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The AJ100 shows that architecture is thriving despite wider obstacles

Paul Finch
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This year’s AJ100 Awards reminded Paul Finch about the profession’s commitment to making the best of whatever circumstances may be affecting it

Last week brought, for me at least, an intense burst of architectural experiences of rather different sorts. Invited to speak at the inaugural (and well-attended) Festival of Israeli Architecture, I visited the country for the first time and enjoyed weather, hospitality and architectural heritage in Tel Aviv, a fascinating city. Apart from its 4,000-plus Bauhaus buildings in the city, designed mostly by émigré German architects, there are other historic parts of the city with a quiet and informal charm all of their own – Roman Abramovich has just bought a cluster – which enjoy conservation area protection.

There is the inevitable outbreak of towers in various parts of the city, which work best in proximity to lower buildings rather than standing in bewildered clusters. Jump-scale environments, as in the City of London, have a dynamism all their own – but only really work if there is a contrast between new and old too.

Contemporary architecture in historic environments can often be brilliant, and so it proved as we did our shortlist judging for this year’s World Architecture Festival Awards. Reviewing more than 1,000 entries in three days left some of us a bit shell-shocked, but delighted at the high standard of the designs that will be presented at WAF in Amsterdam later in the year. The ‘New and Old’ category was particularly strong, and several unsuccessful entries might have made the cut in other years.

In the middle of the three days came the AJ100 awards dinner, an excellent occasion which served as a reminder about how committed the profession is to making the best of whatever circumstances may be affecting the property and construction sectors. Much of the conversation about these matters inevitably concerns Brexit, not least because of direct warnings from Foster + Partners about moving out of the UK if they cannot attract world-class talent. Since the practice has been operating pre-EU membership, during it and no doubt after it ends, I imagine Norman and the directors would take a deep breath before heading somewhere exciting like Frankfurt.

The truth is there is no free movement of people from outside the EU wanting to work in any of its member countries, so unless one imagines that the only world-class architects all happen to come from EU countries, I’m not too sure what the problem is. The last time I was in the Foster office, it could have passed for a branch of the United Nations. Talent, in any event, generally finds a way, as does international trade.

The last time I was in the Foster office, it could have passed for a branch of the UN

Design talent as well as practice quality was recognised at the AJ100 event, which is what makes it and the awards special. Thursday’s announcement of the RIBA National Awards marks another moment to celebrate the power of architecture to change lives for the better. What the award-winners generally have in common is good clients, appropriate budgets and a commitment to quality, rather than a willingness to regard the lowest common denominator as a suitable basis for building.

Contrast this with other current architectural talking points: the housing shortage, and the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry. In the case of the former, we are still stuck with a severe shortage of good public-sector clients committed to delivering housing at scale (for which successive governments and, indeed, mayors shoulder much of the blame).

In the case of Grenfell, the only comfort one can take from the terrible evidence being presented (defamatory comments from blow-hard lawyers can and should be ignored) is that it may result in a root-and-branch shake-up of regulatory and testing regimes, and the banning of materials sneaking under the regulatory radar. Plastic and fire have always been a deadly combination.

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