DUBAI, 3 December 2021 – The architect behind Expo 2020 Dubai’s iconic giant portals swung open the gates at the Sustainability Portal on Friday, as drums welcomed him during a special ceremony.
Asif Khan, who hails from the UK, designed the three gateways to the Expo site. They stand 21m tall and are 30m wide, yet are light enough for one person to open. The crisscrossing beams look like mesh, and are made from carbon fibre, with strands as thin as 10mm.
Khan’s inspiration came from the Arab world – the traditional woven patterns of mashrabiya as he explained: “What we wanted was to was create an experience of something that felt very local but at the same time very futuristic for visitors when they arrived at the Expo so we’ve made a mashrabiya, but in a three-dimensional form instead of a two-dimensional form, allowing you to walk through it and experience Arabic culture but also an architectural element that shields people from the sun, creates cooling, provides porosity but it’s made from carbon fibre, a futuristic material which is one of those that gives a taste of architecture to come.”
Khan is amazed now that he can see his work in all its glory. “It’s like making the most complicated meal you’ve ever made and watching people enjoy and eat it, taste all the hard work you’ve put in. It feels like an honour. I know that I’m in a very privileged position to have this chance to work on Expo 2020.”
Not only did Khan design the portals, the award-winning architect designed the popular Garden in the Sky, the public realm including walkways, canopies, surrounding trees and lights, as well as the Workers’ Monument and the calligraphy benches. “Each of these elements that we’ve designed affects people in different ways down to the details like the planting we’ve used in particular areas of the concourse and if you walk just past the Germany Pavilion you’ll notice on your left the smell of basil, and it suddenly hits you as you’re going past… or in the Mobility District there’s a water fountain that we’ve designed that reacts to people’s presence… The more that I spend time here – there’s more to discover and people bring all the designs to life. I don’t have a favourite [design] but if I had to pick one I think I’d pick the portal as the favourite I worked on,” said Khan.
Khan hopes his designs will give Expo 2020 visitors new perspectives. “When people walk through the portal they’re taking maybe a new perspective on the mashrabiya, a traditional architectural element; they take a new perspective on architecture, on structural engineering and maybe a new perspective on regional pride, something which they overlooked or tourists might have overlooked as decoration but they discover that it’s something that is a piece of futuristic structural engineering. When we have those opportunities, we can imagine new things. So I want people to be inspired by this architecture, this structure and imagine a world they didn’t think was possible before.”
Once Expo 2020 has run its course, its legacy project, District 2020 will become a reality, a blueprint for human-centric, smart and sustainable cities of the future. Khan hopes his designs will form an integral part of this. “At Expo we’ve designed over six kilometres of public realm, pedestrianised areas, greenery – there’s a sort of ecosystem here and through Expo you’re seeing how people enjoy it and it feels like a place with its own identity that is now known by millions of people. What I hope for the future is that District 2020 takes all of that energy and love for this place and makes it into somewhere that people can live and work and collaborate… the spirit of Expo, but long into the future.”
Khan founded his architecture office in 2007 to design buildings that weave together science, art and new human experiences. His current portfolio includes the new Museum of London, which is the largest cultural project in Europe. Also currently under construction are a Museum of Manuscripts in Sharjah and the Tselinny Centre of Contemporary Culture in Almaty, Kazakhstan which will open in 2022. Other well-known works include the UK Pavilion at Astana Expo in 2017, the Hyundai Pavilion at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the Coca-Cola Pavilion at the 2012 London Olympics.
Khan was awarded Architect of the Year in 2018 by the German Design Council and received an MBE for services to Architecture in 2017. He is currently deputy chair of the board of the Design Museum in London.
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