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Welcoming visitors at one of the main entrances to Expo 2020 Dubai is Alif, a pavilion named after the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and dedicated to Mobility. From the outside, its curvaceous, structure is impressive enough, but it hides an even more imposing sight: three giant figures of historical explorers, rendered in photo-realistic detail by the special effects team that worked on “The Lord of the Rings” films.
It’s one of three thematic pavilions at the event, along with Opportunity and Sustainability. Together, they function as visual landmarks for the latest edition of the World Expo, an international exhibition that also hosts individual pavilions from 192 countries and will run for six months until the end of March 2022.
Designed by British architect firm Foster+Partners, Alif features a ribbed and curved shape meant to evoke movement. Inside, three main galleries are connected by a central core that hosts the world’s largest passenger elevator, with a capacity of 160 people (reduced to 38 for social distancing reasons).
Perhaps most eye-catching of all is the gallery dedicated to an interactive, cinematic tribute to the history of human mobility. It was designed and built by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, a special effects firm that has won five Academy Awards and has worked on films such as “Blade Runner 2049,” “Avatar,” and “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies.
“We’ve tried to create an immersive narrative on a monumental scale,” says Richard Taylor, co-founder of Weta Workshop. “The story of mobility is a very unique one, because people immediately (think of) vehicles, technology, horses, et cetera. But mobility is an incredibly diverse subject matter ranging across technology, the spoken voice, the ability to communicate. And now, of course, the very stars that we navigated by are stars that we’re reaching out to. So it spans through the whole of humanity.”
The exhibition’s main attraction is the giant statues of three key Arab figures in the history of exploration Al Bakri, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Majid, which would be over 50 feet tall if they were to stand up (they’re sitting down so they can fit inside the building). “All three of these individuals played significant roles in advancing the technology and the knowledge of the region, and then in turn in sharing that with the people,” says Taylor.
The characters were created in the form of giants to create a sense of awe and scale, Taylor says, so that when visitors travel around them, they get an almost movie-like experience.