angola, in southwest Africa, has a pavilion in the expo’s Mobility District, an area dedicated to human progress and understanding cultures.

Spanning nearly 27,000 square feet, the country’s display showcases the traditions of its Chokwe people, who date back hundreds of years, alongside current innovations. It is divided into three clusters: culture, education and technology.

Each features movies, light shows, exhibits and image projections. Part of the pavilion also has a stage for music and dance performances.

Although Angola is Africa’s third- largest producer of oil, that is not a subject that the pavilion touches on. “There is so much more to us than oil, which is what we want to share with the world,” said Albina Assis Africano, the pavilion’s commissioner general and the country’s former minister of oil.

In an interview, Ms. Africano discussed the concept and the execution of the pavilion.

What is the purpose of the pavilion?

We want to show the relationship between Angola’s Chokwe people and the Angolans of today.

There is a lot of interconnectedness between them. The way the Chokwes were considered to be forward-thinking [centuries ago] is very much how Angolans strive to be today.

In what ways do you show this connection?

The entire pavilion has displays of symbols that were important to the Chokwes. They used hundreds of them, but we picked the seven that were the most significant. One, for example, is of a large parrot who is part of a story from their time about the freedom of thought. This parrot, called a Toje, is in the education cluster.

Another symbol, which is in the culture cluster, is of a dancer with open hands called a Mascarado Cihongo. This figure is neither male nor female but just a person whom the Chokwes revered. We show these symbols in different ways: One room emits them through a laser light show, for example, and another has an LED installation.

How is modern Angola presented in the pavilion?

One of the biggest ways is in the technology cluster, where we share information about the many new businesses in Angola, which are starting up every day. There’s Tupuca, a car-sharing and food-delivery service like Uber, that’s become very popular. Another, Appy Saude, is an app that allows users to find the closest hospitals and pharmacies. It has been invaluable during the Covid crisis.

We also link modern technology to the past and the Chokwes with displays of the sun drawings, which the heads of villages would draw for men to teach them about life. Some of these drawings had mathematical origins and were a complex of geometric shapes called fractals, which is a concept that many Angolans and people all over the world learn about today in math.

The education cluster also presents modern Angola. One display, for instance, is on our country’s program to educate students who are interested in the aerospace industry. Part of this program includes the opportunity to attend a technology space institute for free.

Culture is also a key part of the pavilion. Can you tell us more about your culture cluster?

We will have nightly performances throughout the expo’s six months where musicians from Angola will play modern and ancient music using modern instruments such as guitars and drums. We are also hosting regular performances on traditional and contemporary dance forms. And visitors can attend workshops to learn about ancient instruments and how they were handmade.

Your pavilion’s theme is about reintroducing the disappearing art of storytelling. Why is this important to do?

Storytelling was vital to the culture of the Chokwe people, and we wanted to highlight its importance because old-fashioned storytelling is disappearing as the modern world takes over. We think it’s a crucial art form that needs to be preserved.

The three gateways of the expo are hard to miss. Designed by Asif Khan, a London-based architect and designer, these towering entry portals are constructed of ultralightweight carbon fiber and are 70 feet in height and 100 feet in length. Futuristic yet traditional, they are thin, translucent structures with a woven pattern.

Each sits at the entrances of the expo’s three districts: Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity.

Mr. Khan also designed many of the expo’s public spaces, including walkways and a 180-foot-tall observation tower called Garden in the Sky, which has a moving platform full of ficus and hibiscus trees and a 360-degrees view of the show’s site.

Can you tell us about your inspiration for the entry portals and describe the design?

They’re inspired by a design element that’s very common in the Arabic region called a mashrabiya [a latticework wooden screen]. In the West, this element is often overlooked as mere decoration, but is in fact a device to control ventilation and sunlight.

The first expo was in 1851 in London [then called the Great Exhibition]. Since then, they’ve been held all over the world, but never in the Menasa region, which includes the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When I discovered this, I wanted my design approach to demonstrate what this region has to offer the world. From wherever you see them, the portals speak of the history and future of Islamic aesthetic culture.

The purpose of the expo is also to showcase the future, and the portals are a representation of that; they’re a feat of engineering made with the latest materials.

In fact, they were such a challenging structure to construct that we could only have robots do the job and worked with a structural engineer from the aircraft industry on the design.

What mandate were you given by the expo for both the portals and the public spaces you designed, and what challenges did you encounter?

The brief given to us by Her Excellency Reem Al-Hashimi was to devise a language and spatial sequence for the public realm — a unifying context — where each architectural or landscape element would carry ideas and stories from the region to interest and inspire the visitor and perhaps even challenge preconceptions.

It’s always challenging when you build something that has never been done. For me, it was challenging to find the right collaborators, like the structural engineer who helped me with the design. I had to inspire every collaborator to believe that the impossible would be possible.

What’s the best way for the expo’s visitors to experience your work?

They should come in the morning when it opens and see the carbon-fiber gates opening like huge doors. It’s a ceremonial process with a different person invited to open the gates each day, and you see the portals when they’re both open and closed.

Talk about the public spaces you designed inside the expo.

They’re marked by black-and-white striped paths that mimic Emirati weaving patterns. The benches that people can sit on are a reproduction of the Emirati benches in old Dubai, and we have hundreds of them throughout the walkways.

There are also 50 calligraphic benches designed in collaboration with the calligrapher Lara Captan, which capture Arabic words selected by a group of Emirati thinkers, scientists and poets.

Also, I created different lanes on the same path so people can take their time, walk briskly or run. People move at different speeds and in different ways, so when you’re here, you can find your own pace.

What will happen to the public areas and the entry portals after the expo?

The public spaces will remain and be open for anyone to use. The portals are made from modular components with the specific intention to allow them to be re-erected in public spaces around the Emirates.