It’s a good principle that, except in exceptional circumstances, architecture critics see the buildings that they review. You wouldn’t want a food critic to recommend a restaurant based on photographs of loaded plates, nor a theatre critic to base their judgments on films of performances. You’re meant to sniff, feel and sense the things you describe, to experience them in the round.
There’s a downside to this good principle, which is that buildings don’t come to you, and that many fine works are done all over the world which it would be absurdly expensive and eco-reckless to visit. Circumstances are, what’s more, what can only be described as exceptional. Given that almost everywhere is now almost equally inaccessible, whether another county or another continent, I’ve decided to make an opportunity out of a problem, and to offer a world tour of the very best new architecture, as seen through the portal of a laptop.
It helps that there are several websites – Dezeen, ArchDaily, Designboom, Archinect, or the pickier Domusweb, Archpaper, the Architectural Review and Wallpaper* – that daily display new architectural gems sent to them by hopeful practices. I therefore propose a top 10 of the hundreds that have been published on these sites in the time of Covid-19. The start of this period is tricky to define, but let’s say it was early March, which was when it dawned that this is a truly worldwide crisis.
It’s a varied harvest. There are attention-seekers and duds among those hundreds of projects. There are a few ambulance-chasers – those who seek to promote themselves by proposing their very own architectural responses to emergencies, responses for which nobody asked. But there is also the never-ending desire of architects to discover in every building project the chance to make the world a little more interesting and a little more enjoyable. The best of these projects are theatres for life, whether that life is seeing art, living in your home, going to school or meeting friends, and wherever it might take place: in an ancient city, in a refugee camp, in deep countryside. They aim to make that life richer, fuller and more surprising.
A few things stand out. One is the quality of work in places not traditionally seen as architectural powerhouses, such as Vietnam, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Paraguay. There is a related lack of really big names, the Dutch MVRDV being the best known to make the list. There’s no single dominating style, although it is somewhat amazing how prevalent is a version of modernism that first matured some time in the middle of the last century – one that favours undecorated but textured surfaces like timber and rough concrete, sculpted into plain but sometimes complex forms.
There’s a good side to the persistence of this style – if it ain’t broke why fix it? – but it leaves you wondering why this century doesn’t have more to add. You are also grateful for those works that offer something else entirely: the self-indulgent but entertaining guesthouse Alex, for example, or the bamboo-built safe space. In some of the choices there’s a certain attraction to the creative reuse of wrecked old buildings. This ruinlust might betray a personal preference, but it also reveals some architects’ move away from the making of brand new magic objects towards the mining of the already-there.
There are hazards in this operation. It’s hard to tell at a distance if a building presents an ugly backside to its neighbours, or if there are catastrophic details out of sight of the camera. Did the budgets spiral out of control? Did any of these marvels reduce their clients or builders to sobbing wrecks? Are those humanitarian projects actually diverting resources from more essential but less photogenic purposes? I’ll guess not, but it’s difficult to know for sure.
Mostly, it’s heartening. There’s energy and invention out there, plus the ability to respond to unusual and challenging situations. Which are qualities we will all need, whenever we are allowed out in public again.
Rowan Moore’s top 10 new architecture projects (in no particular order)
Museum of Contemporary Art Helga de Alvear, Cáceres, Spain, by Emilio Tuñón
On the one hand there’s the stately rhythm of white pillars, which speak of temple-like repose. On the other there’s an intricate series of steps and terraces, both inside and out, that work their way up, around and through the building, such that it grows out of the hilly city around it. Stillness meets movement, in other words. Closer examination reveals other nuances: the concrete verticals narrow as they get higher, and what at first sight seem rectangular rooms are skewed into parallelograms. A dignified and subtle work.
Tainan Spring, Taiwan, by MVRDV
Most towns and cities have one: a senescent shopping centre once hailed as an economic engine, now overstaying its welcome like a kitchen appliance that the binmen won’t take away. Tainan Spring offers a bold and direct response. Here the ruins of the China-Town mall, built over an old harbour in 1983, have been made into a public “lagoon”, whose levels change with dry and rainy seasons, and with cooling vapour mists when it’s hot. It’s promised that the vegetation will become lush in three years, in evocation of the jungle that was there before the city came.
