The search for the designer of the Dubai Expo 2020 UK Pavilion begins

Top view of Dubai 2020 expo aerial day
The Department for International Trade has launched its nation-wide call for entries for the design of the prestigious Dubai Expo 2020 UK Pavilion
(Image credit: Thomas Heatherwick, Asif Khan, Wolfgang Buttress)

A design competition has been launched to find the designer for the UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, and the anticipation is already rising. Past pavilions have been created to wide acclaim by architects, artists and designers such as Thomas Heatherwick, Asif Khan and Wolfgang Buttress – all of which have gone on to win multiple awards for their bold expo designs. Now, the Department for International Trade is about to offer this chance to a new team or individual who will create the best proposal to represent the UK in the upcoming world expo, set to take place in Dubai between 20 October 2020 and 10 April 2021, under the theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the future’. We caught up with UK commissioner general Laura Faulkner to discuss the competition. 

W*: What is your vision for the Expo 2020 Dubai UK Pavilion? 
My vision is that we will create a Pavilion which is stand out, exciting and unique. It will showcase the very best in British design, creativity and innovation. The UK has been the recipient of a number of awards for its designs and Pavilions at previous World Expos in Milan and Shanghai and at the recent specialised Expo in Astana and we want to build on our successes. The UK Pavilion will provide us with a platform to promote all that is great about Britain at an important time when we are building future global relationships and will form the centrepiece for the ‘Global Britain – Innovating for a shared future’ campaign, our theme for Expo 2020 Dubai. 

W*: Who would you like to see participating in the competition?
LF: We want to get the widest possible response to the tender to ensure we can meet the brief. We are looking for a stand-out idea delivered through a holistic design approach – across multiple disciplines. We are welcoming submissions from established designers as well as newer and smaller teams. This is a fantastic opportunity for any and all designers. The winning design team will benefit from instant international recognition.

W*: Could you tell us a little bit about the site of the Expo, and specifically that of the UK Pavilion? 
LF: The Master Plan for the Expo site was developed to create a physical and engaging environment which embraces the vision for the event and incorporates the theme for Expo, ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ and the subthemes, of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability which will be represented in the three districts of the Expo site. The site covers 4.38 square kilometres, just 3 per cent land area of an entirely new city (Dubai South) being created in legacy. The new city will be linked to the new Al Maktoum International Airport, set to become the world’s largest and busiest airport carrying in excess of 250m passengers a year with links to Jebel Ali Port and a short distance from Abu Dhabi International Airport. The UK will be participating with a large Pavilion, situated in the Opportunity District. The UK has selected a Pavilion location which will see a high footfall of visitors and VIPs making it easily accessible and very noticeable to all Expo visitors. The design of the UK Pavilion needs to reflect this excellent location and become a landmark that all visitors want to see. It is expected that as part of the ‘Global Britain – Innovating for a shared future’ campaign the UK will run a comprehensive events programme from the Pavilion and therefore conference space, back of house facilities and catering facilities will be required to enable this. The event space and restaurant should have their own dedicated entrances that allow access without having to go through the full Pavilion customer journey.

W*: What makes Dubai special in the history of World Expos?
LF: Expo 2020 Dubai is the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia region (MEASA), and the first Expo to be hosted by an Arab nation. The Expo event will run from 20 October 2020 until 10 April 2021. Expo is expecting to host 25 million visitors, with 70 per cent of them coming from outside the UAE – the largest proportion of international visitors in Expo history. At the crossroads of East and West, the UAE is the ideal location to host a World Expo; with the ambition to create an exceptional platform for the global community to come together to address critical issues and explore pioneering solutions that could improve the lives of generations to come.

W*: What is the role of design and architecture in a World Expo? 
LF: Since the very first Expo in 1851, until the present day, World Expos have showcased the world’s best and brightest. The very first World Expo, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry took place in the Crystal Palace, in London. It was an amazing exhibition space and designed and built for the Expo. It became a showpiece for revolutionary new techniques in cast iron working and plate glass manufacture that revolutionised construction. The legacy of the first World Expo in 1851 still remains today, in the area now known as Albertopolis in London, which is home to some of the most world-famous museums. Each district of the Expo site will differ from each other. They will have an architectural expression which will be identifiable by the different materials, colours and patterns used in the district. Every pavilion on the Expo site will be an iconic building symbolising its own subtheme and providing visitors with an immersive experience. Each participating nation has the opportunity to display the very best in their architecture and design capabilities through their Pavilion, something which the UK excels at. 

W*: What will inform and influence your decision in choosing the winning entry? 
The design is being procured via a design competition run through the official EU tender process. This process includes input from an external panel of judges with specialist expertise. The criteria are clearly set out in the tender documentation. Once registered, you can search for the opportunity via “DN320589 Dubai Expo 2020 – UK Pavilion Design Competition”.

View of aerial night Dubai expo

The competition winner will follow in the footsteps of acclaimed architects, designers and artists, such as Thomas Heatherwick, Wolfgang Buttress and Asif Khan, who have all created pavilions for past world expo sites

(Image credit: Thomas Heatherwick, Asif Khan, Wolfgang Buttress)

Dubai expo 2020

Thomas Heatherwick designed the Seed Cathedral, the UK Pavilion for Shanghai Expo 2010. 

(Image credit: Heatherwick Studio)

250,000 plant seeds open structure

The structure opened to wide critical acclaim and housed 250,000 plant seeds

(Image credit: press)

Uk Pavilion by night in gold

Artist Wolfgang Buttress was behind the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015

(Image credit: Wolfgang Buttress)

Elevation of the hive

Called The Hive, the aluminium structure was inspired by the life of bees

(Image credit: press)


For more information visit the Dubai Expo 2020 website and the competition’s website

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).