Expo 2020 Dubai: Meet the man behind the gigantic gates

Photo by Neeraj Murali
Photo by Neeraj Murali

Dubai - They may look 'futuristic' but these entry portals are, in fact, from the past.



By SM Ayaz Zakir

Published: Sun 3 Oct 2021, 12:23 AM

Last updated: Sun 3 Oct 2021, 12:24 AM

The surreal entry portals that welcome every visitor to Expo 2020 Dubai are larger than life — and yet, 99 per cent of this engineering marvel is made of air.

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

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

“The 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.

One gate is 21 metres high and 30 metres wide, but it weighs only 18 tonnes.

Khan stressed that such huge gates used to be built as cities’ entry portals in the early days. And since he wanted to add a futuristic touch, he aimed to create the thinnest, lightest and sturdiest gate while showcasing the 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.

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The mashrabiya filters the light and cools spaces and has long been a prominent pattern in the Arab household. “Mashrabiya is a cultural heritage of this region. [The Expo gates] show how it can be transformed in compatible with the future without diminishing its importance,” said the architect, whose brilliant designs have wowed the world. Among the structures he had conceptualised was the UK pavilion at the previous World Expo. He has been designing for the world fair for years now.

For Khan, with the completion of Expo 2020 Dubai’s gates, a mission was accomplished and all the hard work was worth it.

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

Khan’s team worked with a number of 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 added.

They went the extra mile to ensure that the entry portals will 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 — which refers to all external urban spaces, walkways, canopies, benches, surrounding trees and lights, among others.

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

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

Khan came to Dubai in the early 2017 to understand the culture, Arab tradition and roots, so he can create something extraordinary.

“The present expo 2020 venue was a desert during my first visit. I walked barefoot in that desert and ideas started pouring in.”

Khan has learnt countless lessons from his Expo experience, he said. “It is a privilege to be involved in one of the biggest events the world has ever witnessed.”

Closer look at Expo’s brilliantly designed public spaces

1. Walkways with a touch of Arabian weaving tradition

The pavement designed in stripes leads to the heart of site, Al Wasl Dome. At the interchange, Sadu weaving patterns are showcased. “The walkway cross over at many places, portraying the theme Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” Khan said.

2. Benches of Arabic poetry

In designing them, Khan has taken inspiration from Dubai’s old souks.

A few sitting or resting places are quite unique, sculpted in the form of Arabic calligraphy. Words like hub which means ‘love’; karamah, dignity; alinsaniyah, humanity; and Alsalam, peace, can be found across the site.

“If a visitor sits on five of these benches, he/she can take a poetry with them.”

One bench was also crafted from a recycled dhow boat, which carries great significance in Arab tradition.

3. ‘Flying’ garden that offers a breathtaking view

The Garden in the Sky is a must-visit place. “Viewing the Expo from above is a great experience. It feels like the ground is being lifted,” Khan said. Here, visitors are raised to 55m above the ground to see a magical sight.

4. Lush greenery all around

Khan’s team carefully selected the locations for as many as 30,000 plants — and over 7,000 ghaf trees — for the site. They are now dotting the concourse and the walkways.

5. Not your ordinary lights

Expo lights mimic the colour of the sky in the evening and give a feeling of extended sunset by an extra hour, the architect said.

A few tubular lights were also designed and around 300 of these lights can be seen across the site. “These are carpet lights, which create an Arabian carpet pattern at night.”


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