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Competition: Drinking fountains at Expo 2020 Dubai

Art Jameel has launched a design contest for a series of public water fountains across the Expo 2020 Dubai site (Deadline: 10 September)

Open to teams featuring at least one member from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or living in the country, the competition seeks ‘uniquely and innovatively-designed’ proposals for a series of drinking fountains which could be mass produced for the £4.75 billion development.

The call for concepts is dubbed Sabeel 2020 and is named after the traditional drinking fountain kiosks which are common throughout the Islamic world. Up to three winners will each receive £22,500 (AED 100,000) and see their concepts mass produced and installed in time for the festival’s opening next year.

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai

According to the brief: ‘A sabeel is a community water fountain that provides relief to passersby and travellers, and that symbolises our collective responsibility and solidarity with people in our community and humanity as a whole. Inspired by the notion of the sabeel, the programme sets out to reimagine the traditional drinking fountain as an iconic design for the Expo 2020 public space, harmoniously integrating both art and design elements.

‘Sabeel 2020 builds on the concept of shared humanity and solidarity, and seeks to celebrate water as our common good, while incorporating the Expo 2020 subthemes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. Designers, architects, artists and creatives are invited to reinterpret the sabeel as an iconic feature of the Expo 2020 public realm. The winning design(s) should have the capacity to push one’s understanding of the sabeel in a contemporary, creative way, while maintaining the functionality of a fully operational drinking fountain.’

Dubai is the most populous city in the UAE and will be the first city within the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia region to host a world expo. HOK and Arup were selected five years ago to masterplan the £4.75 billion exhibition, which will be located next to Dubai World Trade Centre’s 440ha Jebel Ali development.

Fountain of Qayt Bay in Jerusalem

Fountain of Qayt Bay in Jerusalem

Source: Image by Andrew Shiva

Fountain of Qayt Bay in Jerusalem

The six-month-long event is expected to attract 25 million visitors and will run from October 2020 to April 2021. International design teams working on structures for the expo include Es Devlin and Foster + Partners, BIG and Grimshaw Architects who were chosen to deliver three permanent centrepiece pavilions focusing on mobility, opportunity and sustainability respectively.

The Sabeel 2020 contest is organised by Art Jameel which was established in 2003 to promote arts and education across the Middle East. Earlier this year the organisation launched an open international contest for Saudi Arabia’s first arthouse cinema.

The latest project will deliver a series of ‘conceptually, artistically and technically’ unique water features intended to withstand heavy usage by the events estimated 150,000 daily visitors. Proposals will be expected to provide a ‘memorable, captivating focal point’ for the expo and engage with a diverse audience of visitors.

Submissions may be in English or Arabic and should include a 500-word team introduction, 500-word project summary, 500-word response to the brief, draft budget, three concept drawings, three technical drawings, and a short portfolio of previous work.

How to apply


The deadline for applications is 11:59pm local time on 10 September

Contact details


Visit the competition website for more information

Q&A with Marjan Faraidooni

The chief pavilions and exhibitions officer at Expo 2020 Dubai discusses her ambitions for the competition

Marjan Faraidooni

Marjan Faraidooni

Marjan Faraidooni

Why are your holding a contest for new water fountains at Expo 2020 Dubai?

Sabeel 2020 is an open competition from Expo 2020 Dubai, in collaboration with Art Jameel, that invites people from the UAE’s creative sector to design drinking water fountains for the Expo 2020 Dubai site.

The contest was inspired by the concept of the sabeel – a community water fountain that provides relief to passers-by and travellers, and that symbolises our collective responsibility and solidarity with people in our community and humanity as a whole.

Entrants are invited to reimagine the sabeel for the Expo 2020 site, which measures 4.38 sqkm and will welcome 192 nations and millions of visitors to the next World Expo from 20 October 2020 to 10 April 2021.

We see this as both a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with members of the UAE’s art and design community, and also a chance for creatives to make their mark on the largest event ever staged in the Arab world. In addition, it highlights the UAE’s rich culture and the warm hospitality for which the country is known.

HOK and Populous' Dubai Expo 2020

HOK and Populous’ Dubai Expo 2020

HOK and Populous’ Dubai Expo 2020

What is your vision for the new drinking fountains?

We’re looking for the unusual, the original and the extraordinary. The 45-plus sabeels across Expo 2020 will not just provide drinking water, they will add to the wonder of visitors at the World’s Greatest Show.

Anyone submitting a design should have experience working in the public realm to brief or commission, and a proven track record of adhering to budgets and deadlines. Their sabeel should stand out both artistically and technically, as well as being robust – given that Expo 2020 will welcome a projected 150,000 visitors per day and will continue post-Expo as the integrated city of District 2020.

Up to three winning drinking fountains will be selected to be used multiple times across the Expo 2020 site, and the design or designs must push our understanding of the traditional sabeel in a contemporary and inventive way.

Sabeel of Sultan Abdulhamit in Istanbul

Sabeel of Sultan Abdulhamit in Istanbul

Source: Image by Casual Builder

Sabeel of Sultan Abdulhamit in Istanbul

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

The UAE has a thriving artistic community, so our expectations were high when launching this competition. We have been hugely impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of the designs that have been submitted so far, and we look forward to receiving plenty more between now and the contest deadline on 10 September 2019.

Sabeel 2020 will serve as a unique showcase for the winning designers, bringing their ideas to life as a key feature of Expo 2020 and its legacy in the future city of District 2020. The competition is open to both citizens and residents of the UAE, as well as international practitioners with a strong connection to the UAE.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

At Expo 2020 Dubai, we believe that innovation can come from anywhere, to everyone. We are also continually looking at new ways to involve people in the UAE and across the globe on our journey to the first World Expo ever held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia region.

Stay tuned to Expo 2020’s social media accounts for the latest news, contests and opportunities, as we prepare to celebrate our ‘One Year to Go’ milestone on 20 October 2019.

Are there any other recent similar water fountain projects you have been impressed by?

Innovative designs featuring water will be found throughout the Expo 2020 site. For example, a ‘Water Tree’ in the Sustainability Pavilion will trial extraction of atmospheric humidity, which could produce up to 22,000 litres of water a day.

The Brazil Pavilion will be built around a walkable ‘water blade’, recreating the sights, sounds and scents of the country’s riverside areas, while the Netherlands Pavilion will create its own indoor rainfall via the cutting-edge Dutch technology SunGlacier, producing water from desert air via solar power to irrigate crops and wow visitors.

Sabeel 2020 shares this same innovative spirit, and we look forward to connecting minds and creating the future together at Expo 2020 Dubai.


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