Dubai: Turns out that taking a hike up the Alps is not a far-fetched dream at Expo 2020 Dubai. In one fell swoop, Switzerland’s cubic pavilion guides its audience through a three-act drama composed of an exposition, a climactic peak engulfed in real fog, followed by a resolution featuring the country’s latest innovations.
There are plenty of opportunities for discovery at the Swiss pavilion, much like the thematic district it is based in. “We would like the world to look at Switzerland as a country that creates opportunities for young people in education and start-ups,” says Manuel Salchli, Swiss Pavilion Commissioner General at Expo 2020 Dubai, in an interview with Gulf News. “We thought that the Opportunity [District] would be a better inspiration for the three very specific acts we’re offering to the visitors.”
We would like the world to look at Switzerland as a country that creates opportunities for young people in education and start-ups.
In 2016, Switzerland became the first country to confirm its participation in the world fair, giving the Swiss organisers a four-year head start on preparations. Salchli says that the country’s alacrity helped Switzerland, among other early-bird participants, propose the Focus Week programme linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals for Expo that would go on to target “a clearly defined audience” apart from a global one.
Coming together under red parasols
Designed by Zurich-based architecture firm OOS AG, the mirror-clad Swiss pavilion makes an architectural statement – its theme of ‘Reflections’ communicating a two-fold purpose. The reflective frontal facade takes a moment to gather visitors in the queue for a fun yet meaningful group activity. But on a more symbolic note, the pavilion hopes to initiate a joint reflection among visitors on the future of our planet.
The first act opens outside the pavilion with visitors twirling red parasols on a carpet of the same colour, woven by Swiss manufacturer Tisca, in front of the imposing mirror. “They will find out that if they group together with the ‘sunbrellas’, they can create words or project symbols on to the pavilion facade,” says Salchli, who calls the idea an activation of the people and an invitation to the people to come together. Of course, adds Salchi, this particular offering will be affected by UAE's COVID protocols at the time.
Another surprise queuing event will keep visitors entertained on their way in to the pavilion. Mini showcases meant to introduce and familiarise the audience with the Alpine country have been stationed at the entrance, displaying inventions by Swiss innovators.
Clear the fog to discover Swiss Alps
For the second act, the audience will shuffle into a small, dark corridor, a Swiss soundscape composed of musical instruments and nature enveloping them. At the end of the corridor, a sea of real fog, created by scenographers Bellprat Partner AG, awaits the unassuming visitor.
And just as the rising action leads to the climax of a plot, the explorers of the Swiss pavilion will set out on a rewarding hike with two options of commute. “They will be invited by one of our guides to cross the fog by either walking or taking a little train uphill.”
Past the fog, what lies at the cathartic peak is a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps. A globetrotter’s dream, the scenic snow-capped mountain range will be additionally brought to life in a six-minute documentary film. According to Salchli, the movie will not only showcase the country as an attractive tourist destination, but it will also acquaint the audience with the people of Switzerland.
Leaving the panorama, visitors will enter a 17-metre high urban environment, which presents vertical transportation solutions by the pavilion partner and Swiss elevator manufacturer Schindler. To engage with the audience emotionally, the Swiss company showcases its futuristic elevators without technical jargon, instead depicting them through installations of moving lights.
Fountains of innovation
Act three commences after a descent to the last space that will host a series of biweekly rotatory exhibitions adapted to Expo’s thematic focus weeks. To get visitors invested, titbits of facts on Swiss innovations and achievements will be delivered in droplets of water, appearing as condensation from the fog above. “People are invited to touch the drops, and whenever they catch one, a keyword or a teaser will be projected onto their hands,” says Salchli. “They will find more about this content in the fountains that we have set up around the water droplets.”
For instance, one of the central topics from the temporary exhibits is circular economy, where Switzerland has made leaps in recycling glass and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, and also generating energy from organic waste.
With established international presence in India, Brazil, China and the USA, Swissnex is a global network that connects Switzerland with the world in the fields of research, education and innovation.
Its mobile version is coming to Dubai at the Swiss Pavilion, in hopes of linking universities, start-ups and entrepreneurs across both regions. Ideas and inventions will be presented through panels, workshops, pitch contests and networking events in this dedicated space.
Salchli says there are no plans yet for a UAE-based Swissnex office, though the pavilion organisers expect that the networks gained from the mobile initiative will last beyond the six-month event run.
The Swiss – Middle East Circular Economy for Youth Initiative (SMECEYI) currently sponsors top ten student teams and their solutions, out of which five projects will be selected for presentation at the pavilion.
Try ‘Walk the Swiss dog’ at the pavilion
When the three-act drama draws its curtains, and the audience begins to disperse, there will be a garden and a cafe just out the door to receive the crowd.
Created by Zurich-based Lorenz Eugster Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, the outdoor garden takes inspiration from an Arab wadi or a dry river bed, landscaped with palm trees and other flora native to the Emirati soil.
At the Sprungli Boutique and Cafe, a renowned Swiss chocolate producer, visitors can try souvenir Swiss chocolates that come in pavilion-shaped packaging, grab a cuppa and munch on sandwiches and vegan burgers too.
For stunning Expo vistas and more Swiss cuisine, visitors can head to the pavilion terrace, where a rooftop bar will serve them cheese and meat platters, hotdogs that go by the name of ‘Walk the Swiss dog’ and mini potatoes stuffed with fondue cheese.
Revising plans in light of pandemic
The Switzerland Pavilion rehashed its plans for the third act of the visitor journey – the current experience is now far more moving than originally intended. Salchli says it is imperative that the pavilion welcomes the world on an emotional note in a post-pandemic climate.
We fully trust the Expo organisers, who elaborated very clearly what their measures will be in order to make this event a success. [Being] the first major international event after the pandemic, Expo is a fantastic opportunity for people to meet again physically and discover what’s happening in the world. We would like the visitors to leave the Swiss pavilion with a positive feeling that lasts well beyond Expo 2020 Dubai.
“We fully trust the Expo organisers, who elaborated very clearly what their measures will be in order to make this event a success,” says Salchli. “[Being] the first major international event after the pandemic, Expo is a fantastic opportunity for people to meet again physically and discover what’s happening in the world.
“We would like the visitors to leave the Swiss pavilion with a positive feeling that lasts well beyond Expo 2020 Dubai.”
Beyond Expo, Switzerland's plans are still tentative: if the pavilion decides to stay on, it could either turn into a platform for the Swiss business community or be absorbed into the smart city of District 2020, which will open its gates in October 2022.
- The writer is an intern with Gulf News.