From Jean Nouvel’s breathtaking Louvre Abu Dhabi to a modernist museum in Saskatoon by Toronto’s KPMB, here are 10 of the best buildings of 2017 and why we like them.
Best Museum: Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, in Abu Dhabi
It took close to a decade to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and it has been worth the wait. While the museum is a container for some of the world’s most precious artifacts, the building itself, by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, is a work of art in its own right. Conceived of as an Arab souk, or labyrinthine market, it combines 23 galleries, an auditorium and a children’s museum, which appear as white blocks floating on the waters of man-made Saadiyat Island.
The engineering marvels are plentiful and profound, most notably the massive 180-metre steel dome that is comprised of eight layers formed by 7,850 metal stars. In all, the ceiling weighs in at 5,200 tonnes – almost the same as the Eiffel Tower. Supported by four earthquake-resistant piers, the rooftop “breathes” along with the region’s climate, expanding and contracting using sliding bearings. Beneath the dome, sunlight filters into the interiors, resulting in Nouvel’s much-anticipated “rain of light.”
Why we like it: Nouvel has created an iconic museum that pays noble homage to traditional Islamic architecture.
Best Retail Building: Apple Store by Foster + Partners, in Chicago
Amid this year’s iPhone X frenzy, Chicagoans had another reason to be excited: the opening of Apple’s instantly iconic store on the Magnificent Mile. Prior to the smartphone’s November 3 release, hundreds of prospective customers camped out on Pioneer Court, a downtown plaza that has long been cut off from the adjacent Chicago River. It now links to a waterfront promenade thanks to a massive granite staircase that flanks – and passes through – the new Apple outlet. Inside the glass-fronted store, designed by Foster + Partners (with input from Apple), the steps serve as amphitheatre-like seating for an event space called the Forum, where free public events and seminars are held.
The building is covered by an ultra-thin carbon fibre roof, formed in the shape of a laptop and supported by brushed-steel columns that allow unobstructed views from Pioneer Court to the river. The end result is both a stunning addition to the city’s riverfront and a key piece of connective infrastructure.
Why we like it: Given its fan base, Apple could have set up a shack and customers would still flock to it, but it chose to work with Chicago planners to create something truly remarkable. Plus, that soaring glass facade!
Best Urban Intervention: Città del Sole by Labics, in Rome
Few cities are as daunting to build in as Rome, where relics of human civilization dating back to 752 B.C. are everywhere, making the city a living museum. For architects Maria Claudia Clemente and Francesco Isidori of the local practice Labics, though, those challenges are surmountable. In fact, their latest urban regeneration project in the eastern part of the capital shows few signs of compromise as a result of working around the remains of history. Called Città del Sole (City of Sun), the 11,000-square-metre multi-use complex is both ultra-modern and supremely sympathetic to its surroundings, transforming a triangular plot that formerly served as a public bus depot into a vital community hub made up of residences, commercial and office spaces, car parks and a succession of public areas on various levels.
Designed to be “porous,” a central square integrated with raised walkways and street-level routes anchors the development, providing an “authentic invitation” to cross, discover and rest in the site. Various claddings – most notably horizontal glass brise soleils and adjustable aluminum sun shades – distinguish each of the buildings. In keeping with the low-rise neighbourhood, the structures are more horizontal than vertical, but far from retiring. A yet-to-be-built library at the peak of the triangle will cap off the project.
Why we like it: Labics’ philosophy that cities should be built around systems rather than as a series of objects has been beautifully realized with Città del Sole. Here, the public realm is fully integrated with the built elements.
Best Sustainable Building: Nordhavn International School by C.F. Møller, in Copenhagen
The distinctive facade of the Copenhagen International School’s Nordhavn campus, designed by local firm C.F. Møller, is the first of its kind: the world’s largest solar facade system integrated into a single building. The 12,000 glass panels that clad the building were custom manufactured for the project, and are made using new technology developed by the Swiss university research institute EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne).
Coloured without the use of pigments, the panels’ sea green hue is the result of technology that adds fine particles to the glass surface and of light interference, the same type of effect that adds iridescence to soap bubbles. Covering over 6,000 square metres, the panels generate more than half of the school’s electricity consumption.
Why we like it: What better way to teach children about sustainability than to school them in a building that generates its own energy, roughly the equivalent of powering 70 single-family homes? Naturally, solar studies are part of the curriculum and students monitor the building’s energy production data as part of their physics and math classes.
Best Addition: CTLES (Technical Centre for Books of Higher Education) by Antonini + Darmon, Bussy-Saint-Georges, France
While the CTLES may be a lesser-known project than his National Library of France, Dominique Perrault’s library archive building – on the outskirts of Paris – is an equally beautiful, albeit very different tribute to knowledge. Perrault’s original campus grew this year with a stunning mirrored addition designed by Antonini + Darmon, the Parisian firm that won an AZ Award in 2015 for best multi-unit architecture.
Built to respect both its neighbour and rural site, in Bussy-Saint-Georges, the addition is clad in a highly reflective steel skin that nods to the matte aluminum facade of Perrrault’s adjacent building. An elegant glass pedway links the old buildings to a light-filled central gallery that houses the addition’s public spaces. This central space joins the two main volumes that offer a protective environment for archived documents from the city’s universities and research centres. The archives themselves cover over 110 linear kilometres of hallway lined with sliding storage modules and the same mirrored steel that clads the exterior.
Why we like it: The reflectivity and the ribbed texture of the cladding is a clear tip of the hat to Perrault’s work on one elevation, but it becomes most effective at the far end of the site, where it allows the building to nearly vanish amid a meadow of tall grass and wildflowers.
