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Archistars outshone at Sofia’s World Triennial of Architecture

Little-known practices showed outstanding work at Sofia’s World Triennial of Architecture, says Joseph Rykwert

Since 1973, the indefatigable Bulgarian architect Georgi Stoilov, whose blue-glass air-traffic-control building greets you as you descend into the airport of Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia, has masterminded the World Triennial of Architecture in Sofia and presided over the International Academy of Architecture (IAA), of which our own Denys Lasdun was a luminary.

This year’s World Triennial of Architecture, like its predecessors, was variegated: the goodly, the worthless and the lukewarm were on show in equal measure. Notable was the number of square-plan but spiralling skyscrapers – a novelty leftover from pre-credit crunch insouciance. The worthwhile projects were sometimes modest, even inconspicuous. But patient viewing was rewarded with some outstanding work by architects unknown to me, such as Enza Evangelista and Antonio Marco Alcaro’s sensitive and thoughtful renewal of seaside installations at Civitavecchia on the Roman coast, or a house in Montreal which was the work of a Bulgarian architect couple, Nadejda and Vladimir Topouzanov.

The triennial is also an occasion for a meeting of the IAA. Recently awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, Álvaro Siza showed the genesis of his latest masterpiece, the white concrete Iberê Camargo Foundation in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I was lucky to catch him there, as I missed hearing about the building when he gave his Gold Medal lecture in London in February.

Another contributor was Munich-based architect-academic Thomas Herzog, whose best-known scheme is the complex of engineered timber canopies at the 2000 World Expo in Hanover, Germany. Herzog showed his recent solar-energy-calibrated headquarters for the German building industry’s pension fund offices in Wiesbaden. All the details – from natural ventilation in the parking garage to rainwater conservation tanks to feed plants, and the slatted fins of the adjustable steel brises-soleil – are not just technical devices added to the project, but elements that contribute organically to the shaping of this architecture.

Thomas Herzog’s sobriety contrasted usefully with the more fanciful narratives on offer

With admirable sobriety, Finnish architect-philosopher Juhani Pallasmaa refrained from using his built work to exemplify his principles, instead reflecting on the relationship between the perceiving eye and the working hand. He brought his argument home with vivid and always telling images, and extended the theme on which he embarked a decade ago in his book The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Wiley, 1996).

There were other pleasures, such as Dennis Sharp’s preview of the book he wrote with Sally Rendel on English modernist architects Connell Ward and Lucas (Frances Lincoln, 2008). Against such rationalism, architects presenting their own work spoke of the fanciful shapes into which they increasingly mould their inventions, in reference to some kind of narrative: a simplified version of the plan of the city where the building is sited; an inflation of their patrons’ heraldic device; a distilled emulation of local flora in the exotic placing of the building. Herzog’s rational sobriety and Siza’s concern with the materiality of his project provided useful caution against the fancy stuff.

The IAA, like the International Union of Architects, originated in the formalised exchanges between professionals or intellectuals on either side of the Iron Curtain, at a time when contact was only permitted when it could be regulated through such institutes. Even though the Curtain went up (or the Wall came down) 20 years ago, these organisations have remained useful. The IAA is intimate enough to allow participants access to the great variety of building going up in Porto Alegre, Helsinki, Belarus, Uzbekistan or Tartarstan, and this work is often more fascinating than the homogeneous offerings which archistars bestow on far-off places.

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