UAE pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Image credit: Expo 2020 Dubai LLC (SO)

Calatrava International
Architects and Engineers

Expo 2020 Dubai, which received over 24 million visits between 1 October 2021 and 31 March 2022, was defined by the breathtaking architecture of its pavilions. As the legacy district - Expo City Dubai – prepares to reopen to the public on 1 October 2022, discover the fascinating story behind the design of one of its most iconic permanent pavilions – the UAE national pavilion.

In light of global progress and challenges shared by all nations, the way Expo pavilions have been approached over time has greatly evolved. Today, architects and engineers are tasked with envisioning life beyond the Expo, collectively working towards sustainability through innovation. Ingenuity in design, coupled with features of sustainability, are highly prevalent throughout the Expo 2020 Dubai Master Plan. Beyond symbolising a national monument at the heart of the Expo site, the UAE pavilion represents the UAE’s cultural heritage and its boundless visions of the future while exemplifying the power of innovation. Fostering connectivity and the flow of movement across 15,000 square metres of carefully planned spaces, the UAE pavilion offers visitors an opportunity to explore the history and future of the United Arab Emirates – from its origins to its thriving present and its visionary future.

The vision behind the host country’s pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Representing the host country for Expo 2020 Dubai, the UAE pavilion serves not only to showcase the UAE’s identity and vision, but also to host a global audience as a pivotal anchor throughout the entire event and for years to come. With that, the Expo 2020 theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, was central to our creative process.

Following a seven-month design competition with submissions from the world’s leading architecture firms, the National Media Council of the United Arab Emirates selected Santiago Calatrava’s proposal for the UAE pavilion at World Expo 2020 Dubai. The structure, which sits at the heart of the nearly 438 ha exhibition area, was seen by over 24 million visitors and participants who are expected to visit Expo.

"The principal design of the UAE pavilion stems from the vision of the majestic falcon"

The goal is to bring together the UAE pavilion’s architectural composition through culturally relevant concepts and contextual responsiveness to the site. The principal design stems from the vision of the majestic falcon - the national bird of the United Arab Emirates.

Drawing inspiration from the grace and force of the falcon set the grounds for the conceptual framework that all natural systems that govern and inspire our lives lie in motion and with this overarching idea, human inventiveness is born. By channelling the powers of mobility, synchronised flow, and technological innovation, the relationship between architectural spaces and structural systems began to fuse together to create connections that tie the form, gesture, and spatial arrangements with the main theme of Expo 2020 Dubai. The aim was to cultivate these connections, to showcase the UAE’s past and future, and to ensure that the articulation of spaces, levels, and elements allow for the free flow of movement.

Commenting on the UAE pavilion before its opening, the Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General of Expo 2020 Dubai, H.E Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimy said: “The pavilion will be one of the Expo’s greatest icons. The design will evoke the pioneering spirit and power of connections that transformed the UAE from a collection of small, desert communities, into a global connection point. The UAE pavilion will become an important cornerstone in our site and will have a legacy plan that will reflect our hopes and ambitions for the many years to come.”

Seeking to also pay homage to the UAE’s heritage, further inspiration was drawn upon the historic desert dweller and the Bedouin tent’s sheltering form. This notion was translated into the building’s elevation in honour and recognition of life in the desert and the local sustainable solutions associated to it. Shedding light on the UAE pavilion’s central and vital location at the centre of the Expo, we designed it to serve as the focal point that draws in connection to surrounding areas. The sloped geometry of the roof and the floating wings create visual and outward connections that welcome visitors approaching the UAE pavilion from all directions. Landscaped spaces surrounding the UAE pavilion on all sides allow for an effortless flow of pedestrian movement toward the structure, while strategically aligned bridges orient the main entrance toward the heart of the Expo Master Plan, the Al Wasl Plaza.

Speaking of his appointment, Santiago Calatrava said: “I am deeply honoured that our firm will have the opportunity to design the National Pavilion for Dubai Expo 2020, a project with national and global significance. I am confident that the final design will be a symbol of the UAE’s bold and daring spirit, reflected in what is poised to be the most inclusive and global Expo in history.”

One of the overriding concepts for the Expo 2020 Dubai masterplan is “Connectivity”. The image of the Aton Sun inspired the layout of the pavilion on the site, providing opportunities for visitors to approach the pavilion from all angles. Embracing this idea throughout macro and micro design scales, from the UAE pavilion’s Master Plan to its radially set out exhibition areas, an outward-reaching scheme forms both a physical and intellectual connection within the overall Master Plan. Thus, the surrounding areas of the site and beyond allow for the building to gently integrate itself within its immediate surroundings.

Furthermore, the concept behind the UAE pavilion’s layout and orientation enables the building to be seen from afar hence it purposely does not ‘fill’ the entire plot. The plot is bound by tall shading structures which create somewhat of a ‘buffer zone’ or canvas from which one may view the theatrical display of the wings.

"An immersive multisensory visitor experience within the UAE pavilion tells the story of the ‘Land of Dreamers Who Do’"

The radial arrangement continues through the floating wings of the UAE pavilion’s roof. Nestled beneath the wings are shaded arcades that allow visitors to explore the building’s immediate surroundings and interact with the white wings that gently hover above the ground.

