2010 World Architecture Festival – an overview

What is it?

The third installment of the annual World Architecture Festival, running in Barcelona since 2008 under the creative direction of Paul Finch. It comprises seminars, an exhibition and project presentations by architects who have entered the festival awards programme.

What do we think?

We had the good fortune of witnessing high quality projects presented by architects from a range of countries. Particularly inspiring were Woods of Net by Tezuka Architects, Japan; Alila Villas Uluwatu luxury resort in Indonesia, by WOHA, Singapore; a Forest for a Moon Dazzler by Benjamin Garcia Saxe, Costa Rica; and Cottages at Fallingwater by Patkau Architects, Canada. We intend to post additional commentary on these projects over coming days.

Of the seminars we attended, most were of an exceptional calibre. Bjarke Ingels of BIG, Denmark, proposed a fascinating urban future involving an interactive, illuminated ground surface; Jo Noero of Noero Wolff Architects, South Africa, discussed urban renewal projects that aim to continue the job Nelson Mandela started in 1994; and a group of architects and landscape architects including Gustafson Porter, Grant Associates and Wilkinson Eyre presented the vast Gardens by the Bay project in Singapre.

Three seminars in particular stood out thanks to a shared theme – that of urban renewal. Josep Acebillo of Barcelona Regional, Spain, gave a thorough account of Barcelona’s regeneration leading up to, and following, the 1992 Olympic Games; Ng Lang of the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority discussed Singapore’s ongoing efforts of self-improvement; and Ibon Areso of Bilbao City Hall presented the rebirth of Bilbao following the fall of Franco and industrial crisis of the 1980s.

These presentations revealed the potential Melbourne and other Australian cities squander every day road networks are extended, suburban fringes are expanded and inner densification projects are rejected. They showed us that other cities have, as recently as the last 20 years and even within the framework of democratically elected government, taken it upon themselves to improve every facet of their existence – from water to transport to energy to parks to industrial renewal. Australia could be one of the most socially, environmentally and technologically advanced countries in the world, if only we wake up and look past the next election.

If Barcelona, Bilbao and Singapore can do it, why can’t we?

A notable disappointment shared by the majority of delegates was the absence of big-name architects. Zaha Hadid‘s office presented the MAXXI Museum in Rome, taking out the World Building of the Year, but she didn’t show. Likewise with Daniel Libeskind and David Chipperfield (Chipperfield was in particularly poor form considering he was slated to present a seminar on day 1 but sent his project architect instead). The most unusual absence by far was Arata Isozaki, who presented a keynote seminar on day 2 but failed to turn up on day 3 for his post on the super jury, of which he was supposed to be chair.

It is impossible to ignore the reality that these absences lowered the prestigious profile of the festival. Indeed, one delegate who has attended all three festivals noted that attendance has dropped each year by a third. That said, we can only hope that over coming years, as the global financial crisis eases and attendence picks up again, that the festival gains what we like to call cultural capital, and the Hadids, Libeskinds and Chipperfields of this world recognise that it’s in their best interest to show up. In our humble opinion, no single starchitect should ever think he or she is more important than the entire architectural community.

What did we learn?

International festivals are an amazing opportunity to see the work of, and mingle with, creative people from all over the world. Sharing ideas with architects from 80 countries is a uniquely horizon-expanding experience. Though we would like to see workshops introduced into the programme in 2011 to enhance such exchanges, we nevertheless made good use of this aspect of the festival, meeting people from Costa Rica, Serbia, Canada, Spain, Singapore and even our own backyard.

Whilst it is an expensive proposition to attend – about AU$700 per person even at early bird rates, not to mention the cost of flights and accommodation – the World Architecture Festival is a worthy experience and one we hope to repeat again soon.

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