The end of the year is a time for celebration — and often for spectacle. As we continue an annual tradition of reflecting on the year’s best designs — including products, interiors and houses — it’s tempting to pick out the most eye-catching, jaw-dropping and aesthetically daring projects. And while stunning theatres and performing arts centres make our list, more intimate spaces that are generous in function and spirit, also drew much of our attention.
From schools and healthcare spaces to housing, infrastructure and spiritual worship, these are the projects that shaped design — and lifted our spirits — in 2021.
At the project’s inception in 2007, Marks Barfield was asking a crucial question: What should a British Mosque look like in the 21st century? Moving away from simply creating a “replica” or a “pastiche” of another mosque, and acknowledging that Islam has been a part of British culture for centuries, the firm set out to create a brand new concept to replace an old mosque that the local congregation had outgrown. Nearly 14 years later, the mosque is finally completed — and its design riffs off Cambridge’s local architecture, while incorporating traditional aspects of Islamic culture.
Using spruce timber as their primary material, the architects were inspired by English Gothic fan vaulting, a reference seen in what is arguably the mosque’s most distinctive feature: tree-like pillars that rise like roots from the ground, expanding into the building’s roof and ceiling in an interlaced lattice vault structure. External walls are clad in tiles with crenelated parapets that “symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth,” according to the firm. To enter the mosque, worshippers wander through a garden, a portico and an atrium — finally arriving at the prayer hall, which is oriented towards Mecca. It’s a journey that prepares each visitor for prayer, and invites them to reflect in the “calm oasis” of the Mosque.
When French design duo Lacaton & Vassal were awarded this year’s Pritzker Prize in Architecture, their carbon-sensitive and community-oriented approach to reviving mid-century housing drew the world’s attention. Guided by an ethos of avoiding demolition and preserving social fabric, the architects have transformed tower block communities and public spaces across France with grace and panache. But how about a new build?
In northeastern France, the commune of Rixheim is home to a publicly subsidized housing complex for retired people. The 18-unit, 1,500-square-metre housing block is at once radically pared down and inviting. A simple envelope of corrugated polycarbonate and aluminum makes for an exceptionally light — and low-carbon — build, while spacious interiors and private winter gardens create comfortable and attractive homes inside. Built on a budget of just 1.4 million €, the project kept costs and embodied carbon to an absolute minimum, without sacrificing quality (high grade materials were used throughout). Through its extreme restraint, the design recedes to become a backdrop to everyday life.
In the works since 2014, the Yang Liping Performing Arts Centre topped out this year — and what a marvel it turned out to be. Emulating its context, the 8,155-square-metre building’s shape mimics the topography of the surrounding mountain planes, with undulating caverns and high peaks, which simultaneously riff on the dualism of Ancient Chinese philosophy. On approach, the complex seems to be defined by its inverted roof — but there is more to see underneath.
The roof swoops down to create terraced seating for visitors, and to allow natural light to enter, with a view of the mountains beyond. The open plaza is thus transformed into an indoor/outdoor performance space, through which visitors can flow — Studio Zhu-Pei’s intention was to subvert the idea of a theatre as a closed box, rendering it into an open space without boundaries. Without an exterior/interior distinction, this effect is striking — fitting for an arts hub that will serve as the Yunan region’s cultural haven.
Art institutions tend to favour big, flashy landmarks — which is exactly what makes the non-profit Amant Foundation’s East Williamsburg art campus so refreshing. Rather than designing a single bold spectacle, Brooklyn architecture studio SO-IL instead opted to convey its client’s regard for the local arts community through a quartet of intriguing and intimate structures.
By dividing key functions across four smaller buildings — two of which are paired together on the north side of Grand Street, and two of which are clustered together on the south side — SO-IL maintains the neighbourhood’s modest scale. The firm’s multi-building arrangement also acts as a smart way to introduce spaces suited to a wide variety of art: one gallery serves as a performance venue, while another houses a nearly seven-metre-tall exhibition space perfect for tall sculptures. Additional buildings add studio and retail space into the mix, while landscaped courtyards create links between them, encouraging visitors to explore and reflect on the art that they’ve just seen in quiet areas sheltered from traffic.
These gardens also make for great vantage points when it comes to admiring the design scheme’s inventive use of rugged industrial materials, which were selected to complement the surrounding manufacturing and storage facilities. On one building, white bricks rotated into a jagged dogtooth pattern are paired with a top band of shiny aluminum, while across the street, a cast-in-place concrete volume gains extra personality from an oblong window. With each structure expressing its own distinctive identity, the art campus effectively becomes its own art exhibition, featuring four monolithic sculptures installed in rich dialogue with one another.
A lot of infrastructure is designed to fly under the radar. So long as a water treatment plant is doing its job, most people never need to think about it — so why draw attention to it? Yet this can be a dangerous philosophy: when we don’t acknowledge vital public services, it becomes all too easy to erase our impact on the land that we live on, or to take for granted the protocols that enable our safe drinking water and continued well-being. Hence our appreciation for the latest civic wonder by Toronto firm Gh3*: a stormwater-treatment centre commissioned by Waterfront Toronto.
Not only does the facility prevent heavy rainfall from overwhelming Toronto’s sewer system and polluting Lake Ontario, but it does it with rare style. Modelled after an “inverted well,” the gem-like concrete structure houses a giant sieve and two filtration tanks that work to purify water pumped in from nearby storm drains. Aside from a few elegant accents — an angular skylight added to let in some sun, and a small front window that offers curious passersby a glimpse inside — the building expresses a stark, moody beauty. In Simon Lewsen’s September cover story about the project, Gh3* Principal Pat Hanson compares it to the Roman viaducts and Hoover Dam — two other examples of infrastructure that received enough capital investment to enable truly grand designs. Here’s hoping this latest project is the beginning of a 21st-century renaissance in high-design infrastructure.