An immersive multisensory visitor experience (conceived by Tellart and Kossmanndejong) within the UAE pavilion tells the story of the ‘Land of Dreamers Who Do’ through authentic human stories, with the aim to elevate a collective sense of ambition, foster a sense of connectedness, encourage global and local stakeholders to connect and collaborate with the UAE, and invite the world to experience the UAE story first-hand.

Speaking on the UAE pavilion, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth and UAE Pavilion Commissioner-General, H.E. Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi said: “The UAE Pavilion is centered around the theme the Land of Dreamers Who Do, showcasing the unique attributes of the UAE as a welcoming home to people who share its values of ambition and humanity, authenticity and openness, and resilience and optimism. The UAE Pavilion goes far beyond being a structure, it is an expression of the nation’s shared values and everything that has been achieved throughout our collective progress. From our early dreamers who helped create and unite the UAE, to the Dreamers Who Do of today, who will lead us into the future; these are the stories that will be told through the UAE Pavilion.”

The creative process: an overview of the UAE pavilion

The creative process that led to the design of the UAE pavilion, in its final form, required a lengthy and rigorous process of sketching, modelling, simulating, and analysing the multi-layered design factors and generators that make up the forms and systems of the UAE pavilion. When designing a pavilion for a World Expo, the responsibility lies on the appointed architects to ensure that the client’s vision is properly relayed from a visual and programmatic standpoint, in addition to adhering to sustainable practices.

As with every monumental architectural endeavour, targeting challenges and applying the utmost precision and accuracy in every angle, line and detail is essential to ensure that the end result is achieved through well-organised processes and serves its intended purposes for both the client and for the visitors.

Through the production of countless watercolour sketches that served as a means to explore spatial arrangements and structural constructs, the design evolved to inform the floating form and architectural gesture of the roof. Detailed drawings followed soon after, fusing sculptural and architectural elements with dynamic structural systems that allow for a symbiotic design methodology where form and function blend seamlessly into one holistic composition.

"The UAE pavilion is designed and built with the intent to create a physical and intellectual anchor at Expo 2020 Dubai"

Complementing the design process on the drawing board, three dimensional models and algorithmic simulations governed the exploration of the geometrical forms of the wings and their kinetic capacities. Multiple iterations formed the testing grounds for comprehensive solar, wind, and shadow studies to guide and nurture the design in its ability to respond specifically and sensitively to the site conditions and surrounding context.

With a clear concept and vision in mind, the design continued to be refined around spatial anchors that align and orient visual, circulation and experiential patterns guided by the laws of symmetry.

An architectural legacy beyond Expo 2020 Dubai

What was integral to the design and planning of the UAE pavilion was to create a structure that evokes multisensory experiences for decades to come. In line with the mission of the Expo to showcase progress and allow for nations to come together to tackle global challenges, the UAE pavilion is designed and built with the intent to create a physical and intellectual anchor at Expo 2020 Dubai, serving as an architectural beacon that represents and harnesses human potential and innovation by providing a platform from which the global community can propel itself.

With the UAE pavilion, the hope is to keep a sustainable legacy that captures the UAE’s identity while cultivating a balance and connection between the country’s past and future.

A benchmark for sustainability and innovation

When simultaneously defining and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes sustainable architecture, it is imperative to embed design decisions in ideas and applications that are essentially both viable and continuous.

Designed to ensure its longevity and its adaptability over time, the UAE pavilion’s programmatic layouts of multi-level exhibition areas and expansive spatial arrangements allow for the flexibility in its legacy planning and its functions during and after Expo 2020 Dubai. This provides ample opportunity for the building to transform and accommodate future programs allowing it to sustain itself within its context.
Accordingly, leading practices of environmental sustainability were embedded at the heart of the design process. Sustainable elements, such as photovoltaic panels, were integrated into the roof structure bringing the entire building to life when revealed by the opening of the 28 moveable wings.

"Passive cooling, ventilation and shading strategies are central to ensuring that energy consumed by the building is both reduced and managed"

The local sourcing and manufacturing of building materials and systems, put in place to produce the carbon-fibre composite wings and the glass photovoltaic panels through cold-forming processes that have been adapted to meet the requirements of the panels, minimise negative environmental impacts such as transportation energy, carbon emissions, and air quality impacts while conserving resources and enhancing local employment opportunities.

The UAE pavilion is LEED Platinum Certified (based on LEED 2009 standards for New Construction). In addition, respecting ecological limits and natural resource constraints, it is also compliant with the Dubai Green Building Regulations and Specifications (DGBR).

Passive cooling, ventilation and shading strategies are central to ensuring that energy consumed by the building is both reduced and managed. Sunken, shaded gardens that are oriented to channel wind and air flow create comfortable outdoor environments that are further cooled by large pools flanking pedestrian walkways. Shaded arcades, protected by the sheltering form of the floating wings, allow for outdoor environments that are host to native and regionally adapted species of trees and plants to be highly functional and responsive to the hot climate of the region.

