I was delighted to be asked to be one of the judges for World Architecture News’ 21 for 21 Awards and the experience lived up to its promise. Now in its third year, this international competition aims to highlight the 21 architects who could be the leading lights of architecture in the 21st century. It broaches the question of how the future in architecture might look: offering recognition for potential, as well as evidence of current brilliance.
Some criteria for success were self-evident: originality, innovation, form and special quality, sustainability and context. There were some subtleties though - as the day went on it, it became apparent that architects who had a clear sense of place and local context kept rising to the top of the sift. This is an intriguing change.
There was a very strong sense of confidence and exceptional quality in the submissions, from a diverse collection of countries.
Architecture is clearly regaining a sense of delight and an appetite for originality. A decade ago, globalisation fuelled a belief that all architecture was international, and size became a dominating factor in design awards. Not surprisingly, this produced architecture characterised by a depressing global everywhere-ness, a homogenous product invariably made of glass that spoke little of context and scale. It looks as though this trend might be waning now.
There were some themes though that called out for attention. Oddly, sustainability was not a factor that was evident in many entries. From what we saw, there is still some way to go to embed this into architecture and it will be the outstanding technological challenge in the coming decades.
The other phenomenon of the 21st century - urbanisation - was another that architects seem to be side-stepping. There were some projects that were undeniably large in scale but these were mostly mixed-use with a strong commercial content. So there was little exploration of the impact of housing density and community well-being, now a major preoccupation for all societies. Could this be an indication that social purpose, a fundamental component of 20th century Modernism, is increasingly fading?
Overall, the return to context and concern for impact on local communities shown by a number of the (successful) entries is great news.
It’s a return to the roots of architecture and an expression of a profound need to find a new identity and purpose in an increasingly urban world. I see this very much as a reaction against the recent trend of conformity in
architecture led by the big corporations and their ‘international style’ architects.
For those thinking of entering next year, we didn’t fill all of the 21 slots. We are still seeking, as one of my colleagues, Arup’s Tristram Carfrae, put it, 'to find someone putting the extraordinary potential of the digital age together with economy; sensitivity to context; and a general approach to improving the human condition through the built environment'.
Plenty to aim for then.
Malcolm Reading Consultants
Malcolm Reading Consultants , London
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