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14/05/2020

THE GUARDIAN: The world's top 10 new architecture projects.

Making a virtue out of global lockdown, our critic takes a virtual tour of the world’s best new architecture projects – from a rural Vietnamese preschool to a Belgian folly and a synagogue in Paraguay.

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 – DezeenArchDailyDesignboomArchinect, or the pickier DomuswebArchpaper, 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.

 "The best of these projects are theatres for life, wherever it might take place"

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.






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