From Kengo Kuma’s excellent exercise in concrete to a superb new neighbour for New York’s beloved High Line, 2018’s best buildings ran the gamut from museums to mixed-use projects. Following is the architectural crème de la crème of the past 12 months.
Best Cultural Building: V&A Dundee
Part of a long-term, £1-billion waterfront regeneration, Scotland’s V&A Dundee, which we’ve been watching all year, is something of an anomaly. First, it’s a stunning new building among otherwise nondescript structures, including a generic train station and an uninspired mixed-use block that is currently underway nearby. Second, it’s the only V&A museum outside London. And third, it’s a very unexpected project from its architect, Kengo Kuma. Best known for his use of wood, Kuma instead chose to clad the museum in 2,429 precast concrete fins of varying lengths and depths. The fins not only stand up to the elements, but create ever-changing shadow play on the facade.
Formed as a pair of inverted pyramids that stretch and twist up from the ground, the angles of the building evoke not only Scotland’s rocky cliffs, but also a ship about to set sail. Between the two volumes is a void, which Kuma refers to as “the cave.” As the design team told Azure at the fall opening, the architects wanted visitors to be able to interact with the building before even entering it, to be able to walk through the building and not just around it.
Why we like it: The way the museum interacts with light, shadow and water means you could visit this building 100 times and have a different experience each time.
Best Civic Landmark: New Central Library
Calgary’s New Central Library already made Azure’s favourite Canadian buildings of 2018, but its inclusion on our favourite buildings of the year – period – is a testament to its excellence. A joint effort between Snøhetta and Canadian interdisciplinary firm Dialog, the newest addition to Cowtown’s East Village adds a 240,000-square-foot community hub to one of Calgary’s fastest-growing neighbourhoods. The $245-million investment proved to be a fine one: Perched above an LRT station, the triangular building rises around wooden arches – inspired by chinooks that move across the city sky in winter – before giving way to its soon-to-be-iconic hexagonal glazing, almost resembling leaves fluttering in the wind. The chinook motif is repeated with wooden walkways that swirl around an 85-foot-high atrium, connecting the East Village to downtown and the historic Victoria Park neighbourhood.
Its stellar design aside, the building is reflective of changing winds in Calgary, a fast-growing city with a suddenly impressive skyline. It also thinks bigger – it imagines what a library can be besides a repository for printed works. The New Central Library is a showcase of Treaty 7 First Nation art and its various floors feature performance halls, a city-themed wing, digital commons, study rooms, pods, cafés and resources geared toward finding employment. It’s a reminder that libraries aren’t simply buildings, but monuments to information and civic utility.
Why we like it: Despite its nod to local culture, the New Central Library imagines the library of the future. Ottawa, which is building its own central library, will surely take cues from its Western counterpart. Soon enough, the rest of the world may, too.
Best Skyscraper: King Power MahaNakhon
Designed when he was with OMA, Ole Scheeren’s 314-metre Bangkok tower is more modern sculpture than high-rise, redefining entirely how a tall building can look, function and interact with its surroundings. Featuring a pixelated facade formed by ribbons of cutaway balconies at various intervals, the project takes full advantage of its tropical setting and expansive views, providing oversized terraces and skyboxes that protrude out from the building and into the city around it. This November, a glass-floored observation deck mirroring the public square at the 78-storey tower’s base was opened, capping what is now Thailand’s second-tallest building and surrendering “even the very top of the tower … to the public,” as Scheeren put it.
According to the architect, an interplay between indoors and out, public and private were among the project’s main goals. In the Thai language, MahaNakhon translates as “great metropolis,” suggesting the wide range of functions that take place within and around the building. In addition to the 200 Ritz-Carlton residences in the tower’s upper section, for instance, the Bangkok Edition Hotel occupies the lower part. The rooftop observation deck includes a walkable glass platform that cantilevers out from the building and is likely to become a major public attraction. Measuring 4.5 by 17.5 metres, the platform is called the Skytray.
“People in the tropics live in a fluid condition between interior and exterior spaces,” Scheeren has said, adding that King Power MahaNakhon “literally [carves] those possibilities into the tower and makes these qualities accessible at staggering heights.”
