Or are we? Attending the World Architecture Festival, (in 2009 to present the NZI3 Innovation Centre designed for the University of Canterbury, and in 2010 to hear fellow director Bill Gregory present the Supreme Court of New Zealand, both projects shortlisted amongst several in their respective categories from around the world), I was struck by different things on each occasion. At the 2009 WAF concepts like “trans-disciplinary process” and “convergence of themes” were under discussion. There was a clear questioning on the “object” as the natural result of the architectural process. Juries were interested in evocative stories. In process rather than product. The World Building of the Year was the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in South Africa by Peter Rich Architects – a small and very personal project by a firm employing six people. The architect presented a story about culture, reconciliation and the responsibility of buildings to provide employment and enrichment of local communities. The project won against an array of superstar architects armed with world famous projects. Behnisch Architecten, Miralles Tagliabue, Coop Himmelbau, Nikken Sikkei, Grimshaw and Foster + Partners battled it out for the minor honours. It was vindication of the small guy with a poetic story, patience and integrity. The big guns with recognised names and recognisable styles were, in a sense, rejected by a jury looking for something they had not seen before.
In 2010 the mood seemed to have shifted completely. The grand prize was taken by the ultimate stylist. Like all Zaha buildings the MAXXI gallery is smooth, curvaceous, seductive. What appears to be a context-free object has been dropped in the into ancient Rome by the unwavering hand of the goddess of form. The project won over a heart rending personal triumph form Costa Rica – (young architect creates beautiful and tiny “star gazing” house for drug addicted mother) and flaming hot local favourite Benedetta Tagliabue for her stunningly beautiful Spanish Pavilion for the Shanghai. A victory for pure talent, style and verve? Zaha couldn’t attend the ceremony, the jury said, because she was currently flying back to London on a private jet from Morocco. What is going on?
Well, two things really – a global recession and a compensatory swing towards built expressions of public confidence. Built reassurance that everything was going to be OK. Architecture as palliative. In 2010 the mood of the northern hemisphere practices was very sombre. I spoke with one practice from Dublin that had only dropped 75% of its staff. Two days before flying to Barcelona I had lunch at Foster + Partners who are recovering after deleting 400 staff from their London office. When things get really difficult, it seems that large, well configured and recognisable practices suffer less than smaller ones. This may be a dynamic which reflects client’s declining appetite for risk in a commercially dangerous world.
Against this background, it is interesting to reflect on the place of New Zealand architecture in the world.
The continued emergence of the Australasia gained real pace at WAF 2010. Convenor Paul Finch noted this in his closing address. Australians Bligh Voller Neild, Hassell and JPW dominated several categories including commercial interiors and health. WOHA (Singapore) had several stunning shortlisted entries for the second year running. New Zealand had a disproportionate number of shortlisted entries, including two firms for two consecutively (RTA and Warren and Mahoney). The Australasian work seemed to reflect a level of optimism and confidence that seemed to be lacking in almost all northern European counterparts. Only firms from Scandinavia seemed to have the same degree of vigour. Danish practices 3XN, Henning Larsen and Schmidt Hammer Lassen all had clear, powerful built work across virtually every category. (It struck me, in fact, that New Zealand has much more in common with Denmark than either England or Australia when it comes to contemporary architecture).
I returned to New Zealand feeling architecturally fortunate. Although the economies of New Zealand and Australia have been hit by the global financial crisis, they have not been severely damaged like those of the European PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) or even as affected as England, France, Germany, Holland or the United States. Our banks didn’t get involved with funding the collateralised debt offered by millions of poor American households and our economy is not supported by selling the things that are easily deleted in a consumer spending freeze. Architectural practices have work in New Zealand and the work here is becoming progressively better. We can afford to take many more courageous creative risks and we will need to if practices working in New Zealand and Australia are to continue to improve towards the standards of best of the Europeans.
Meanwhile, over the past few years, the world has re-centred itself progressively closer to us. This is very convenient in a recession. Asia is now the economic driving power of the world and Australia and New Zealand are the closest centres of ‘western’ design expertise.
It is possible that for perhaps the second or third time in our history, New Zealand is about to be one of the best places in the world to live, do business and produce architecture. We are a long way from Barcelona, yes, but not so very far from the centre as one might imagine.
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