Expo 2020 Dubai: Al Wasl Plaza is my best work ever, says designer

Meet Gordon Gill, design partner at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the man behind the beating heart of the Expo

By SM Ayaz Zakir

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Published: Thu 28 Oct 2021, 6:04 PM

Last updated: Fri 29 Oct 2021, 1:19 PM

Al Wasl Plaza makes jaws drop at Expo 2020 Dubai. But in 2016, the structure, now considered the beating heart of the Expo, was just a few rough sketches in Gordon Gill's notebook.

Gill, design partner at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, is the man behind the iconic dome. He had to "push to extreme limits of technology, architecture and engineering" to pull it off.

“When we were told to design the centre of the Expo, we knew had to do something unique, something that the world hasn’t seen,” Gill said in an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times.

Al Wasl and Expo 2020’s logo, which was inspired by a ring in the sands of Dubai’s Saruq Al Hadid, is a spirit that will live for years to come in the form of a permanent installation.

“We were a bit confused in the beginning. We had to make the plaza understandable for children as young as four to the oldest human visiting the Expo site and also to the people of every ethnicity,” Gill said. “It is a very intricate piece of architecture with a complicated solution and presents itself in a simple and elegant way."

On September 15, 2016, Gill made a few sketches, trying to connect earth, sky, water, air and human. The design then took shape, fusing history with a futuristic approach.

“Al Wasl is shaped like a dome - what we see in ancient architecture,” said Gill.

He and his colleagues worked over the years to create the architectural marvel, but the design invited many challenges in terms of logistics and technology.

“The main challenge was that people did not trust us when we first presented the idea. They said it was not feasible. But His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum (Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai) is a visionary leader and trusted us and encouraged us.

“It was a historic moment when the crown of Al Wasl was lifted. I was told that it was the largest steel structure ever, and we had to work against the wind, temperature and surroundings,” Gill said.

Gill's team also faced many technological challenges to integrate the projectors, acoustics and lights.

“Mapping of projection on a double curved 3-dimensional surface is the latest state-of-the-art system. A perfect synchronisation between, light, sound and projections was indeed a challenge.”

A structure of this elevation needs to have protection around it, which is why three office buildings and two hotels hug the dome from every side.

"They block the hot wind and provide shade from the sunlight,” Gill said.

When construction of the dome began, questions were raised about the structure and its purpose.

“The true potential of the dome is not yet known. The content team asked us what more they could do here and asked us if they could host concerts, live TV broadcasts, etc. They realised later that anything can be done from this space,” Gill said.

Al Wasl Plaza can be called a truly global masterpiece, as skilled professionals from different corners of the world were involved in its design and construction.

“I had met people from many countries during our meeting in Chicago. I walked into the meeting room and found that people from Italy, UK, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Mexico, Dubai and other nationalities were present. It was a united nations back then,” Gill said.

While Al Wasl is beautiful from the outside, it has a heart of steel inside. “There are miles and miles of cable inside the streel structure.”

Pointing out the projectors, which were made in Mexico and designed by a Canadian company, he said: “These marvellous projectors are highly intelligent. They communicate with each other and back to Canada, where it is being monitored, even though they are being operated in Dubai. If any projector faces a technical issue, other projector covers for it. And that is wonderful."

The trellis and dome are a mix of history and modern technology. “The dome is in an architecture of history - the dominant part of cathedrals, masjids and ancient palaces,” he said.

“But in the case of Al Wasl, the widest part of the dome is not at the base, but approximately 15 metres above ground. And that shows a crossing of engineering barriers, which is a modern transformation from history."

Another interesting feature of the dome is the Oculus (the centre opening). In the olden days, the Oculus marked time, depending on the movement of the light rays. “That is classic architecture form throughout the history of mankind,” he said.

So, what’s beneath Al Wasl?

“It’s a city out there,” Gill said, adding there are green rooms, tunnels, service stations, backstage area, broadcast area, walkways and a lot more.

The stage is designed in such a way that artists enter it from underground, while the stage itself rises.

“The audience does not understand who is coming to perform, and they love that,” he said. “The podium is the best stage for a concert. It will be a place where many world-class artists would love to perform, considering the acoustics and the lighting. There is nothing close to this on earth."

The dome takes on a different hue thrice a day, with night being the most happening - all thanks to technology.

“While designing the plaza, we decided that the public space should have a different aspect. The dome embraces different personalities during the day and transforms into another level at night. In the evenings, you can witness the shadow that it casts on the UAE Pavilion - it’s just amazing,” said Gill.

Gill said the plaza was ready to host the event in 2020, but what has added to its attraction are the plants and tree within the dome, which grew and settled in the past year.


>> Expo 2020 Dubai: Al Wasl Plaza to woo visitors with immersive theatre shows

“This is the best piece of work of mine,” Gill said. “Not only adults, but even children’s jaws drop and eyebrows are raised every time they look at the plaza. It’s a feeling of ecstasy, awe, excitement and pride to see people holding their phones up for photos and selfies."

Dubai's architecture is so distinctive that it is moving towards becoming the eternal city, after Rome, he added.

“It looks toward a positive future constantly by pushing technology and creativity. I feel what Dubai has achieved in the last few decades is unbelievable,” Gill said.


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