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WAF: The global crit

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This year’s World Architecture Festival hosted a global gathering of architects who battled it out in front of a panel of judges to win best scheme, writes James Pallister

It’s not often you have a chance to see up to 40 projects presented in a day, and watch architects from top-class firms like EBMT, Robert AM Stern, O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects and 3XN sell their schemes. You can – if you’ve the stamina – at the World Architecture Festival (WAF), a three-day jamboree of conviviality, debate, and importantly, competition.

WAF turns the normally secretive process of judging awards into a spectator sport. In a crit format, shortlisted practices have 15 minutes to present to a jury who then have five minutes to grill their subjects. Each day a winner of one of the 16 categories is selected and shortlisted for the top prize – the world building of the year – this year taken by Zaha Hadid Architects’ MAXXI.

These awards are the centrepiece of the shindig, this year held in sunny Barcelona. The venue was the CCIB conference centre at the city’s north-east tip. To the south is the Mediterranean seafront, adjacent the linked Herzog & de Meuron-designed Forum building, built in 2004, but now looking a little unloved. Firms pay to enter an award category and an initial shortlisting process, culling roughly half of the entrants, takes place prior to the event.

The layout of the judging rooms – eight rooms off a central lobby – lends itself to dipping in and out of presentations: spectators have the opportunity to vote with their feet. The back-to-back schedule led to some sublime segues, Aecom’s proposals for Masdar City followed by White Arkitekter’s Southend Pier in the Future Projects - Landscape room being one example.

The attraction of the format is clear; everyone can see inspirational schemes from around the world, and those who didn’t get shortlisted can see how their work measures up against those who did. Or as Phill Mashabane, an architect from South Africa said, ‘you want to see how your project measures up against not the other projects, but the jury’s expectations. It makes you reconsider how you approach your other projects.’

Some juries were cutting, others genial, and there was room for playful banter for favoured schemes. Amazed by the humane conditions of Erik Møller Arkitekter’s Norwegian prison, a South American jury still hoped that their countrymen wouldn’t see the inside of it. The judges are supposed to come to the scheme green, so the success with which they grasped a project depended on the presentation skills of the architect.

UN-style simultaneous translation was off the cards so proceedings were in English, putting non-native speakers at a sometimes profound disadvantage. This reflected a bias towards English-speaking nations – the top four attending nations were the UK, Turkey, Australia and USA – which may change in coming years as the event becomes more well-known, or with a change in venue. Small practices were thin on the ground – perhaps deterred by travel costs and the €595 entry fee (or €995 euro package with tickets).

All of the 513 projects submitted for the awards are exhibited in one of the CCIB venue’s vast halls. The 236 shortlisted schemes and less-lucky entrants alike each have two A2 boards on which to sell the merits of their schemes. Getting round the exhibition is pretty heavy going, but perseverance pays off, with many unexpected or unknown projects springing up. One that stood out, and later picked up an award for best shopping project, was the Yamaha flagship shop by Nikken Sekkei architects on Tokyo’s upmarket shopping strip, Ginza. There are plenty of dogs too, and the quality of presentation is surprisingly varied. Aside from the main exhibition of WAF entrants are several boards that focus on other projects, one screen showing a recorded interview between Julian Harrap and David Chipperfield discussing the Neues Museum.

WAF also serves up a lecture programme. Jo Noero of South African practice Noero Wolff Architects gave an excellent presentation of the difficulties – and successes – of designing a cultural centre in the Red Location township and the challenges of the preservation of tin shacks that now have historical monument status. He despaired when people talked about ‘socially conscious architecture’ – all architects should acknowledge their duty to the client, be they beggar man or poor man. Will Alsop spoke on the power of art – something that helped ‘distract from the relentless boredom that is life’ and urged architects to not let their studios become like boardrooms. Fun, as he said, is a serious business.

Josep Acebillo gave an illuminating talk on Barcelona’s recent development, at times scathing of what he saw as other cities’ profligate spending. Doubling up as raconteur and soothsayer, Acebillo’s verdict was damning: cities and their architects are in thrall to a series of excesses: of historicism, which stymies innovation; of simulation, which leads to a loss of functionality; of iconic references, a corrosive tendency that increases object culture and, most important, the loss of the client. Without the Pope, how would Michelangelo have been able to paint the Sistine ceiling?

Post-match entertainment is often one of the most fruitful aspects of these type of events, with good opportunities for networking and chat. Though the winners were whisked off at the end of each day to Montjuic for dinner and drinks at the Barcelona Pavilion, block-booking of hotels meant that it wasn’t too difficult to find a few friends up for cross-cultural exchange in the bar or to accompany into Barcelona proper. On my second night there I dined with a Singaporean architect duo, and gained a 30-minute condensed history of the city-state and its strange breed of state-run neoliberalism which, among other things, allows for privately-owned state housing.

I’d asked Maxwell Hutchinson on the first day why he’d been coming back for three years. ‘In three days you can catch up with what is going on across the globe’ was his verdict. The prospect of spending 72 hours in a conference hall with 1,300 other people is rarely an attractive one, but WAF’s mix of projects, competition and debate helps make it an attractive proposition. That, and the sunshine.

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