It was difficult to pick favourites in a year that delivered such a bounty of breathtaking galleries, museums and gathering places. From the Bahá’i Temple in the foothills of the Andes (by Hariri Pontarini) to the subterranean Dialogue Centre Przelomy by KWK Promes, here are 10 of the best cultural buildings of 2016.
Best Green Building: Cop22 Village by Oualalou+Choi in Marrakesh
For a conference dedicated to sustainability, a host venue must be humble, respectful of its surroundings and, of course, sustainable. For this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, held in Marrakesh over two weeks in November, architects Oualalou+Choi created a village that practiced what delegates were preaching.
Various temporary structures, nearly all recyclable in some form, were erected on the site’s 30 hectares of land. But the most captivating was Oualalou+Choi’s centrepiece: a 680-metre-long arcade covered by soaring, undulating canopies, and met by an archway of interlocking timber that ushered guests inside. Though almost entirely black in hue, the waterproof canopies weren’t completely opaque, allowing for some light to permeate.
The archway was an interpretation of a traditional Moroccan doorway. Identically sized pieces of timber were stacked and interlocked to form a complex, layered entrance measuring 12 metres high and 50 metres long. After the two-week event, the timber was to be used to construct pavilions in public gardens throughout the city. Cop22 proves that temporary architecture can have a lasting impact, while minimizing environmental consequences.
Best Monument: Dialogue Centre Przelomy by KWK Promes, in Szczecin, Poland
We are not alone in our love for Dialogue Centre Przelomy by Robert Konieczny, principal of the Polish firm KWK Promes. In recent months, the city museum – located in Szczecin, Poland – was named Building of the Year by the World Architecture Festival. It has also garnered a handful of regional awards, and others from across Europe. Why such accolades?
The 9,577-square-metre site has been a public gathering place for social and political unrest ever since Germans bombed the existing townhouses during the second world war. Yet the new centre hasn’t removed the site’s valuable function as a community meeting place. Instead, it celebrates it by submerging the gallery one layer below. Only one corner of the structure has been lifted up to building height to provide a street-level entrance. Even this reveal, though, can be masked with pivoting concrete walls that enclose the doorway entirely, making it indistinguishable from a solid wall. The centre is an ultimate hybrid – part monument, part public square, and part museum. Remarkably, it’s also nearly invisible to passersby.
Best Handcrafted Building: Crystal Houses by MVRDV, in Amsterdam
On Amsterdam’s toniest shopping strip, P.C. Hooftstraat, Chanel’s flagship is a luminous beacon among a cluster of high-end retail storefronts. Enchanted by the street’s historic buildings, Rotterdam firm MVRDV decided to reinterpret the neighbouring red brick facades in 7,000 blocks made of clear glass. The transparency is maintained between these individually handcrafted modules with the help of an adhesive used in dental work. In an assembly process that took 10 months, the water-thin glue was applied by hand to each brick and cured using a blue light.
When the facade was unveiled in April, it was a bit of a surprise to see it in the light when the curtain finally came down. Gijs Rikken, principal of the firm told Azure, “It sparkles in the sun. And in the clouds, it’s a bit green, like ice. It’s been fun to sit across the street and watch people react. They want to reach out and touch it, to see if it’s real.”
Best Religious Building: Bahá’i Temple Santiago by Hariri Pontarini, in Santiago
Thirteen years in the making, the Bahá’i Temple in Santiago has finally opened and it is a masterpiece; an iridescent jewel that sits among the Andes foothills with views of Chile’s largest city below. Its nine walls, which appear more like petals or billowing sails, surround a single room and a mezzanine. Inside, visitors and worshippers look 30 metres up to see those translucent walls spiral into a single glass oculus.
The temple is the creation of Siamak Hariri, founding principal of the Toronto firm Hariri Pontarini. For Hariri, who grew up Bahá’i, this project is deeply personal and he devoted himself and his team to realize it with exacting detail. The walls, held in place by an exoskeletal web, are comprised of two layers of panels: white Portuguese marble on the interior and custom glass on the exterior. Because the site is prone to earthquakes, each of the 2,000 cast panels had to be tested for seismic resistance, to ensure they could accomplish one on the few requirements outlined in the competition: to ensure the building can last 400 years.
In Azure’s March/April 2016 issue, writer Noah Richler spoke to Hariri about what he hoped to accomplish with the project. “There are a lot of ways in which monumental architecture deliberately seeks to make people feel small,” he said. “I want the opposite.”
Best Wood Building: Romsdal Folk Museum by Reiulf Ramstad Architects, in Molde, Norway
This is a prime illustration of the value of low-tech building practices, traditional materials and a locally specific approach. The Romsdal Folk Museum’s campus includes an entire street of pre-war houses among its examples of local cultural identity. Reiulf Ramstad’s new wooden-clad museum joins the existing architecture collection and also accommodates flexible exhibition space for art and artifacts, a library archive, an auditorium, café and gift shop.
