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The past 10 years show how much can change in an instant. In 2010, we were living in the relatively placid Obama era. Hearts and minds were in the right place: the 9/11 memorial was completed, incremental housing offered a new approach to affordability, resilient landscapes were being planned. Over the past five years, we have witnessed the erratic presidency of Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement, uncontrollable wildfires and the onset of a novel coronavirus pandemic – in short, a whole new set of briefs for those who believe in design’s fundamental role in shaping the world for the better.
On September 11, 2011, Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s 9/11 Memorial Waterfall fountains roared to life at Ground Zero, with water cascading into two pools that outlined the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers. The plaza, master planned by Daniel Libeskind, has since filled in with the opening of the 9/11 museum, One WTC and Three WTC.
Alejandro Aravena, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2016, is one of the world’s foremost social-good architects. While incremental housing is a concept that dates back to the 1970s, he and his firm, Elemental, made it concrete through their various “half-a-house” projects. Villa Verde, completed in 2010 in post-earthquake Constitución, Chile, was their second major urban development of this type.
Designing for Disaster
Flood protection in the age of climate change takes on new urgency, with mayors and politicians looking to urban planners and architects for solutions. Developed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, BIG’s stepped shoreline proposal, the Big U, is intended to prevent (or at least delay) Manhattan from sinking into the Hudson River.
Who Revived the Electric Car?
Electric is literally the way to go. The launch of BMW’s plug-in electric car brand, BMWi, in 2009, represented the first mass-produced, zero emissions vehicle made with carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. But it was the emergence of Tesla, the brand founded by maverick Elon Musk, that signalled a cultural shift for electric cars with its roadster model (shown) debuting in 2012.
Planting the Seeds
The U.K. Pavillion at Expo 2010, in Shanghai, was a little outside the box, but became the poster child for the entire event. Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral, a 10-by-15-metre structure, was covered in 60,000 acrylic rods that displayed seeds and emitted an otherworldly glow at night. For Heatherwick, it was a game changer. If you hadn’t heard of the British designer before, you certainly knew him now.
German architect Jürgen Mayer H.’s Metropol Parasol in Seville’s Plaza de la Encarnacíon is the world’s largest wooden structure. Meanwhile, Sauerbruch Hutton’s Office for Urban Development and Environment, completed in Hamburg in 2013, raised the bar on both the aesthetics and benefits of green buildings.
The Whimsical and the Practical
In 2014, Raw-Edges Design Studio conceptualized a radical – and beautifully whimsical – kitchen for Caesarstone, as part of the brand’s promotion of its quartz material for uses beyond surfacing. On the opposite end of the design spectrum, Yves Béhar and Herman Miller introduced Sayl, an affordable (at US$300) task chair that was also ergonomically and ecologically sound. Pragmatism as its best.
In trying to revitalize Rotterdam’s local economy, Dutch firm MVRDV also transformed a local food market into an architectural jewel. The arched, 40-metre-high Markthal embeds 228 residential units while enclosing 100 fresh food stalls below a Pixar-generated mega-mural printed on perforated aluminum. A supermarket and parking lot are contained below. It’s a bold embodiment of purpose-built architecture that has attracted international acclaim.
The Human Touch
When it comes to high-end furniture companies, craft takes on many meanings. Edra’s controversial Barbarians collection of 2010, by Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana for Edra, included a storage unit made of dangling raffia that came off somewhat like an oversized Cousin It. Meanwhile, Moroso continued to elevate the human touch in its offerings. Doshi Levien’s Paper Planes features hand-stitched upholstery.
Adaptive Re-Use on a Macro Scale
New York’s High Line, the first phase of which opened in 2012, is the Bilbao of parks. While the re-landscaped former rail line has caused local real estate prices to skyrocket, cities everywhere are now retrofitting disused railways into green skywalks. Concurrently, another cultural regeneration project was underway in Canada: In 2010, Zita Cobb launched the ambitious Fogo Island revitalization. Architect Todd Saunders designed new cultural hubs – including six artists’ studios and the Fogo Island Inn – to shore up the Newfoundland island’s long-term economic health through tourism. The entire endeavour exemplifies how good design can spark economic revitalization.
Neri Oxman, architect and associate professor at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, coined the phrase “material ecology” to describe the merging disciplines of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology. The new ecology, of which Oxman is at the fore, will soon develop everything from wearable organisms to buildings that build themselves.
The factory of the world, China began making strides in contemporary design – and the manufacturer Stellar Works (left) was a key part of this transformation. Paris, long a fashion and design hub, became even chicer with the opening of Sketch, the Insta-famous, millennium-pink restaurant by the reigning queen of interior design, India Mahdavi.
