Tomorrow’s Faces, Today’s Ambitions. Archiprix International 2007

Every self-respecting region and city with international ambitions has a biennial these days where a circus of artists, film makers and architects meet, but it should be noted that serious international student exchange programs are a recent creation. The European Erasmus program for higher education has been in place for exactly 20 years during which time some 1.5 million student have been introduced to knowledge, ideas and points of view beyond their native borders. The interchange called Archiprix International stimulates quality architecture and does so on a world-wide scale.

Archiprix (the Dutch version, which is the origin of Archiprix International) was established to stimulate young talent, a kind of gentle push to help those setting up their own practice. This has worked well thus far, as the previous 25 installments of the Dutch Archiprix have demonstrated. It has encouraged students to make a good plan even better, for winning the Archiprix has certain advantages. The winners are not per se celebrities in the making, but in general become successful architects. This is to be expected all the more from the international version. We shall certainly run into these
young men and women again in the future.

In addition to promoting young talent in the Netherlands, the contest is also a kind of veiled contest between training programs. It’s not hard to imagine the conversations that take place between program directors during the award ceremony: ‘How many prizes has your school recently won?’ or even more bluntly, ‘How successful are your students this year?’ At the same time, the adjudication of the awards acts as a standard for the profession. The jury’s choices and commentaries reflect the field’s dominant beliefs and also work as a filter. There are no formal criteria, but in practice a final project must meet certain characteristics in order to have a chance of winning or receiving honorable mention. These are relatively different from the abstract concept of ‘quality,’ a conditio sine qua non, and have more to do with ideas about what the architect-to-be must possess and whether their plan meets those criteria. Thus the jury’s decision is a form of architectural criticism which contributes to the definition of the field at a particular moment. It is equally an initiation rite with which the profession privately attempts to guide development: ‘we consider this part of our professional image and invite you to join in, or, this approach does not interest us.’

In this sense, the Archiprix International is much less clearly profiled. The criteria upon which the awards, the participants’ favorites and the short lists are based are difficult to fathom, all the more so as the jury does not issue a report with commentary on each plan. In light of the current discussion about the marginal position of architects and design, despite the media’s attention to and celebrity culture around architects, it appears that most graduates have little affinity with power. They do want to do great things, that is to say, they want to become important and influential, but the path to get there is indeed an impressive project. In that sense the jury was right in its judgment that there was little surprising presented at this year’s event. To their judgement the submissions were of high quality, but it was all old news. By consequence this new crop of graduates is representative not of architecture’s shocking future, but of contemporary (and even out-moded) visions. That is probably too harsh a verdict considering some interesting strategies for turning problems into opportunities that were proposed. What kind of innovation or surprise the jury was looking for was, alas, never made clear. A conversation on this point would have been interesting, for the presented plans were ambitious enough. Take for example the ‘spinach towers’ which take their energy from the potential difference that comes from being jacketed in spinach plants, or the school complex in Bangladesh designed by a (German) architect with the local population and – unlike most graduation projects which never leave the drawing board – was actually built. Something like this is naturally appealing and in the meantime Anna Heringer’s project has also won the Aga Khan Award.

The ambition is to contribute to society, perhaps to the honor and glory of the homeland, but in any case to the benefit of the local population in the broadest sense. Architecture is about improving conditions: environmental, social and sometimes also political. One participant blogged, we must finally do away with the pleonasm ‘sustainable architecture’, for any architecture which is not sustainable is simply not architecture. That recovered engagement – which strict thinkers consider fatal for an honest approach to questions and problems – is again increasingly traceable to training. It was only a few decades ago that housing the masses formed the politically correct point of departure for thought and action; now we have comprehensive assignments such as ‘saving Spaceship Earth’ which naturally must be addressed by architecture.

In addition to showcasing top individual talent, the international pageant also provides a fascinating overview of the diversity of training programs and cultures, of approaches to what it’s all about within the profession. At the risk of being simplistic, the strongest social engagement continues to come from many Latin American countries, the commitment to high-tech and simultaneous control of many plans comes from Japan and some American universities, and the orientation to social problems in combination with a landscape approach to problems from some (West) European nations.

Preceding the award ceremony, a five-day workshop of some 60 recent graduates demonstrated various affinities and kinds of training.

In seven very diverse teams (team 1, for example, consisted of recent graduates from Mexico, Belgium, Australia, the USA, Japan, Iran, Italy, China and Chile) a largely ‘authentic’ district of Shanghai which lies directly on the river was scrutinized. Each workshop group was given the task of devising a redevelopment strategy for this district. It was particularly gratifying to see that these recent graduates were able to put something together in such a short period of time. It was disconcerting to see, despite the often explicit desire to preserve extant qualities or use them as a starting point, totally other realities were proposed without even batting an eyelid. Sadly, (almost) everyone thought they knew what needed to happen. Only one team proposed a development program which concentrated instead on analysis and strategy. Solving problems with design is the obvious point of departure for this generation of architects too. For the time being, schools around the globe differ very little in this regard.

Individuals are showcased via short interviews with each plan in the catalog and even more intensively via filmed statements on the accompanying dvd.1 Each relates their ambitions and references in their own language. This resulting list of heroes contains few surprises: the contemporary top 20 internationals supplemented with a few older, modernistic corkers and a few regional bigwigs.

In this the book and dvd confirm Mark Wigley’s analysis (elsewhere in this issue) of the inescapable influence of celebrity architects. That most of the interviewees admit to wanting to become terribly good and not a little famous does nothing to contradict this. Yet this does not describe the entire palate. A number of them indicated that pursuing fame and success means primarily dedicating oneself to ‘the people and one’s country’. That ambition sounds enormously odd to Dutch ears, but is quite normal in many countries, if not the norm. It is all the more striking that one Russian stated that the ambition to become famous is reckless, despite wanting himself to become a ‘good architect’ and ‘contribute to society’.

In fact, most do accomplish this. Qua experience, the majority work at a firm or are setting one up. Some are already working on large projects with all the responsibilities that entails. Others are also actively teaching. It will be interesting to see in time whether these people will be equally taken prisoner by the spiral of more projects and less time, and whether they will be able to resist the pull of international success in order to continue working on their own society. Yet even more interesting will be to see whether they are able to comprehend the banality of the built environment, because 90% – correction – 97% of what is built is relatively uninteresting. Therein lies the enormous challenge.

Conversation with Ben Katz