World Architecture Festival: Day Three

November 9, 2010

Josh McAlister reports on the final day of the 2010 World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, where conference finally gave way to festivity.

The third and final day of the 2010 WAF saw delegates out in force, enjoying the final sessions of the festival and plotting their escapes to various parts of the world –– most trying to get out of town before the arrival of thousands of pilgrims due to descend on the Sagrada Familia to coincide with the Papal visit. For Australians, this included checking their tickets to see whether that might entail limping home on a three-engine Qantas A380.

With the competitive presentations over, the atmosphere of the Festival became far more genial. ‘Networking’ stopped being a dirty word, with like-minded people meeting, making connections and praising the phenomenal projects we had all been privileged to see. The buzz was back!

In a whirl of flash bulbs, Australian photographer Peter Bennetts documented his fellow expats on the ground. Each team exhibited a sense of relief and camaraderie with an understanding that the problems they face, on a day-to-day basis, are not particular to their practice, but universal. A virtual wasteland the day before, the streetscape of El Meresme Forum was pumping with delegates lunching with international media and such luminaries as Peter Cook, Will Alsop and Benedetta Tagliabue. The convention centre café reinvented itself as the temporary epicentre of world architecture.

The official program began with the presentations to the Super Jury for Building of the Year. Seeing the best of the best gathered on one stage was a welcome opportunity to observe anything you might have missed from the plethora of projects exhibited in this year’s program –– seeing each of the category presentations during the first two days was a physically impossible task.

The delegate scuttlebutt throughout the festival on the favourite for Building of the Year was ever-changing, depending on who you spoke to. Zaha Hadid Architects’’ MAXXI cropped up frequently in conversation, with many hating to love it but nevertheless unable to stop themselves from doing so; rightly or wrongly it had made an impact, eventually picking up the award for cultural building as well as Building of the Year.

Another crowd favourite was the housing category winner, A Forest for a Moon Dazzler by Benjamin Garcia Saxe Architects. Small but incredibly detailed, it seemed illogical for it to compete with the otherwise predominant super sites.

The theme for the festival this year was ‘‘Transformations’’ and projects that shifted their programmatic thinking to transforming the urban context were favoured. Singapore’’s juggernaut WOHA dominated –– and rightly so –– for its continued transformation of known building types for the Equatorial region.

WOHA’’s bastard child of Mies van de Rohe and Carlo Scarpa took form as the Alila Villas in the unlikely location of Uluwatu, Bali, Indonesia. Winning the holiday category of the WAF Awards, this exceptionally detailed project had clearly benefited from the cost of local labour. Meanwhile WOHA’’s School of the Arts, Singapore, rewrote the pedagogy for education environment design, both on a national and international stage. It was one of numerous Singaporean projects at this year’’s festival, signifying the sovereign nation’’s conscious switch in social agenda, heralded in a built form.

Another significant shift this year related to the awards process itself. Presentation technology has moved on, with a new trend for mini movies of each project –– this was especially useful for architects for whom English is a second language. Indeed most of the projects that eventually won their category were presented via this cinematic experience, and no doubt this will be de rigueur in the future. You heard it here first.

And although it was reinforced that BIM is taking over the world, technology did not dominate this event. The highlights were human, with passionate presentations from the likes of Ingels, Griffiths and numerous shortlisted architects, as well as stumbling across the address of Will Alsop’’s new studio bar (Testbed 1, 33 Parkgate Road, London –– see you there!) And, finally, being invited to visit the studio of local heroes EMBT, who opened their studio doors to friends of a friend. Through only the loosest of connections we were treated to a different way of working, an old style studio where the craftsmanship of model making is still king. This rounded off the WAF experience with a solid connection to the city of Barcelona –– something missing from the official program.

Looking back over the three days at the WAF as a whole, perhaps the organisers need to look to the name of their event for inspiration. They have chosen to call it not a conference, but a festival:– a word that has connotations of celebration, joyfulness and felicity. And yet, the WAF still feels like a conference, which is a shame in a city so well disposed to being a festival backdrop. Day Three came closest to that sense of festivity, and certainly made up for the lesser moments of Days One and Two, which made me feel like I had travelled a long way just to hear architects diss each other. While critiquing is an essential part of the design process, in a public forum on the world stage it can often come across as petty and ungenerous.

Overall I found that the WAF was successful as a conference, but I had come expecting more. With a re-think of the format, venues and schedule it could quite easily morph into a true festival, which is surely the way to differentiate it from the plethora of architecture conferences across the globe and ensure that it continues to draw international visitors.

Joshua McAlister is a Design Architect with Suters, whose Churchill Community Hub was shortlisted this year at the WAF Awards.

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