What Makes A Good Pavilion?




For the first time in Expo history, 191 country pavilions participated in this 6 month event. Although Wonder Works Production Manager, Rebekah Hanbury didn’t get to see all 191, she did manage to visit 80 during her time on the project.  

As she began shortlisting her favourites, she realised that there was a common theme – for her the most successful pavilions were the ones that had a strong scenic presence using raw materials or artistic methods. From the suspended humpback whale at Tonga’s Pavilion to the unique Nordic woodland that represented Sweden, Rebekah’s favourite spaces all communicated a simple, honest message in a visually compelling way.

The larger pavilions were incredibly impressive architecturally and a joy to experience whilst walking around the site. The smaller pavilions, however had the challenge of transforming the same empty breeze block shell with ceilings covered in pipes & HVAC, into something uniquely creative, making them more imaginative than some of their larger pavilion counterparts.

Here Rebekah has rounded up 10 of her favourite pavilions for you….

#10: The Netherlands

One of my favourite pavilions (probably because of my love for Corten steel) is the Netherlands designed by V8 Architects. Located in the Sustainability District, this award-winning pavilion has been designed to showcase sustainability and circularity, but it has also been built with these in mind. V8 Architects took on the challenge of how to harvest water in a desert climate – a nod to future green energy use in the region – in order to cultivate a vertical field of mushrooms and 9,000 other edible plants using condensation from the cooled metal plates. On a good day, the system can collect 800 litres of water. At the end of Expo 2020, the entire steel structure will be returned back to the local supplier and reused for future work. A really clever pavilion – and nice & cool if you’ve been walking around the site all day!

#9: Tonga

Tonga is one of the many pacific island pavilions in the Opportunity District. The pavilion takes you on a scenic journey through the rainforests and seas of Tonga. The exhibition is short but effective, leading you through winding corridors of tropical plants with motion sensing tropical flowers and interactive video walls. Near the end, suspended from the ceiling is a large scenic humpback whale called “Lei”, surrounded by plastic bottles. Like most island countries at Expo 2020, Tongo used the opportunity to speak about serious issues, highlighting the dangers of plastic waste to ocean life. Other islands, such as Tuvalu spoke about climate change & the rise of sea levels which threaten islands across the pacific with submersion. The effectiveness of this pavilion was its playfulness – speaking to the Tonga team at the end, they said, “We didn’t have a lot of space, so we decided to just make it fun for children to explore.”

#8: Pakistan

Word of mouth swept across the office; “You have to visit Pakistan!” and they were right! Wrapped in 24,000 aluminum composite panels, the facade is created by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana who describes it as an “artistic intervention” (what a great phase). Each of the panels seem identical yet each one entirely unique to conceptually show “…the ability of the country to unify yet preserve the freedom of the diverse groups”. Steeped in history with settlements dating back to 7000 – 2600 BCE and Empires including Alexander the Great, you really get a sense of how diverse and old the country is. Whisked into the present day, the pavilion showcases its different landscapes and its epic mountain ranges of the Northern regions, including K2 as well as the different celebrations of faith, all beautifully captured on film. Pakistan successfully collaborates with artists, craftsmen, designers, filmmakers and musicians to create one of the most visited & celebrated pavilions at Expo.

#7: Jamaica & Algeria

OK, I’ve decided to combine two here for a very specific reason – both pavilions make you ‘feel’ that you are actually in the country. For Algeria, it’s the entrance – the two golden screens glistening in the desert sun allowing a small peak into the alluring charm of the Casbah. The festoon lights strewn across the rooftops and small market selling white ceramics and animal hides, transport you to Northern Africa.

For Jamaica, as soon as you walk through the doors, you are immersed into its iconic colour scheme, beach-style typography and lively street-party music. The Jamaican pavilion “…set out to give the visitor a Jamaican experience outside of Jamaica” and successfully did so by covering the dull breeze block walls with brightly decorated shipping containers and full wall photographic prints. The team cunningly painted the HVAC covered ceiling in yellow, which (I think) made the most impact on the space. The four shipping containers, each with a brightly coloured floor, illustrated its history as a nation and celebrated its illustrious sporting, music & culinary heritage. Both pavilions carried you away from Dubai and, poetically, they are both located in the Mobility district!

#6: Syria

Dedicated to the Syrian people, as I walked around the Pavilion my sense was that Syria wanted to be recognised again, and as their introduction states “to reclaim our place in the World”. Expo provides a unique opportunity for countries to showcase the best of themselves but sometimes you can feel the underlying pain & hope for a country, which is not always on display. For Syria, they challenge this pain in a joyous chorus of  “We Will Rise Together” which is strengthened with the knowledge that 3,000 Syrians participated in building the pavilion. Interestingly, the whole pavilion is spoken on individual wooden tablets, which provides continuity and acts as a vehicle for the narrative. The most powerful part for me was the “Whispers from Syria” – a collection of drawings and writing by Syrians from across the world telling their message or story about their country. As with all artwork, this is my interpretation of the pavilion. I found it really interesting, openly honest and forward looking towards a hopeful future.