The make-up of the UAE pavilion’s roof

The UAE pavilion’s wings have embedded functions that are interdependently connected. This required challenging structural norms and new hybrid systems which enabled the contractors to build complex, and sustainable architecture features.

Integrated enclosures and landscaped environments

With the aim to create people-centric, comfortable outdoor public areas; open spaces, and walkways were carefully considered. The garden at the basement level, which provides access to the lower level of the pavilion, offers a cool and tranquil environment with large water pools and trees naturally cooling the air, creating shade, and reducing reflected heat, making this space a sunken refuge from direct exposure to the extreme climatic conditions.

Running in parallel with meeting the design aesthetics, sustainability Key Performance Indicators drove the design decisions that brought together key landscape features; particularly through the integration of native and regionally adapted plant species that reduce irrigation volume and demand, and that can sustain an efficient irrigation network.

Encompassing the UAE pavilion along the ground floor, 12 different vegetative species, eight of which are native or adaptive, occupy the area whereby, approximately 45 of the 80 trees planted are of cultural importance to the UAE.

"The design of the UAE pavilion serves as a reminder of the values that the nation aspires to uphold strength, vision, and freedom"

Making it happen: the construction of the UAE pavilion

Construction on the UAE pavilion began in July 2017 and followed a rigorous works programme set within a tight schedule. Upon completion, it would have taken approximately 11 million man-hours to construct the pavilion.

The structure itself is made up of ca. 21,000m3 of concrete and a total tonnage of steel amounting to approximately 1,800 tons. The curved concrete perimeter wall, which spans from the front cores at the west to the rear cores at the east, is perhaps one of the most particular structural elements of the building, supporting most of the ground and first floor and allowing a generous, almost column-free space across the exhibition areas.

The main structure is built on approximately 14,100 square metres of raft foundation.

The roof structure functions as a hybrid system between a shell structure and a portal frame. This behaviour is achieved by an array of radially set out steel ribs that span the façade of the pavilion, thereby providing the structural framework of the roofs sheltering form. The 29 radial ribs are made of steel box girders weighing a total of 1050 tons. Their lengths range from 26 metres for the shortest rib to 75 metres for the longest rib. The upper ends of the ribs are joined by a compression ring beam at the apex of the roof. The lower ends of the ribs overhang the building perimeter.

"The roof structure functions as a hybrid system between a shell structure and a portal frame"

A tension ring connects the ribs along the outline of the building’s perimeter wall. The respective loads are transferred from the roof ribs to the concrete perimeter walls via steel bearing elements. Twenty-nine multi-directional spherical bearings provide vertical support, with four shear keys offering horizontal restraint.

Only four columns are used to support the ground floor and the first floor on the interior of the building, creating a near column-free space for the exhibition areas. This was achieved using a radial arrangement of post-tensioned concrete beams spanning between the perimeter walls and the central balcony ring beams.

Building composition: a more detailed look into the design

The pioneering roof and its kinetic wings

The UAE pavilion’s steel roof is equipped with contemporary kinetic capacities and innovative architectural elements, the most notable of which are the 28 movable wings.

A total of 46 specialised hydraulic actuators allow the wings to open in a synchronised motion in just 3 minutes, completing a range of movements between 110 and 125 degrees per wing. The movable wings reveal a surface grid of photovoltaic panels which have been designed to absorb the maximal amount of sunlight to harvest energy which is returned to the main power grid. When closed, the wings shelter and protect the photovoltaic panels from rain and sandstorms.

Contemporary features and composite systems

With a total Gross Internal Floor Area of approximately 13,300m2 and a Built-Up Area of over 20,500m2, the building arrangement and spatial relationships were carefully studied, to ensure both functionality and free flow of movement. Accordingly, 8,000 square metres were allocated to the exhibition spaces spread across three primary levels.

The auditorium at the core of the UAE pavilion is a faceted sphere with an outer diameter of 25 metres and an overall height of 20 metres. A specialist lifting platform supports the interior seating of the auditorium and transports the audience from one floor to another while experiencing audio-visual shows, building on the flow of movement. Serving as both a central location and a functional space, the auditorium can accommodate 200 people.

A key feature at the apex of the UAE pavilion’s roof is the oculus. Architecturally, the oculus serves as a skylight, welcomes natural light to flow into the exhibition spaces and mirrors the form of the Expo 2020 logo. It is a fixed insulated glazing unit system, with a diameter of 12 metres, placing the UAE pavilion at a total height of 27.8 metres. The oculus also has functional characteristics whereby its surrounding grilles open for smoke extraction in case of an accidental fire.


It has been an honour for us to have worked on this national monument representing the UAE for the long-awaited Expo 2020 Dubai.

The design of the UAE pavilion stands as a testament to the passion and dedication of the people of the UAE and serves as a reminder of the values that the nation aspires to uphold strength, vision, and freedom.

With the intent to create a physical and intellectual anchor at the heart of Expo 2020 Dubai, the UAE pavilion symbolises how the UAE is connecting the minds of the world, by providing a platform from which the global community can soar to new heights, while capturing the UAE’s identity and cultivating a connection between the country’s past and future.


This article was first published in the 2021-22 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled "World Expos: Architectural Labs".

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