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Barcelona abuzz: World Architecture Festival 2011

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Letter from London: The optimism and confidence of Barcelona’s architects stole the show at this year’s WAF

The final dinner at last week’s World Architecture Festival was held in the inimitable surroundings of the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, courtesy of the Mies Foundation and the City of Barcelona. The pavilion can be transformed into a temporary restaurant, seating 64 people at eight tables. I think it is fair to say that for architects, this becomes a very special occasion.

As it happens, the WAF Completed Building of the Year award went to another Barcelona building, the extraordinary Media-TIC landmark in the 22@ El Poblenou regeneration area. The winning building, designed by Cloud 9/Enric Ruiz-Geli, has addressed CO2 emissions, long-term sustainability and efficiency head-on by rethinking how an office might work with a no holds barred design.

The appearance of the building is extraordinary for several reasons. ETFE cushions, which inflate with nitrogen during very hot weather, provide an extra facade layer. Luminous paint, inspired by jellyfish, replaces night-time electric lighting. The parametric design has minimised unusable space, and the structural and services design is based on complex distributed patterns rather than centralised systems.

The final ‘super-jury’ that picked the building included Jo Noero, Michael Sorkin, Kongjian Yu and Tim Macfarlane. Some of the claims made for the building had to be taken on trust, since long-term sustainability will only be proved by time. I was reminded of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s remark: ‘Better a fertile error than a sterile accuracy’ (made before he wrongly validated the Hitler diaries). Even if the building turns out to be less successful than hoped, its scale of ambition and the symbolic nature of its design will guarantee it a place in the canon of architecture.

It is always refreshing to see presentations oozing with confidence and optimism, and the Media-TIC building’s was not the only one that emanated from a Barcelona local. Barcelona’s new chief architect Vicente Guallart, appointed three months ago by the city’s new Catalan nationalist administration, gave delegates an inspirational insight into the radical and public-minded planning that was shaping the city’s future.

Some of the ideas being pursued echoed with the Media-TIC building. For example, the focus on distributed networks rather than central control. Guallart, who previously ran the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, intends to extend the work of Ildefons Cerdà, whose 19th-century plan for the Eixample area of Barcelona invented the idea of urbanism in the modern age by taking the city down to the sea to a greater extent than ever before.

As well as hoping to extend the ideas behind the masterplan for the 1992 Olympics, Guallart was also able to say that the mayor has put architects at the ‘top of the pyramid’ in promoting new ideas to set a pattern for the next few decades, while delivering individual projects within shorter timescales.

These will include bringing nature into the city, rather than the city endlessly expanding into nature; transforming city blocks into energy generation centres as part of an energy self-sufficiency programme; building affordable housing and city-owned sites; and developing a ‘smart city’ model which combines design with environmental thinking, operating systems, infrastructure and ICT .

Three competitions for strategic projects have already been announced, and there is the sense that the old Barcelona of mayor Maragall i Mira and architects Martorell Bohigas Mackay (celebrating their 60th anniversary with a fine exhibition at the Collegi d’Arquitectes) is back. Actually MBM has never left, proof of which is provided by their latest city building; the magnificently cantilevered Disseny HUB design museum on the big roundabout near Jean Nouvel’s tower.

David Mackay gave a keynote presentation at the festival, tracing the work of the practice through dictatorship, revolution, democracy, as an Olympic host and now a vibrant location for continuing experimentation. What a story – and so removed from the idea that history merely comprises information or data. As he said, neither of these are useful without knowledge, but he might have added that knowledge can also usefully be tempered by wisdom, as his own lecture elegantly proved.

Go to TheAJ.co.uk/WAF for World Architecture Festival news, blogs and galleries of the winning projects images

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