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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.”
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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.
Expo 2020 Dubai unveils its eye-catching pavilions
Each statue’s clothing is made of almost a mile of fabric, and they had to be dressed using forklifts and cranes. About 20,000 individual holes had to be drilled into the faces to insert the beards.
Development of the Mobility pavilion was spearheaded by Marjan Faraidooni, chief experience officer at Expo 2020 Dubai. She says the pavilion combines learning elements typically found in museums with fun, immersive features more associated with theme parks.
“What’s special about the Mobility pavilion is that we focused on the role that the Arab world has played in the progress of humankind,” she says. “This is a journey through time and space where you meet giants of mobility throughout the different times … and we try to tell you their story in a very cinematic way. It’s like you’re part of a movie, but you’re an active participant in this movie. “
The statues are accompanied by a bas relief – a form of shallow sculpture with roots in antiquity – which is 170 feet long and contains over 200 human figures, 100 animals and over 100 vehicles.
“It gives you the history of mobility right from the beginning of humankind,” says Faraidooni. “The first time we discovered shoes, how we domesticated animals for purposes of movement, up until we go to the moon and Mars, and hopefully Saturn in the future.
“It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that has very deep meaning and deep resonance to all of us, because it talks about our progress over the years.”
Taylor hopes that visitors find the pavilion uplifting, and that the people of the United Arab Emirates get a sense of pride from it. As a designer, he too feels pride, from the fact that the creations seen here are experienced by the audience directly, rather than through a screen.
“They’re not put through a filter of film, they’re not seen through someone else’s artistic lens,” he says. “They are seen pure, in the way that we have built them. And there’s something really delightful about that and something very exciting for the artists and technicians that build these items in the workshop.”