World Architecture Festival, Opinion, Essay, Awards, Interior Design, Landscape, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Lisbon, Portugal
Aaron Betsky on why the work at this year's event gives hope for the future of architecture.
The breadth of the World Architecture Festival, a confab held for the last four years in Amsterdam (but moving to Lisbon next year), is astonishing. I know of no other conference or competition in the field that brings together such a great variety of architecture, interiors, and landscapes projects. Moreover, you can actually understand the many designs that are nominated in a dizzying array of different categories because each of the designers gets 20 minutes to present and defend their projects in front of a jury and a live audience. Inflatable tents that flank the manufacturersâ€™ stands, which show the latest doorknobs and blinds and thus pay a lot of the eventsâ€™ bills, are home to these non-stop critiques. The juries then pick a winner in each of the categories, which include best interior, best student work, best drawing, and best future building.
This year I had the honor of being a member of the â€śsuper jury,â€ť which had the task of picking the best building of the year, which was featured with the other honorees at the eventâ€™s closing gala. Working with fellow jury members Anuradha Mathur, Ben van Berkel, Maria Warner Wong, and Murat Tabanlioglu, we picked the LocHal in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Designed by a team of three women-led firms (Braaksma & Roos, Inside/Outside, and Mecanoo), it is the renovation of a former train locomotive repair facility into a library and community hub. Not only was the work carried out with great care and produced a wide variety of beautifully proportioned, open, and functional spaces, but it also brought together four of the most important themes we saw in the work that was produced this last year: the repurposing of existing buildings; the importance of libraries as new community centers; the prominence of women designers, and the emergence and integration of new technologies, in this case the â€śheat the people, not the spaceâ€ť principle devised by Arup for this job, in which heating and cooling is directed only to those place and at those times when people are present.
What we missed (you canâ€™t have everything in one project) were some other important themes. One was the integration of landscape and building. We saw projects in Singapore, New Zealand, Scotland, and Shenzhen that are more or less buried in the landscape, or where the landscape meanders through the whole building, turning the structures into open public spaces that bring together a variety of functions. Other projects open up to a borrowed landscape, in the manner of the library for the Sekkei-Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, which uses the trees of the adjacent temple yard to shield its massive expanse of glass from the sun. Yet others, like a small religious structure in Abu Dhabi, cloak themselves in the imagery of rocks and desert. It made you think that in the future, those projects that will not disappear into renovations of existing structures will dissolve into the landscape.
A second theme was the uncoupling of form or gesture from function. There was nary a blob to be found in the whole of the festival, nor were there many shards or angles (the notable example being the beautifully detailed and sited dwelling the Australian firm Terroir designed for a site in suburban Sydney, which won the Best House Award). The Weird Stuff category was dominated by Thomas Heatherwick Associates, who vied for the top prize with both the Vessel, their three-dimensional M.C. Escher in New Yorkâ€™s Hudson Yards, and their shopping mall in London, the Coal Drop Yards, where they delaminated and rebuilt the roof of two industrial buildings and curved them up and towards each to house a Samsung Concept Store. All hat (or stairs) and no cattle, as the old Texas saying about show-offs goes, the buildingsâ€™ lack of architectonic qualities highlighted that the era of expressionist exploration of technological possibilities is fading.
There were some other notable images and moves spread throughout the festival. I loved the winner of the Best Community Building Award, a small library for a village in southern China designed by teams led by faculty from schools in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. And I wish that more architects who are engaged in such collaborations with local inhabitants and craftspeople could afford the rather steep fees and travel costs that are the festivalâ€™s biggest drawback. The â€śmat building,â€ť a labyrinth of closed and open spaces that hugs the ground and crea