In the Thar Desert region of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan, India, female literacy sits at 32 per cent. For this reason, the non-profit CITTA commissioned New York’s Diana Kellogg Architects to design a school for 400 girls, from kindergarten to grade 10. Her vision, an evocatively elliptical building, is a gift of education and a beacon of beauty. The oval structure represents both femininity and infinity while referencing the sand dunes of Jaisalmer. The regional inspiration also extended to the materiality: the school is made entirely out of Dabri veneer and Jodhpur sandstone, hand-carved by local craftsmen. Its parapet wall reinvents the jalis – a privacy screen for women – while allowing air to circulate and providing shade.
For this reason and more, the pro bono project was awarded an AZ Award in 2021. “A pure expression of its function,” noted juror Gilles Saucier, “this school works as a protection for the students and, by being beautifully integrated into the landscape, offers an adapted climatic environment.” A solar panel canopy on the roof will soon be joined by a jungle gym where kids can play on monkey bars and seesaws, bringing them even closer to the building’s thoughtful design.
The school is part of a larger vision and planned complex of three similarly shaped buildings that will foster the economic development of girls and women; it will include a performance and art exhibition space with a library and museum, and a co-operative for women weavers. It is a gift that keeps on giving.
11NOHO Apartments, North Hollywood, USA by Brooks + Scarpa Architects
An adaptation and evolution of California’s historic courtyard apartment typology, Brooks + Scarpa‘s 11NOHO is a residential building that emphasizes public space over private property. Organized around a central outdoor space, the 60-apartment complex encourages a sociable dynamic, mediating the divide between home and the car-dominated city outside. What’s more, the dynamic courtyard also maximizes outdoor space for every suite, all while inviting pleasant cross-ventilation.
A mixed-use, mixed-income complex, the project integrates 12 affordable, subsidized units, along with retail at ground level. At the heart of the sprawling and economically stratified Los Angeles metro area, it serves up a welcome infusion of environmentally friendly — and pedestrian-friendly — density, and a dose of inclusive community life. And it looks damn good doing it.
Throughout his career, the Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré has returned time and again to his home country of Burkina Faso. There, he has built hospitals, residences for medical staff and multiple schools – contributing to the creation of much-needed infrastructure by reinterpreting the regional vernacular through an Afrofuturist lens.
One of the latest of these endeavours is the Burkina Institute of Technology, a 2,100-square-metre complex of classrooms, lecture halls and amenities housed in modules designed for easy replication. The ambition is that as the school’s student body grows – the median age in Burkina Faso is 17.6, while on the continent it’s 19 – it can accommodate both a larger cohort and an expanded curriculum through the installation of more such modular volumes.
The architecture is made with local clay, combined with concrete – a material mix that Kéré pioneered for the project. “This is the first building made this way in Burkina Faso, if not in the entire region,” Kéré explains. “We poured clay like you would concrete.” As we wrote in our September/October 2021 issue, the architect devised a two-by-two-metre mock-up “to really study the cracks” before achieving the resulting buttery surface. The roofs are made of galvanized metal and the screens are made of bundled eucalyptus; employing women to harvest and treat the eucalyptus on a steady basis, the project helped galvanize the local economy.
The school buildings are arranged in such a way as to facilitate airflow through them and into the courtyard at their centre. This passive approach to natural ventilation is complemented by an array of solar panels, an electricity powerhouse – housed in a cylindrical tower – and a natural well that the architects helped dig, which helps irrigate the new fruit trees that now grow on what was considered non-arable land. Not only does this remarkable project bolster the region’s educational infrastructure, it nurtures its environment from the ground up.
Near Southern England’s New Forest, the AL_A-designed Maggie’s Centre Southampton is imbued with gentle beauty. The most recent of over 30 Maggie’s Centre locations, the new building combines Scandinavian decor and woodland landscapes, designed to be a soothing environment for cancer patients and their families. At Maggie’s, it’s all about experiential healing. As they arrive, visitors and patients wander through a meditative garden with an array of wildflowers and local vegetation.
Conceived by landscape designer Sarah Price, the garden serves more than a purely aesthetic purpose: “There’s no doubt that looking at ‘nature’ has a positive impact on how we feel,” says Price. The building itself, meanwhile, is inspired by Mies Van Der Rohe’s courtyard house plans.
Each ceramic wall is glazed on one side and bare on the other, while in parts, the facade is clad in mottled stainless steel, reflecting and refracting the surrounding landscape — almost like a rippling body of water. With four blade walls made of dual-toned ceramic, the place has a residential feel, undoubtedly imparting comfort to those who inhabit it.
In 1952, journalist Tom Patterson received a grant for $125. It was a catalyst for the fulfillment of Patterson’s long-held dream to create a Shakespeare festival in the Ontario town of Stratford. Just five years later, the showpiece Festival Theatre was inaugurated, giving the fledgling festival a permanent home for decades to come. Almost 70 years later, the festival marks its evolution with a remarkable new theatre designed by Toronto-based architect Siamak Hariri.
Framed by greenery and walking paths, the new Tom Patterson Theatre takes inspiration from the neighbouring Avon River and the surrounding landscapes. Inside, the river’s folds and eddies are translated into intimate spaces for conversation, informal gathering and education, enriched by Hariri’s signature palette of wood, brick and natural stone — and accented with the homey romance of a fireplace. Complementing a majestic stage built from Canadian birch, the undulating complex is more than a hub of the arts: It is a warm and welcoming public hearth.
From affordable housing to infrastructure and places of worship, we round up the projects that defined the year in design.