Why we like it: If Bjarke Ingels is the king of the twisting form, Ole Schereen is a master of the pixelated structure. From its distinctive facade to its towering functional ambitions, King Power MahaNakhon is simply one of the most original tall buildings to appear in a long time.
Best Horizontal Skyscraper: Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology
Christened “a founding stone of Skolkovo” – Skolkovo being an ex novo mixed-use, private-public development near Moscow – this technological institution by Herzog and de Meuron packs an impressive range of programming into an even more impressive package. Shape-wise, we’re not sure we’ve seen anything like the university before, although you can argue that its repeated gable-roof forms recall the Swiss firm’s VitraHaus.
In this project, a sort-of horizontal inversion of the skyscraper, an outer ring 280 metres in diameter encloses two smaller semi-circles to establish the building perimeter and main organizing principle. Extending from these circular forms are gable-roofed blocks measuring 21 or 28 metres long with courtyards between them. The curved facades, clad in Siberian larch fins, house the main programming – faculty offices, classrooms and the principal auditorium – while the rectilinear blocks, clad in white aluminum fins, contain laboratories and workshops.
Why we like it: The unusual form of this building is a reminder that anything is possible in architecture today.
Best Community Player: 520 West 28th
These days, many Manhattanites like to complain about the sky-high point towers sprouting like ultra-tall mushrooms across their cityscape. ZHA’s 520 West 28th is the antithesis of those projects. Abutting a stretch of the beloved High Line, the luxury low-rise residential building goes to great lengths to “layer” into its setting, even as its futuristic facade composed of interlocking brushed-steel chevrons presents a forward-looking face to the neighbourhood.
The building’s sensitivity starts with its height: a modest 11 storeys that subtly serve as a bridge between the street and the High Line’s elevated walkways. Its robust style gives a nod to the district’s industrial past. And those steel chevrons have been hand brushed and tinted, an attention to materiality and workmanship reflected in such impeccable interior features as 11-foot coffered ceilings and sleek Boffi kitchens by Zaha Hadid Design.
As the architects have pointed out, more than 350 art galleries are located in the environs of 520 West 28th, which aims to do its discerning neighbourhood proud. On that score, it has succeeded: This rare project that only the most cantankerous New Yorker could object to is art as well as architecture.
Why we like it: Sure, only one percenters can afford to live there, but it’s also a feast for the eyes for the rest of us.
Best Integration with Landscape: UCCA Dune Art Museum
Everything old is new again. Echoing the earliest forms of art, which were created on cave walls, the UCCA Dune Art Museum in the Chinese port city of Qinhuangdoa delivers an experience that’s similarly subterranean. Embedded on the sandy edge of the Bahai Sea, the 930-square-metre gallery designed by New York/Beijing practice OPEN Architecture is actually a series of contiguous concrete rooms hidden among rolling dunes and shrubs. The building aims to have minimal impact on the pre-existing ecosystem and has sustainability features embedded throughout: Lighting is provided through porthole-like openings, a sand-covered roof reduces heat loads during warmer months and a zero-emission ground-source heat pump provides cooling.
Inside, the building is defined by eight galleries that evoke – you guessed it – the sinuous walls of a cave. Each of the Dune Art Museum’s concrete chambers was hand-formed by local workers, leaving the imperfect textures of formwork available for all to see. The aforementioned skylights, meanwhile, provide dramatic beams of natural light. Some of those openings – like in the building’s café – offer an elevated perch over the sea. In these instances, the ever-shifting landscape becomes just as dramatic as anything hanging on gallery walls. Next up: the firm is building an adjacent Sea Art Museum, which will emerge from the Bohai tide. We can’t wait to see it.
Why we like it: Rather than paying homage to its surroundings, the UCCA Dune Art Museum becomes part of it. It feels futuristic, alien and oddly natural all at once – a rare balance in contemporary architecture.
Best Adaptive Reuse: Coal Drop Yards
For its contribution to the ongoing redevelopment of London’s King’s Cross neighbourhood, Heatherwick Studio transformed two Victorian-era warehouses from inaccessible and inhospitable into a thriving community destination that promises to be much more than a simple shopping mall.
