The unveiling this week of the design for Al Wasl Plaza – a 150-metre dome that will form the centrepiece of World Expo 2020 in Dubai – has put a new focus on the upcoming world fair.
While there has been a palpable sense of excitement about Expo since Dubai’s bid was accepted by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) in 2013, the history and importance of the event may be lost on some people.
What is an Expo? According to the BIE website, it is “a global event that aims at educating the public, sharing innovation, promoting progress and fostering cooperation. It is organised by a host country that invites other countries, companies, international organisations, the private sector, the civil society and the general public to participate.”
World fairs have been held for 160 years, often at irregular intervals. More recently, official World Expos – such as Dubai 2020 and the Milan event in 2015 – have been held every five years. “Specialised expos” that are also authorised by the BIE can be held between the major events. Such events will be held in Astana this year and in Beijing in 2019.
One of the most popular early Expos was the Exposition Universelle in Paris from May 20 to November 10, 1878. In keeping with its theme of technology, the fair was attended by the American inventor Thomas Edison, who unveiled an improved version of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and a phonograph. Other inventions showcased were machines that made ice cream and soft drinks, and a typewriter. Another big attraction was the empty head of what would become the Statue of Liberty that was later gifted to New York City. Paris held another Expo in 1889, where the big attraction was the Eiffel Tower. It was meant to be a temporary structure but it was so popular that it still stands today as a symbol of the city.
Stunning architecture has been a feature of many expositions, so Al Wasl Plaza will be in good company. London’s Crystal Palace was built for the very first Expo, the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1939 as part of San Francisco World Fair celebrations, and 1962 saw the opening of the Space Needle as part of the Seattle World Fair. In 1967, the Biosphere was unveiled at the Montreal World Fair.
Dubai is, of course, expected to be one of the largest expos in terms of attendance. The biggest so far has been in Shanghai in 2010. Thanks in part to being held in the world’s most populous country, it sold 73 million tickets.
The overarching theme of the Dubai Expo is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, with a focus on what organisers call the three pressing issues of our time: opportunity, mobility and sustainability.
Although some of the plans have been unveiled, and construction is gathering pace, many of the details remain secret. We can be sure that, as it has in the past, Dubai will surprise and delight us all and that Expo 2020 will prove worthy of its place among the great and memorable world fairs.