Hopkins Architects’ Sustainable Masterplan for Expo 2020

Announced in the Engineering Prize Shortlist for this year’s World Architecture Festival (WAF), the largest built area of Expo 2020 was masterplanned, designed and delivered by Hopkins Architects. The ‘Thematic Districts’ created a new piece of city, which housed over 87 new permanent buildings and hosted the work of more than 136 participating countries in last year’s COVID-delayed exhibition.


Sensitive to context, Hopkins focused on culture and climate to create something that was born of its location rather than imposed upon it. Three petal-shaped districts representing ‘Mobility, Opportunity and Sustainability’ sat at the heart of the expo masterplan, connecting to the central Al Wasl Plaza. Each district was anchored by a thematic pavilion and featured a number of individual national pavilions, designed by a range of participating international architecture and design firms. Geometry, colour and landscape have been used to give each of the three districts a distinct character.

Hopkins’ highly-contextual concept is a modern take on a traditional Arab city. A series of human-scaled, tree-lined streets efficiently deliver people to key events and pavilions but also create a pleasant landscape conducive to relaxed wandering and discovery. Streets are punctuated with courtyards, where people could sit and enjoy birdsong or the sound of water in an environment that evokes the qualities and character of old Dubai.

A central spine ran through each district connecting to the main plaza, with water features, event stages, activity areas and rest places; all clustered beneath elegant, funnel-shaped shade structures. These shading structures were one of the most striking elements of the expo site. Inspired by the shape of the date palm, they comprised 52 lightweight metal structures, slender at their base and rising to 16m in height and width to create an interconnected canopy. The individual metal panels of the shades feature the colour and patterns unique to the identity of each district and help with intuitive wayfinding. Dappled light and shade cast across the main pedestrian route to provide a comfortable visitor experience and protect the indigenous scented and flowering planting below.

“The challenge was to design a district that could meet the individual needs of countries exhibiting during the expo, whilst being flexible enough to convert to almost any building type for a long-lasting legacy. We wanted to create a series of streets and courtyards that people could meander through on their way to the next big event, which evokes the character of old Dubai and a traditional Arab city, but in a modern way,” recalls Simon Fraser, Principal and Lead Designer at Hopkins.

Hopkins Architects used a modular system for speed and efficiency of construction that was easily adaptable for a variety of building scales and types.

Following the closure of Expo 2020 in March this year, the project is set to be repurposed to provide a creative, vibrant district for start-ups and innovative tech companies with a lively campus of mixed-use buildings interconnecting via bridge links that overlook landscaped spaces. Transforming into Expo City, the site is planned to follow a human-centric, mixed-use smart city format.

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