Best House of Worship: Church of St Wenceslas, by Atelier Štěpán, in Sazovice, Czech Republic
Patience is a virtue. For the Czech city of Sazovice, that meant waiting nearly 80 years for a church to get built. Fortitude finally paid off earlier this year with the completion of the Church of St Wenceslas. The work of Brno-based studio Atelier Štěpán, the modestly scaled structure resembles an unfurling ribbon of paper. And while principal Marek Jan Štěpán acknowledges a reference to Prague’s chapel rotunda originally built by St. Wenceslas himself (back in the 10th century), there is nothing archaic about this place.
Using reinforced concrete, the cylindrical volume gently tappers from ½ metre to just one centimeter in some areas. Sections of the facade fold inward to insert windows without interrupting the visual flow, and an alcove at the top contains three rows of church bells. Both the spherical motif and serene restraint are carried to the inside, where semi-circle pews radiate from a sculptural gold altar and pulpit at the centre. Wood was employed to craft a meditative ambience and light filters in through a skylight cut out from the latticed wood ceiling.
Why we like it: While not a total deviation from what can be found in other religion-based architecture, the Church of St Wenceslas is a wildly contemporary interpretation of familiar tropes, and further proof that purity and simplicity can have major impact.
Best Theatre: Huanchaca Ruins Open Air Theatre by Ramón Coz, Marco Polidura, Benjamín Ortiz and Sebastián Alvarez, in Antofagasta, Chile
When your backdrop is a magnificent historic monument, its best to play to those strengths. For the team behind the Huanchaca Ruins Open Air Theatre, that meant constructing a complex that appears to naturally emerge from the landscape. Situated at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in the Chilean city of Antofagasta, the Huanchaca ruins are the remains of a silver foundry originally built in 1888. Operational until 1902, the site was left abandoned until 1974 when it was deemed a national monument. It is these crumbling structures that serve as the foil for the new open-air theatre.
Extending for 20 metres, and with an overhang that floats five metres above the stage, the concrete form is absent of distraction but not refinement. Viewpoints are plenty, from the plateau roof that offers a panorama of the nearby smelter and ocean to the relaxed bleacher-style benches in the grandstand that face the stage. The pine wood slats are the only material that wasn’t repurposed from local sources.
Why we like it: It’s impossible to not appreciate a structure that turns a former industrial site into a cultural destination.
Best Pool: University of British Columbia Aquatic Centre by MJMA and Acton Ostry Architects, in Vancouver
Everything about the UBC Aquatic Centre is inviting, from the light blue tiles and fritted glass that heighten the impression of watery reflections, to the universal change rooms that don’t discriminate between sex, age, religion or ethnicity. The Olympic-size pool is intended to inspire students to become world-calibre athletes, but the facility also has to service the local community that includes kids and seniors alike.
Toronto firm MJMA and Acton Ostry Architects of Vancouver have found a happy inclusionary balance, adding to the 50-metre, 10-lane competition pool, a child-friendly lazy river, a hot tub, a sauna and steam room, even food and beverage kiosks. To let in natural light, there is a bank of Y-shaped columns that look like giant trees holding up the highest point of the ceiling and where a continuous six-metre-wide skylight bisects the length of the building. The sheer openness of the centre, visible through its glass curtain walls that face onto gardens and walkways, is bound to attract even the most reluctant of swimmers to take a dip.
Why we like it: The facility is equally Olympian and green-minded, with sustainable attributes that include state-of-the art grey water systems and rooftop cistern storage.
Best Plant: Organic Farm by Archstudio, in Tangshen, China
Though this Archstudio project is called Organic Farm, it’s not actually a farm. Rather, it’s an organic food-processing plant that resembles a traditional northern Chinese hutong, or residential courtyard. That’s purposeful. The facility is in Tangshen, in close proximity to residential environments, and the architects were mindful of its surroundings. Organic Farm’s scale feels modest, but it sprawls across 6,000 square metres, with four pitched-roof “houses” that each store, package, mill and press local produce.
Each is connected by residential features: a large central courtyard is used to dry grain, a walk way snakes around the facility’s perimeter and each building ventilates onto a “patio.” The houses, constructed from translucent PVC walls, felt roofing and timber frames and truss beams, sit atop a 60-centimetre concrete podium that serves two purposes: first, it keeps the wooden frames away from ground moisture. Second, when its interiors are illuminated at night, it makes Organic Farm seem to float, almost like a mirage.
Why we like it: Like any good neighbour, Organic Farm is more than the sum of its parts. Constructed with deliberately modest materials, Archstudio created a project that’s utilitarian, minimal and beautiful.
Best art gallery: Remai Modern by KPMB Architects and Architecture49, in Saskatoon
The Bilbao Effect is still alive and well as a powerful symbol for cities to signal their rise. The Remai Modern in Saskatoon is just such a building, where the Prairie city of less than 260,000 is poised to grow expediently in the coming years. The city wanted a structural icon to mark its progress and philanthropist Ellen Remai footed the bill with an astounding $50-million donation to build and operate it. Hers is the largest arts donation in Canadian history (and she has since topped it up to $103 million in total).
Designed by Toronto firm KPMB Architects and Architecture49, the stacked volumes are quietly seductive rather than flashy. They reflect the flat Prairie landscape and are reminiscent of silos, barns and field sheds that are traditional to the region. Portions of the exterior walls are clad in copper-colour metal scrims, while the remaining walls are sheets of glass, providing exceptional views of the Saskatoon River nearby. The 11,7000-square-metre interior is clean and modern featuring a large staircase in the main atrium inviting visitors into the galleries that house a mix of international and Canadian art.
Why we like it: While the Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwicks of the architectural world are at the cutting edges of engineering feats and visual grandeur, it is refreshing to have a building devoted to art that doesn’t overshadow it content or location, yet it still makes a remarkable statement.