It is an impressive contemporary cultural institution from various vantage points. From neighbouring residential areas, the new building looks more like a scaled-down version of a fairytale castle. From afar, its spiky roofline echoes the mountainous region. In fact, the Oslo firm was inspired by the local surroundings and modeled the dramatic roofline after the peaked terrain. At some angles the pitch is so steep it becomes spire-like, bearing resemblance to another one of the firm’s projects: the Knarvik Community Church, a reinterpretation of the region’s stave churches. Clad entirely in locally sourced pine, the Romsdal Folk Museum’s timber planks are oil-treated and supported only where necessary by steel beams.
Best Art Gallery: Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John, in London
Understated yet painstakingly crafted, the Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, south London, is the epitome of subtle. Local architects Caruso St John renovated a string of Victorian workshops and bookended them with two new constructions to create a single, 3,437-square-metre art space spanning two floors.
The five-building block is clad in varicoloured red brick and equally motley rooftops, from gabled to mansard to spine-backed, typifying yet elevating a classic London street. Inside, its meticulously designed spiral staircases connecting the floors — elegantly oval, with a continuous white wooden sheet for a railing — are artworks in themselves. Free and open to the public, the gallery is owned by Damien Hirst to house his private “Murderme” collection, featuring works by Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, and Banksy, among others. Gracefully integrating new and old, the gallery is an inventive nod to the neighbourhood.
Best Vernacular Building:
Totihue Chapel by Gonzalo Mardones Viviani, in Totihue, Chile
All the flash in the world can never stand in for emotional connection. In the rural village of Totihue, Chile, Gonzalo Mardones has fashioned a humble, geometrically precise chapel out of a 200-year-old adobe silo and a new, barn-style construction.
The silo, itself used as a chapel since 1972, was damaged in the disastrous 2010 earthquake and had to be closed. Rather than start from scratch, the Santiago architect chose to rehabilitate it, owing to its importance to the community and the silo’s iconic recurrence in the local countryside. Beginning with a drawing by a six-year-old boy who had won the local competition to reimagine the chapel — the drawing depicted a silo attached to a gabled barn, another ubiquitous rural Chilean image — the project resulted from close collaboration with local priest Iván Guajardo.
Twelve small openings in the silo fill the space evenly with light, while a large window in the barn-style volume opens onto the altar. Both are clad in Hunter Douglas metal plates — the former in white, the latter, with its freestanding belfry, in dark grey. Unassuming yet powerful, the project stands at the forefront of efforts to rebuild the country not only structurally, but spiritually.
Best Cultural Institution: Estonian National Museum by Dorell Ghotmeh Tane, in Tartu, Estonia
Built on an abandoned Soviet airfield just outside the Estonian city of Tartu, the country’s new national museum makes a powerful statement through its sensitive yet stunning design. The work of Paris architecture firm Dorell Ghotmeh Tane (DGT), which won the international competition in 2005, the building is a physical celebration of the country’s cultural identity, borne of a sometimes somber past marked by war and occupation.
Rising gracefully from an airbase runway, the majestic 34,000-square-metre glass and concrete structure officially opened in October, and will finally bring together artifacts that had been scattered throughout the city when the original museum was destroyed during the second world war.
In tribute to Estonia’s folk heritage, DGT adorned the glazed facade with a white silk-screened eight-pointed star pattern, an abstract rendering of a cornflower, which is the country’s national flower – when lit from within, it casts an impressive light across the surroundings. Already a source of national pride, the museum includes gallery spaces, two permanent exhibition areas, a conference hall, public library and education rooms.
Best Art Museum: Audain Art Museum by Patkau Architects, in Whistler
Just beyond the après-ski revelry of British Columbia’s premier ski resort, Patkau Architects of Vancouver has brought its usual sublime touch to an art museum surrounded by evergreens. The Audain Art Museum is both abstract and restrained – features that distinguish it from the more commercial (and gaudy) imitations of cabin culture that abound in Whistler Village.
It is, in many ways, a stellar example of how subtle moves can have the strongest impact. The museum’s pitched roof sloughs heavy snow and pier-like supports raise the hockey stick-shaped volume above ground to avoid damage from spring-thaw flooding. It is also skinned in dark steel, which allows its geometric form to mysteriously recede into the woods, except for its entrance, which is framed in local hemlock.
Inside, that same hemlock lines an interior glass corridor that stretches alongside the permanent gallery space, providing a serene connection with the surrounding forest. The interior doesn’t ignore the great outdoors, either. Gallery spaces are contained in white volumes, complemented by warm wood flooring throughout, creating a setting that gracefully defers to both art and nature.
Best Hub: Oculus at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Santiago Calatrava, in New York City
With its soaring wing-like appendages, retractable glass roof, pristine marble flooring and gleaming white facade, it’s tricky to pinpoint a favourite movement within the WTC Transit Hub – the new front door to the PATH Station in Manhattan. While the Oculus is not a cultural building per se, it made of our list because it evokes the kind of awe and marvel that befits a building designed to enlighten and inspire.
It is also a monument that honours the tragic past of the 9/11 site and evokes an inspiring sense of continuously moving forward. The architect himself has described its form as a bird taking flight from a child’s hand. The interior space, which rises up 49 metres at its peak, is bathed in light thanks to floor-to-ceiling glazing and, most notably, its 100-metre long retractable skylight that will open annually on September 11 (and on any clear-weather day). Washed in white, the cavernous interior emits a tranquility that is fitting for a memorial, which is what this hub ultimately is.