Expo 2020 Dubai: Meet Asif Khan, the brain behind the gigantic gates

Dubai - Khan's design aimed to create the thinnest, lightest and sturdiest gate while showcasing the age-old tradition of 'mashrabiya'

By SM Ayaz Zakir

Published: Sun 3 Oct 2021, 5:56 PM

Last updated: Mon 4 Oct 2021, 9:45 AM

The surreal entry portals that welcome a visitor to Expo 2020 Dubai are larger than life. But here's the twist — 99 per cent of the engineering marvel is made of air even though it's 21 metres tall and 30 metres wide.

What about the weight of such grand structures? That's the power of the futuristic design — the portals weigh only 18 tonnes.

Khan makes a mark

British-Pakistani architect Asif Khan — the brain behind the gigantic Expo gates — brilliantly merged the ancient mashrabiya design with an ultra-futuristic concept.

A true testament to his genius, he was awarded the coveted Member of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to architecture in 2017. His studio was named “Architects of the Year” by the German Design Council in 2018.

Let's get a sense of his subtle architectural design as far as the World's Greatest Show is concerned.

The gates' carbon-fibre strands are as thin as paper at 10mm. These filaments were meticulously woven in mashrabiya patterns, creating countless tiny spaces where air passes through across the gate.

What is a mashrabiya?

Mashrabiya refers to a traditional architectural element that is germane to the Islamic world and beyond, such as Turkey and Greece.

“This is the largest mashrabiya ever built. This entry portal feels like it’s from the future, but the fact is, it is from the past,” Khan told Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview.

Mashrabiya filters the light, cools spaces and has long been a prominent pattern in the Arab household.

Initially, the concept was introduced in the Middle Ages (between the 5th and late 15 century in the Common Era) and up to the last century.

It is most commonly used on the street side of the building, but can also be used internally in a courtyard.

Khan borrowed the Islamic concept of mashrabiya and gave it a futuristic feel.

He stressed that such huge gates used to be built as cities’ entry portals in the early days. But his design, which celebrates innovative touch with an eye for the future, aimed to create the thinnest, lightest and sturdiest gate while showcasing the age-old tradition.

Three such gates are now making jaws drop — greeting every visitor who steps inside the world’s greatest show. They are also the last landmarks people would usually see.

Mission accomplished

Khan is basking in the glory of a mission accomplished, which has become a talking point of the 182-day event, whose theme, 'Connecting Minds, Creating the Future', is inextricably linked to his creation.

“It was a challenging task to bring this extraordinary spectacle to life,” he said.

Khan’s team worked with several experts for the project.

“We pushed to the absolute limit of structural engineering and science. We approached F1 car engineers, as they deal with carbon fibre, to make it happen. But that did not suffice.

“We then had to work with engineers from the aeronautical industry that deals with carbon fibre components and work with light-weight solar power planes,” he said.

They went the extra mile to ensure that the entry portals would convey the Expo’s vision of history meeting the future.

Besides the gates, other major installations at the venue came from Asif Khan Studios in London.

Khan had been tasked with designing the entire 6km of the Expo’s public realm.

It refers to all external urban spaces, walkways, canopies, benches, surrounding trees and lights, among others.

It was certainly a big project, he said, as he had to design spaces where visitors would spend most of their time.

“I wanted to do something that people will remember throughout their life and has the essence of Dubai’s tradition," he said.

Khan first came to Dubai in 2015 to understand the culture, Arab tradition and roots, so he can create something extraordinary.

“The Expo venue was a desert during my first visit. I walked barefoot in that desert and ideas started pouring in,” he said.

In retrospect, Khan has learnt countless lessons from his Expo experience.

“It’s a privilege to be involved in one of the biggest events the world has ever witnessed,” he added.

An architect per excellence

Khan’s design explores how material and social innovations can fundamentally alter the way people experience and shape their environment, realised through rigorously detailed and delivered outputs.

He is currently working on the new Museum of London at West Smithfield and the Tselinny Centre of Contemporary Culture in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

He has designed the award-winning UK pavilion at Astana Expo 2017 and the Hyundai pavilion at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

His notable projects include the ‘MegaFaces’ pavilion at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which won the Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Innovation; the Coca-Cola Beatbox at London 2012 Olympics, a finalist entry in the international competition for the new Guggenheim Museum Helsinki from 1700 anonymous designs; and a Summer pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in summer 2016.

The heart behind the design

Poll: What was Khan’s architectural inspiration behind the gigantic gates?

>> Gothic

>> Corinthian

>> Mashrabiya

>> Moorish

Hint: It starts with an M.


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