Dubai’s ‘futuristic’ exhibition to open one year late

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Expo 2020 Dubai will finally open its doors a year late on October 1, one of the first global events since the global shutdowns.

The year 2020 remains engraved in the logo of the exhibition, which prompts reflection on how exhibitions shape the future. Since the first exhibitions, exhibitions have sought to express that technology can bring the world together. In the staging of 19th century exhibitions in Europe, it was mainly a space pursuit. Most visitors had never ventured far from home. For them, an exhibition offered a compressed world tour, albeit inaccurate. At the 1889 exhibition in Paris, for example, you could cross the street from a simulation of Japan to that of Morocco, then enter Egypt before heading to Iran.

Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York marked a significant change. That year, visitors queued for hours at a lodge sponsored by General Motors. They were promised a glimpse of the future, specifically the United States in 1960. Unsurprisingly, the American automaker had a future in love with the car. A nation of driver-citizens would create self-proclaimed trips. The typical visitor to the exhibit today probably has both a car and a frequent flyer card. Today, while an overseas flight may cost less than a bus ride, exhibitors continue to emulate Futurama, focusing on one type of travel that is not yet available: travel in the time.

The global media often describe Dubai as “futuristic”. When expo makers eight years ago chose Dubai to host the event, it seemed like a perfect match. In a city where deadlines are met on time and with ceremony, what could go wrong? An exhibition for the future in a city of the future. A Hollywood actor in a take for the expo asks, “Want to see the future? Go on.”

In many ways, the spread of COVID-19 calls into question the confident accounts that expose the weaving. At any given exhibition, the complex issues facing the world are solved in bromides and through the close connection of technology with commerce. Exhibits assure visitors that their spending habits can be both enjoyable and bring the world closer together. COVID-19, however, could have done a better job than a whole story of exhibits in showing how small the world is now, to a potentially deadly degree.

This is the first time that Dubai has hosted such a large global event. But the city has been preparing an exhibition for decades. In 1960, the same year Futurama predicted highways for, Dubai hosted its first town plan which laid out the city’s first asphalt roads. A few years later, this same town plan was published in one of the city’s first commercial brochures. Since then, architecture has been the exhibition that professed that Dubai has a future. Newly mapped roads, hardened shorelines, and completed office towers were beyond mere factual infrastructure. They were display models of what was to come. Dubai designers know the value of a good show.

(The Dubai International Trade and Exhibition Center under construction in 1977, image courtesy of the John R Harris Library)

Even before Dubai hosted specially constructed exhibition venues, it held exhibitions and fairs. Product displays sometimes arrived aboard ships moored in the port of Dubai. There were hastily assembled trade fairs on the city waterfront or along the dusty roads outside of the city. Ribbon cuts in new hospitals and bank buildings were standard social events where guests admired the latest innovations in furniture and construction. Fifty years ago, the city’s largest interior was completed. Equipped with air conditioning and clad in double height glass walls, this building was the city’s first airport terminal. Oversized for the needs of the city at the time, it was once reserved as an exhibition, crisscrossed with stands where engineers and contractors presented their trades to regional developers and the general public. More than metaphorically, newcomers to Dubai have encountered the future of Dubai even before setting foot in the current city.

The success of the airport exhibition inspired Dubai’s leadership to create specially designed exhibition facilities. One eventual design incorporated the tallest tower in the area. Originally named Dubai International Trade & Exhibition Center, the shopping complex offered an unrivaled menu of exhibition spaces to the region. It was also an exhibit in itself – a model exhibit of the skyscrapers that were to line the now famous Sheikh Zayed Road. Jump forward to the boom years of this century: Real estate fairs continue to embrace this faith in exhibitions, where architecture declares what will happen next.

When Futurama first opened in 1939, endless highways and high motorization rates were just an automaker’s dream. Now they are part of the grim reality we face, as global warming can no longer be seen as an abstraction. For Dubai in particular, the smooth connective tissue of roads, ports and tower blocks has been the exhibit for decades – well-maintained proof that the city is “world class” and “future proof.”

“We are not finished,” announces a video of the exhibition. “In fact, we need to do more than ever. Expo 2020 Dubai always promises the future, but will it be a history lesson in how we envisioned the future? Or moving beyond tired references to Futurama’s success over 70 years ago, can this year’s pavilions offer any sights on the new future we need to chart? Under the theme “Cities of the future”, the pavilions of Sweden, China, Belgium, Germany and India promise to do so. By crossing the continents through each of these pavilions, we could encounter technological solutions of the future which rectify the technological solutions of the past.

Italy sent to Dubai a “3D twin” of the sculpture of David by Michelangelo, the biblical fighter of the giants. For visitors to see his face up close, the clone of David appears caged in a circular chute of ground levels, as if caught in the whirling whip of his own slingshot. The combination of high tech from Italy with a late Renaissance masterpiece reveals how limited and limiting technology is today.

“Connect minds, create the future” is the slogan of Expo 2020. Two years ago, that might have sounded defiantly optimistic. Now this resonates with urgency. If Expo 2020 Dubai concludes our old future, it wouldn’t be the first time that something new has been declared in Dubai.


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