How Shanghai and Milan set the stage for Expo 2020 Dubai

The world fair in Dubai may prove to be the most spectacular gathering in the event's history

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The images that have emerged before Expo 2020 Dubai begins suggest that it could be the most spectacular gathering in the long history of world’s fairs.

But the last two events have set the bar high, with Expo 2010 Shanghai being unprecedented in scale and Expo 2015 Milano featuring some of the most imaginative pavilions yet.

The sense of excitement in China around Expo 2010 Shanghai was palpable because the event was more than an international showcase – it also encapsulated the country’s modern-day economic rise.

In Shanghai we had massive numbers of people using the pavilion. We also had a constant queue of people coming in
Peter Vine, director of the UAE pavilion at the Shanghai and Milan expos

Not far from Shanghai’s extraordinary clutch of skyscrapers, a vast piece of land beside the Huangpu River was transformed into the largest-ever world-fair exhibition space.

Record amounts were invested in the 523-hectare site and supporting infrastructure, more countries than ever took part and visitor numbers smashed records.

Shanghai’s Metro grew from three to 11 lines in the seven years before the event's opening, demonstrating China’s ability to push forward large-scale infrastructure projects with remarkable speed.

As the event grew nearer, models of the its blue mascot, Haibao, were installed across the city and in its shiny new subway stations.

In Shanghai's main shopping precincts, away from the Expo 2010 site, shops opened to sell souvenirs, many of them featuring Haibao or the eye-catching Chinese pavilion.

The city’s informal economy was also involved, with street vendors selling unofficial gifts laid out on pavements near the exhibition site.

As the event in the world’s most populous nation opened, crowds were vast and well-behaved.

Held under the theme Better City, Better Life, Expo 2010 focused on urban development, although this theme was often interpreted loosely. With a vast exhibition space, pavilions were sometimes as large as they were eye-catching.

Sand dunes and silk worms

The UAE’s pavilion was a shimmering sand dune, since rebuilt in porcelain-clad form on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

Japan’s, which took up almost as much ground as a football pitch, was covered with solar cells and was nicknamed the "purple silkworm".

“In Shanghai we had massive numbers of people using the pavilion,” says Peter Vine, the director of the UAE pavilion at the expos in Shanghai and Milan, among others.

“We weren’t far from the China pavilion, which had queues that took five or six hours. We also had a constant queue of people coming in. Queuing, for us, took about four hours at the time.”

When Mr Vine spoke to a Chinese boy in the line, queuing with his grandparents, it turned out it was his second visit – he had waited for several hours the day before.

Saudi Arabia’s futuristic, disc-shaped offering featured a stunning audio-visual film display. Others went for a more traditional look, such as Nepal with its temple-inspired design.

The UAE pavilion from Shanghai has since been rebuilt in Abu Dhabi. Photo: DCT

With queues lasting hours at some pavilions, it was no surprise that when it was over, Expo 2010 Shanghai turned out to have attracted more visitors than any previous world fair: 73 million.

The previous record was 64 million set by Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan.

An Italian flavour

With Expo 2010 Shanghai being a supersized demonstration of China’s 21st-century emergence as a global force, the next world fair was never likely equal it in scale.

But Expo Milano 2015 was still a huge international gathering, and what it lacked in records it made up for in originality.

Italy’s fashion capital offered a beautiful, historical setting for the build-up to the event.

In the Piazza del Duomo, the main square, a vast stage was erected to host an orchestra that played in front of the city’s famous cathedral, Duomo di Milano, construction of which began in the 14th century.

The evening air held a buzz as people wandered through the pedestrianised streets, which were lined with the flags of the participating nations – including the UAE.

When the event itself got underway there was heavy global media interest, with myriad TV journalists recording pieces to camera in the enormous covered walkway that ran through the expo site.

The Italian prime minister at the time, Matteo Renzi, toured the event, accompanied by a vast scrum of security, officials and reporters.

Brightly dressed performers on stilts created a carnival atmosphere, while bicycling ice-cream sellers and models of the famous Fiat 500 car ensured that this most international of events maintained a distinctly Italian flavour.

This was the second world fair the city had hosted – the first was the Milan International in 1906 – and its theme of, Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, resulted in some stunning interpretations by nations.

None were more eye-catching than Israel’s Fields of Tomorrow exhibit, a 1,000-square-metre vertical facade or living wall on which crops such as rice and wheat grew.

The display illustrated a way to maximise food production when land is limited, and to insulate buildings against temperature extremes, both hot and cold.

Other pavilions were unashamedly utilitarian in their reflection of the agriculture-related theme. Belarus, for example, proudly displayed a Belarus-branded tractor manufactured in Minsk.

Thailand had a model of a buffalo in a flooded paddy field, Kuwait offered an array of sails in a nod to the traditional fishing dhow, the Qatari pavilion recreated a souq, and Bahrain’s pavilion had trees with ripe fruit to pick.

Especially memorable, if less obviously agricultural, was the centrepiece of the British pavilion, a structure called the Hive that was made from almost 170,000 aluminium components arranged into layer upon layer of hexagons.

As in Shanghai, Mr Vine says there was great interest from visitors in the UAE pavilion, which offered echoes of the narrow streets and courtyards of historical Gulf towns and cities.

“The queues were extraordinary,” he says. “The Milan pavilion was very widely praised for what it did, including the technology which was used – the 3D film.”

Brazil’s pavilion had an enormous horizontal rope net that visitors could walk on – something both adults and children took great delight in doing.

Elsewhere, there was everything from beautiful copper horses to performances by a traditional Korean orchestra and, emerging from a pool beside the Czech pavilion, an offbeat sculpture that was half bird, half car.

Given that it was held in a country with a population just 4 per cent the size of China’s, Expo 2015 was always going to be more modestly attended than its predecessor in Shanghai.

But the Milan event did draw an impressive crowd of 21.5 million, many of whom were no doubt impressed by the daring array of exhibits.

The organisers of Expo 2020 Dubai have set themselves a bigger target: 25 million people over six months.

Updated: October 06, 2021, 8:19 AM