Beyond Survival Safe Space, Teknaf, Bangladesh, by Rizvi Hassan
This is a sheltered place in a camp for 600,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, where young women and girls can gather. It is built and decorated by residents of the camp, using locally sourced bamboo. As it was built in a hurry its materials will be short-lived, to be replaced by more durable alternatives later. While addressing these urgent practicalities, the structure achieves a ragged grace, with its oval form and undulating roof. Seen from a distance it looks like a union of a vital purpose and thoughtful design. Which, very possibly, it is.
Mac House, Novelda, Spain, by La Errería
This is a work of houses-within-a-house-within-a-house. Each bedroom is in a little wooden pitched-roofed cabin, placed at different levels within a simple pitched-roofed shell, which is set within the remnants of an older building. Space flows through the ensemble, with a handsome open staircase wandering up from the ground floor living space. It’s a nice meditation on shelter, on inside and outside, and on the passage of time. It makes a spatial adventure out of living in a house.
Alex’s guesthouse, Berlare, Belgium, by Atelier Vens Vanbelle
This Belgian folly, built for a client in the film industry, has the three-dimensional joy that tends to get squeezed out of larger projects. The timber interior seems hewn and cave-like. The rust-coloured exterior, with a little periscopic tower, looks like a beached submarine. A basement mini-cinema, in homage to Twin Peaks, has a red curtain. It runs several gamuts – from earth to sky, from homely to weird, from natural to artificial – which is a lot for a little building.
Stone Garden, Beirut, by Lina Ghotmeh
Trees in the sky are currently a bit of a thing, and this Beirut apartment block is not the only example to have hit the internet lately. What makes the Stone Garden interesting is its sharp angles, derived from its tight urban site, plus its earthy, striated external finish, plus its cliff-like form, plus the sense its deep-set windows give that this is a building inhabited by actual people, not just glass-sheathed real estate. So it is mineral-urban-geometric all at once, with the vegetation, like city-sized parsley or coriander, providing a nice garnish.
Bó Mon preschool, Tú Nang, Vietnam, by Kientruc O
It’s a simple enough idea: a big distinctive roof that casts a big distinctive shadow that moves around during the course of the day. So the shadow becomes an animated thing in its own right, not just the absence of sun. The curvy shapes might be said to have some harmony with the surrounding hills. A tree is hugged at the entrance. The corrugated metal construction is basic, with some sensible-looking devices to ensure ventilation. Charming and deft and does what it says on the tin.
Emergency Scenery, Olot, Spain, by unparelld’arquitectes
On a raw spot left by the demolition of a house, a triple arch of skinny grandeur is created, like a secular version of a church portico. It combines solid and thin materials, and reused and new. There’s not much you can do with it, apart from sit or perform on its stone steps. It depends on its power of proposition: it suggests that the little square that it faces is a place where something or other of interest – quite what remains to be discovered – might happen.
UHP synagogue, Asunción, Paraguay, by Equipo de Arquitectura
Like many projects that adorn the architectural internet, this synagogue uses the motifs and strategies developed by mid-century modernists 70 years ago. But the architects wield these familiar tools with skill and sense, using concrete, rusty metal and reddish timber to effect the transition from robust exterior to reflective interior. Light is filtered through screens or descends from above. The ceremonial space envelops the congregation with wooden walls and ceiling that are also poised and geometrical. It gives the impression, at least from 6,000 miles away, of a warm if formal hug.
Fass school and teachers’ residence, Fass, Senegal, by Toshiko Mori
It’s doughnut-shaped and made of local natural materials, and so might be compared to the Rohingya safe space, but there the likenesses end. The Fass school, designed for the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation by the New York-based Toshiko Mori, is less urgent and more artful. Its geometry has some twists: the roof varies in dimension and elevation, for example, around its elliptical orbit. This makes for some delightful-looking or at least intriguing spaces, where the white walls and thatched ceilings achieve a wide and surprising range of heights and shapes.
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