March 1, 2022

Michael Geller at Expo2020 and the best of public spaces

By Michael Geller

Throughout history, World Expositions have introduced innovations that eventually become commonplace. Examples include the elevator, first displayed at the 1853 World Fair in New York; the telephone first introduced at the 1876 World Fair in Philadelphia; the Ferris wheel and dishwasher at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; and broadcast television at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

EXPO 2020 Dubai is no exception. Delayed by a year due to Covid, this international exposition is very much focused on sustainability and addressing climate change. Innovations include a train that runs on compressed air, electric planes, an elevator that goes up and down, and sideways, and multiple demonstrations on making water out of air.  However, there is one feature of the exposition that I hope will one day be copied in cities around the world, namely Al Wasl Plaza.


Al Wasl plaza is a 67.5 metre-high dome in the centre of the Expo site which features an immersive 360-degree projection surface for 250 projectors. The plaza connects the Fairs three Thematic Districts and the main pedestrian-focused avenues that connect the various portions of the site.

It is an active ‘living room’ or staging area for a wide range of activities including formal National Day celebrations, musical concerts, and theatrical events. In the evening, it becomes a non-stop mesmerizing sound and light extravaganza with brilliant continuously changing colours.

The dome structure shades landscaping and water features creating a microclimate that is reportedly nine degrees Celsius lower than the surrounding outside environment.

Fair visitors go there to gather, participate and connect – not surprising since Al Wasl literally means “the connection” which was the historical name for Dubai.



As I often experienced Al Wasl, I could not help but compare it with the plazas and gathering places around Vancouver. The only place that seemed remotely similar is the new Shipyard Commons on the North Vancouver waterfront. Located in the heart of The Shipyards redevelopment, this large covered space offers residents and visitors a unique, interactive gathering place.

In the summer months a portion becomes a splash park; in the winter a skating plaza. Like Al Wasl, it protects users from the elements. Unlike Al Wasl, it does not offer the broad range of opportunities for projections, music and concerts.

Hopefully, in the future, we will create new weather-protected, technologically sophisticated gathering places like Al Wasl throughout Metro Vancouver and the province. While some may oppose these spaces, fearing they will provide places for the homeless to sleep at night, having experienced the delights offered by such a space, I hope it will become a model for future public places.

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  1. It is a sad reflection on our social values when our urban design policies are wrapped around a fear that if we build something “nice”, people who have absolutely nothing might also find it nice and want to sleep there.

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