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Design excellence will rise to the top

The World Architecture Festival shows that excellence rises to the top, irrespective of budget or cost, says Christine Murray

I spent last week in Singapore, at the World Architecture Festival (WAF) and its sister festival Inside, for world interiors. Both were hosted for the second time at the surreal Marina Bay Sands conference centre and hotel, neighbour to Wilkinson Eyre’s futuristic eco-park, Gardens by the Bay (AJ 29.11.12), which won World Building of the Year at WAF last year.

The Marina Bay Sands hotel by Moshe Safdie (AJ 01.11.12) - a giant cruise liner atop three towers - and Wilkinson Eyre’s huge fake trees have become new symbols for the city, appearing on premium-priced souvenirs, from chocolate boxes to biscuit tins.

Since WAF moved to Singapore from its original home in Barcelona, the demographic of its attendees has changed dramatically. Once dominated by British practices, now architects from Australia, China, Singapore, India and the rest of the world outnumber UK firms.

Despite this, there is a strong UK showing among the award-winners, including two prizes for Wilkinson Eyre for its University of Exeter Forum Project and Splashpoint Leisure Centre in Worthing, Farrells for its Earl’s Court masterplan, while AHMM took the ‘Future Projects Experimental’ category for its White Collar Factory project in Old Street. David Kohn won the top prize, World Interior of the Year, at Inside, for Carrer Avinyo 34, a Barcelona flat.

And it’s British property that is advertised on every page of Singapore’s daily newspapers, selling ‘luxury city living’ in London to would-be investors.

The strength of WAF and Inside is the opportunity to view the global output of the world’s architects as organised by sector. The budgets vary widely, especially when it comes to schools or hospitals. But excellence rises to the top, irrespective of budget or cost. As this year’s full list of winners proves, a charity scheme in Rwanda is just as likely to win as a budget-busting shopping mall in Sweden.

The top gong, World Building of the Year, went to Australian practice Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp for its elegant Auckland art gallery, which stitches a new and old building together under an elegant timber canopy.

mosque

But the project everyone was talking about was the winner of the Best Religious Building - the Sancaklar Mosque by EAA-Emre Arolat Architects, located in Turkey, just outside Istanbul. Every practitioner I spoke to, whether from Brazil, France, China or India, swooned over its daring approach, which threw out the traditional mosque typology in favour of a poetic dance of materiality and light.

If the architects of the world have an apparent shared taste in projects, there isn’t a shared experience of practice. The firms from India that I met, which included Sanjay Puri Architects, Khosla Associates and Charged Void, told me that they frequently turn down work to maintain quality and slow the growth of their practices. And they finish five or six projects a year. Despite tight budgets and deadlines, they were the ‘haves’ among global architects this year. ‘We have been so busy, we haven’t had time to think about PR,’ one architect said. Their work was among the most exciting at the festival, too, with its blend of artisanal craft and emerging technologies: a vibrant nation to watch.

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