#5: Sweden

Apart from having an IKEA cafe (thanks for the meatballs & ice cream) and known as the quietest place onsite, the Swedish pavilion is another marvel for the Sustainability District. “The Forest” is designed by Stockholm-based architects, Alessandro Ripellino Architects, Studio Adrien Gardère and Luigi Pardo Architetti and made entirely from spruce timber. Approximately 2,600 cubic meters have been used for the structure and for each tree harvested for the pavilion, three new ones have been planted. The 18m lathed tree trunks surround a reflective metal building which visually expands the space to form a unique Nordic woodland. Everything from the flooring, insulation and HVAC, to the products used for termite protection (no poisons) or waterproofing of the structure (using natural bitumen to avoid microplastics) are all environmentally sound. It’s a beautifully designed pavilion with a clear message on using greener construction methods.

#4: Cambodia

One of the first pavilions I visited in the Sustainability District, Cambodia energetically gives the visitor a real taste of the Country. Before you enter the Pavillion, you are greeted with a grand temple facade gateway with two Guardian Lion statues flanking the entrance. Inside, the walls are covered in scenically finished grey stone with decorative bas-reliefs. The dim lighting and corresponding stone flooring and curved ceilings, adds to the temple effect. The historical part of the exhibition finishes with five guardian statues protecting a very impressive scale model of the 900 year old temple, Angkor Wat. The next part of the exhibition brings you back into present day, highlighting Cambodia’s white sand beaches using video floor technology. The repeated images of the waves coming in & out to shore is a nice touch as you walk “across the sand” to the next room. The final room takes you into their current farming practices and finishes at the Royal Palace as you step through a replica of the yellow ochre “Victory Gate”. Another excellent journey into another world.

#3: Paraguay

Paraguay adopts a traditional art gallery approach to its pavilion with a well-curated exhibition featuring 3 renowned artists and 13 indigeous artisan communities supported by the Instituto Paraguayo de Artesanía (IPA). As soon as you walk in, you stand in awe of a striking wall mural made entirely from seeds & sand. Paraguayan artist Koki Ruizand and his team of artists from Tañarandy, took 20 days to create the 10m x 3m mural onsite. This simple but powerful image titled “La recolección de los frutos” (“Collection of the Fruits”) honours the indigneous women from Guarani, who collect the sacred seeds from the gods to feed their children. It also represents the symbolic fusion of two cultures of Paraguay (seed) & UAE (sand), flourishing together. This is a really refreshing pavilion, full of artistic splendour.  

#2: Philippines

I love this pavilion. From the moment it started to be built onsite with its black shipping containers, curved walkways and sparkling external netting shimmering throughout the day, I sensed it was going to be special. Dedicated to the Filipino community in the UAE, the Pavillion named “Bangkóta” (coral reef) is full of unexpected artistic wonder. My favourite piece is a sculpture called “Helix” by Damien Ang and Ma. Asuncion Imperial-Anne. This towering golden spiral with multiple DNA strands, contains the name of spoken dialect in the Philippines. It’s a stunning piece and hopefully will be exhibited again in the future. Looming over the audience is a giant curved projection wall where a film by Jae Hyung Wang & BBDO Guerroro covers themes such as traversing the ocean, culture & ideas, and the ancient forging of 7,641 islands from the pacific ring of fire. With so many Filipinos still traversing the ocean today, I’m very grateful to have worked with the amazing men & women who helped bring together Expo 2020. Particular shout out to Farah Sarmiento & Nina Puyo and Leonor Atopen. You are brilliant!

#1: UAE

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, this undeniably beautiful building is located at the heart of Expo 2020 and represents “a symbol of the UAE’s pioneering and innovative spirit”. Influenced by “the grace and force of the falcon”, the structure has 28 moveable wings which open & close daily to collect energy through the integrated photovoltaic panels. As you walk down the ramp to enter the pavilion, you appreciate how majestic these ‘wings’ are, as they freely hover above the entrance gate. The interior, designed by Amsterdam-based studios Tellart & Kossmanndejong, starts in the small beginnings of the desert and ends with the future vision for the UAE. 

The first exhibit is filled with real sand dunes, as you flow through the corridors of time with stories from the past. Black & white film reels projected upon the sand narrate the story of the UAE from the desert tribes to the start of the industry & finishes with modern day life. I particularly enjoyed the footage of a camel confidently walking across a busy road! The next exhibit is a pearl-shaped immersive cinema with a lift, designed by TAIT (UK) which raises the auditorium floor, as you watch a brilliant animation around UAE culture. Directed by Smith & Foulkes with the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation for Nexus Studios (UK), this lively story illustrates three generations of family life, accompanied solely by music. The final part of the exhibition allows the visitor to enjoy the internal architecture with its beautiful circular skylight incorporating the Expo 2020 logo as well as looking at future inventions including a rather polite cleaning robot! An incredible pavilion that truly embodies the values and ambitions of Expo 2020.