As with all great resurrection projects, ghosts from the buildings’ past lives can still be glimpsed: Originally a depository for coal, the three-storey covered structures have subsequently been a hub for glass manufacturing, the heartbeat for a notorious rave scene and, most recently, a fixture of the nightclub circuit.
Maintaining the 1850s ironwork and brick façade and arcades, Heatherwick expanded the roofline of each of the two not-quite-parallel buildings and fused them together with a sinuous, sweeping motion that culminates at a “kissing point.” This crown-like juncture forms a new 185-square-metre upper level that straddles both buildings. Column-free and with floor-to-ceiling glazing, the space seems to float midair between the two former warehouses; below it, a rambling open-air yet sheltered courtyard has become a gathering spot and venue for concerts and performances. In a sensitive nod to the past, the studio sourced the blue-grey slate for the new roof tiles from the same quarry that made the ones on the original roofs.
Why we like it: It’s a wonderful example of considering the past while looking to the future.
Best Municipal Mascot: Fuzhou Strait Culture and Art Centre
At first glance, its seems a little hard to believe that the inspiration behind the five massive buildings sprawled along the bank of the Minjiang River could be a tiny and delicate flower. But a jasmine blossom is exactly what PES-Architects looked to when designing the Fuzhou Strait Culture and Art Centre. It was actually a natural jumping-off point, since Fuzhou, one of the largest cities in China’s Fujian province, wanted a complex that would strengthen its cultural image and the jasmine is its emblematic flower.
PES-Architects translated the bloom into a sequence of five structures in a layout that references an arrangement of petals. Linked by a shared concourse and elevated public terrace, each of the swooping buildings are clad in the same flower-white ceramic tiles and louvers and topped with a pre-patinated zinc roof, lending them an immediate visual cohesion despite their varying sizes. Inside, each hosts a separate program – opera, concert and performance spaces – but all share a common denominator, namely an extreme attention to detail. Running throughout is a material palette of warm bamboo and natural stone, while thousands of custom-developed ceramic tiles and curated lighting fixtures further elevate the spaces.
Why we like it: It isn’t easy to interpret nature through metal and ceramics, but the Fuzhou Strait Culture and Art Centre nails it.
Best Addition to a Revered Setting: Menil Drawing Institute
This fall the Menil Campus, in Houston’s Montrose neighbourhood, was officially joined by one of the most anticipated buildings of the year. The first freestanding facility in the United States dedicated to the exhibition, study and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings, Johnston Marklee’s Menil Drawing Institute is part of a 30-acre masterplan designed by David Chipperfield Architects. It joins a series of other institutions on the property, including Renzo Piano’s foundation building.
The new structure functions as both a frame for the artworks inside as well as the landscaping (by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates). In order to harmonize with the residential scale of its neighbours, the MDL is designed as a series of buildings totalling 2,800 square metres and joined by a white steel plate roof. The meandering roof is punctuated by a trio of voids that open to green-filled courtyards, two of which serve as entries on the east and west ends. The third sits at the core and organizes circulation between offices, scholar study areas and public spaces. Planted with oaks and magnolias, the glass-framed courtyard’s tree canopies are met with overhanging rooflines, allowing gentle, filtered natural light into the interiors while protecting the light-sensitive material inside.
Why we like it: The integration of nature, modulation of light and blending of residential and museum scale are all brilliantly done and totally unprecedented.
Best Artistic Work of Architecture: Fjordenhus
Everything that Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson does is astounding. And that is no hyberbole: This is someone who convinced us that the sun could take up residence inside the Tate Modern. His first-ever building is Fjordenhus, a relic-like brick structure situated in the Vejle Fjord and accessed by a footbridge and a subterranean passage. The building’s use might seem banal – it’s the headquarters of an investment firm – but its form of intersecting, carved cylinders and feeling of craftsmanship are sublime.
Eliasson chose 15 different tones of unglazed brick, as well as glazed bricks in blue, green and silver, to give the building its warm countenance, while large windows allow for views into and out of its three storeys. The interior architectural details are just as special: a cylindrical elevator with rib-like fins, a light fixture resembling a celestial body suspended above a conference table, a ceiling with circular cutouts that deliver a dappled glow to the furniture (also designed by Eliasson).
Why we like it: Fjordenhus seems to have emerged from a dream.