If she began her career designing angular structures, Zaha Hadid evolved her aesthetic into what would become her signature style – all flowing lines and curvaceous profiles. The Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, completed in 2012, four years before her death, stands as perhaps the best example of the inimitable fluidity she was able to accomplish through parametric design.
When it was topped off in 2012, the 87-storey Shard, at the foot of London’s Tower Bridge, became the tallest building in the European Union. It was designed by Renzo Piano. Two years later, another icon of architecture – Frank Gehry – completed the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Its sweeping sail-like panes of fritted glass float in harmony with swooping curves of high-performance concrete that shield the exhibition space within.
In 2015, Toronto became home to not one but two masterpieces by two of the world’s greatest architects – Fumihiko Maki of Japan and Charles Correa of Mumbai. The Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre together form a spiritual, educational and architectural destination in Toronto’s north end.
Also in 2015, Assemble became the first architecture studio to win the prestigious Turner Prize. Known for its dedication to bolstering community through design, the firm won for its Granby Four Streets project, which revitalized a poorly planned neighbourhood in Liverpool. Around the same time, NLÉ, the studio founded by Nigerian-born architect Kunlé Adeyemi, was developing the Makoko Floating School, a prototype for amphibious architecture in Nigeria’s informal lagoon community of Makoko.
The September 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was a momentous occasion a hundred years in the making. Architect David Adjaye (as part of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup) delivered a building literally wrought from a troubled history: Its bold bronze-coloured wrapping pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African–Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina and elsewhere.
“They Let You Do It”
Four years later, it’s still hard to come to terms with the election-night results of November 8, 2016. Reality TV star and real estate magnate Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton to become the 45th POTUS, even after the release of his tape-recorded comments condoning sexual assault — captured in this illustration by Lennart Gäbel, which became an icon of the Women’s Marches that followed. Trump has since unleashed much chaos. He’s even imposed upon the architecture community, with his border wall plans and proposed “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” mandate.
Blowing Bubbles, Shrinking Glaciers
In Vancouver, Westbank has commissioned the likes of Bjarke Ingels and Kengo Kuma to design high-rise condos. But who can afford to live in them? An equally important question: How uninhabitable will the planet itself become? Olafur Eliasson’s ongoing art project Ice Watch, comprising 12 large blocks of ice cast off from the Greenland ice sheet and harvested from a fjord outside Nuuk, brings people right up against the Earth’s melting glaciers.
In 2018, the Pritzker Architecture Prize went to Balkrishna Doshi — the Indian architect who, over his more than 60-year career, has created some of the most vibrant low-cost housing ever built. This appreciation for the vernacular also comes across in a new trend whereby architects are returning to hand drawing or incorporating collage techniques. Pezo von Ellrichshausen, for example, conceptualizes its projects in paintings and drawings (right).
Since Uruguay became the first country to legalize the recreational consumption of marijuana in 2013, many other countries have followed suit (Canada was second, in 2018). An unsurprising side effect? Cannabis has become a major industry and designers are embracing its myriad opportunities – crafting everything from interiors that look more art gallery than seedy head shop (à la Kolab Project’s Saskatchewan flagship, designed by Toronto’s Emil Teleki, left) to accoutrements that are more collectible design than counterculture paraphernalia (like 48North’s solid brass F8 Liv grinder, right).
Atop a sprawling Manhattan railway yard, a who’s who of globally renowned architects converged to design the largest ongoing private real estate development in the U.S. The result? An architectural spectacle — and a sterile neighbourhood dismissed as “a billionaire’s fantasy city” by New York magazine. Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, however, is a selfie magnet. The Insta trend is also promoted by Airbnb, one of the city-transforming apps (along with Uber) that have gained power around the world. Shown on the right: an Airbnb-only suite at 62M, a flying saucer–shaped condo building in Winnipeg by 5468796 Architecture.
Afrofuturism Looks Forward
Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid. The technological marvels of Black Panther’s Wakanda. Sculptor Nick Cave’s vibrant Soundsuits. Deftly combining themes drawn from science fiction with the experiences of the African diaspora, Afrofuturism has taken hold of music, film, fashion and visual culture as increased diversity and representation echoes across disciplines. With cyborg aesthetics, metallic parts and more, these creatives revisit the past to critique the anti-Black sentiments permeating the present, all while offering a striking vision of a distinctly Black-centric world to come.
Indigenous Architecture Rises
Spurred in part by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, the global ascent of Indigenous designers has moved discussions of inclusion beyond land acknowledgements. In the heart of Vancouver – and in the unceded territory of the Musqueam People – a First Nations-led plan envisions 11 striking towers on a narrow 11.7-acre site just across the False Creek inlet from downtown Vancouver. Designed by Revery Architecture and developed by Westbank, it is aesthetically rooted in Indigenous culture and history. Perhaps this is the future.