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The Arabic word 'Al Aaz', meaning 'distinction', located near the Dubai Millennium Amphitheatre at Expo 2020 Dubai Image Credit: Sharon Benjamin/Gulf News

Dubai: I sit on a bench that reads compassion in Arabic, as I write this story, a quality deeply valued in UAE’s culture. Walk a little further and you’ll find ‘distinction’, followed by ‘determination’, ‘blessed’ and other such words around the Expo 2020 Dubai’s thematic districts.

Designed by British architect, Asif Khan, who also designed the world fair’s public realm, and Lara Captan, Amsterdam-based Lebanese typographer Lara Captan — the 50 white benches are inspired by Arabic calligraphy. But as a visitor sits down to relax on one of these benches during their journey, they might not realise how these poetic scripts found their way there.

The words for the benches were originally crowdsourced via Expo 2020’s social media users, who were asked to select words that, to them, best represented the event, its sub-themes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability, along with the UAE. Those words were then refined with a group of 30 young Emirati professionals, who made the final selection and decided where the script-based benches should be located on site.

The benches eloquently combine form and function. Each design spells out a meaningful word in three-dimensional calligraphy-inspired Arabic script.

Attention to detail

Attention has been paid to every aspect of their design, including the words’ meaning internationally and regionally; the shape of the words when they are moulded into their 3D bench-form; the district in which they are placed; and the material each bench is made from — for example, the bench featuring the word for ‘vision’ is transparent, while the bench for the word ‘dream’ is formed by a series of hammocks.

Captan — who sees Arabic letters as being “made of motions within” and has worked for years on modernising and maintaining cultural relevance in Arabic typography — used a diamond-shaped grid unique to Arabic typography as the basis to design the word forms that became the finished benches.

So, if you’re looking to learn a few Arabic words during your visit to Expo 2020 Dubai, keep an eye out for these benches, which go by a deeper meaning. The plaques next to the benches, read: “As you rest, take a moment to consider what each bench’s design is inviting you to do. Sit closer to a loved one? Meet the eyes of a friendly new face? Lie back and dream? Chances are that the answer will align with the spirit of the word you are sitting on.”

The shapes and structure of the benches is designed to invite different interactions, too. Some benches display elongated words to encourage people to sit on their own in quiet contemplation; other words are in shorter, circular forms, designed to spark conversations and spur people to engage with each other.

In essence, Arabic via a series of engaging calligraphy-inspired benches, have, as the creators said previously, wrapped the 4.38 square kilometre site “like a poem”.