Notes from WAF: Day One

Oct 4, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

For the second time in two months, a throng of architects from firms in locations across the world has gathered. Hot on the heels of the Vernissage for the 13th International Architecture Biennale in Venice comes the 2012 World Architecture Festival. Trading the canals of Venice for the bay of Singapore, this month’s waterside event is a three-day conference of talks and seminars alongside live presentations to the juries deliberating the WAF Awards.

Launched in 2008 and now celebrating its fifth year, WAF’s emergence onto the world architecture stage coincided with the global financial crisis. This unfortunate occurrence has been evidenced by the restraint in many of the project shortlisted for awards in previous years, and by the number of ‘Future Projects’ categories included in the awards.  After four years in Barcelona, this time organisers have relocated the festival to Singapore in order to investigate the dynamic growth of Asian cities, and the challenges that growth brings.

The “urban building block of today,” Safdie Architects’ Marina Bay Sands.


“I feel a little bit like your host,” announced opening speaker Moshe Safdie, the architect of Marina Bay Sands – the venue for this year’s festival. Describing the high-rise tower as the “urban building block of today,” Safdie discussed the challenge of working with the “megascale” and how best to humanise that scale to create a public realm that connects with the city. As part of their ongoing research, the firm has examined the idea of “streets in the sky” – a concept Safdie explored in his first built project, Habitat 67 – and adapted this idea for a contemporary setting in urban China. Prominently located in Qinhuangdao CBD at the confluence of two rivers, this Golden Dream Bay project is shaped by its place; responding to the site, the design is conceived as a permeable screen rather than an urban wall, allowing views through the building and ensuring generous access to natural light.

Safdie Architects’ Golden Dream Bay. Qinhuangdao, China, 2014

The idea of place, and architecture as an appropriate response to local tradition and culture, was also raised by Liu Xiaodu of Shenzhen based Urbanus Architects. Discussing the pace of development in emerging cities, Liu noted that many Chinese leaders looked to cities like Singapore as an example of a developed, modern Asian city – and then tried to replicate those ideas. “The model might work here, but do we want to do the same things?” Liu asked. “It is especially important for Chinese architects to change this attitude.”

In the context of rapid construction and growth, many conversations considered the role of the individual building within the wider urban setting. While Safdie warned of seeing each building as a “sculptural object in the sky,” Rocco Yim of Rocco Design Architects posed the question: “Does architecture shape the city, or does the city shape the architecture?” Taking the Guangzhou master plan as an example, in which Rocco Design’s museum sits opposite Zaha Hadid’s opera house, Yim said each building was to some degree successful as a sculptural object, yet as a district, the buildings failed to create a cohesive urban centre. Arguing that architecture must be shaped by the city, Yim paraphrased Louis Kahn by asking: “What does the city want it to be?”

The Met by WOHA, Bangkok.


Local projects and a friendly rivalry featured in an afternoon discussion on the vertical village, with Singapore-based Richard Hassell of WOHA and Belinda Huang of Arc Studio taking to the stage (WOHA’s scheme came second to Arc Studio’s for The Pinnacle). Replicating traditional gathering spaces in dense urban settings, WOHA’s work establishes social spaces within high-rise buildings, introducing communal areas and abundant greenery that residents frequently interact with, fostering a sense of community. Huang, meanwhile, discussed The Pinnacle at Duxton, a 50-storey social housing project that similarly establishes social spaces, both at ground level and on the 26th and 50th floors.

Joining the discussion on the vertical village was Sanjay Puri of Indian firm Sanjay Puri Architect, whose work pushes for creative and sustainable alternatives to the dense urban sprawl that is consuming the Indian landscape, and Ken Yeang of Llewelyn Davies Yeang, whose lively and entertaining talk suggested that high-rise buildings need to replicate the order and variety of the ground plane in the sky. High-rise buildings with a repeated floor plate were “designed for energy and efficiency, which means they were designed by engineers,” Yeang argued – instead proposing multiple functions across different levels, with horizontal and vertical organisation to create a more organic and diverse vertical village.

Cox Architecture’s Helix Bridge in Singapore.


With the seminars and jury presentations wrapped up for the day, the crowd packed into the Rethink and Renew Hall to hear architect, writer and critic Peter Buchanan. A condensed presentation of Buchanan’s series currently being published in UK-based Architectural Review, Buchanan’s keynote on ‘The Big Rethink: Architecture for the Emergent Epoch’ challenged the “crisis of the imagination” in contemporary architecture, and modernism’s inherent unsustainability. Instead of looking at the world as fragments, Buchanan argued, architects need to consider a “complete” architecture – adopting integral thinking. For more, visit:

Keep an eye on Australian Design Review for more WAF updates, or follow @AR_AsiaPac and @AusDesignReview on Twitter for live tweets & photographic updates as they happen.

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