Architecture is a reflection of the zeitgeist. As the year comes to a close, and we conclude our annual tradition of celebrating the best in design around the world — including public spaces, interiors, products, and houses — the dominant themes of 2023 are beginning to emerge. As far as aesthetic trends, the humble brick appears to have made a resurgence, from the Stirling Prize-winning John Morden Centre to Normandy’s Maroquinerie de Louviers, while a renewed focus on material expression and craftsmanship was evident across all typologies.
But, of course, aesthetics alone do not define the best architecture projects of 2023. Our favourite buildings also embody commendable sustainability efforts (take 3XN’s brilliant adaptive reuse of a Sydney office tower, for instance), and a strong social ethos (see MVRDV’s revamp of a communist monument into a community hub in Albania). While all formally stunning in their own ways, each project represents the values we wish to carry forward into the new year and beyond.
- Quay Quarter Tower, Sydney by 3XN/BVN
- International Rugby Experience, Limerick by Níall McLaughlin
- The Leaf, Winnipeg by KPMB Architects
- John Morden Centre, London by Mæ
- Powerhouse Arts, Brooklyn by Herzog & de Meuron
- Pyramid of Tirana by MVRDV
- Colegio Reggio School, Madrid by OFFPOLINN
- Maroquinerie de Louviers, Normandy by Lina Ghotmeh
- AKG Art Museum, Buffalo by OMA
- Gabriel García Márquez Library, Barcelona by SUMA Arquitectura
You’d never know it. On the Sydney skyline, the Quay Quarter Tower asserts a distinctly contemporary presence of sleek, angular glass and steel volumes. Underneath, however, the 49-storey, 206-metre office complex is a heritage structure like no other. Designed by Danish architects 3XN in partnership with local firm BVN, the project saw the nearly 50-year-old AMP Centre effectively upcycled into light-filled and flexible new workspaces. As 3XN partner Lasse Lind puts it, “We grafted a new building onto an existing one.”
Built in 1976, the AMP Centre was built for a bygone culture of office work. It was “a machine for people to sit in,” Lasse told Simon Lewsen in Azure, lacking the sociable open spaces that are essential to both collaborative work and employee wellness. But while the layout — not to mention the electrical and mechanical systems — needed updating, demolishing the aging tower would be a waste of embodied carbon. The designers opted to strip the building down to its concrete bones, all while expanding its floor plates with a creative 45,000 square-metre addition via a first of its kind rebuild-retrofit project.
In addition, the light-filled tower is fronted by new retail at grade, animating a business district where the action tends to disappear after the daily commute. Moreover, the retail podium is topped by a rooftop park and café — and a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour.
It’s no wonder that our initial coverage of this project was one of our most-read stories (and viral Instagram posts) of the year. With his design for the International Rugby Experience in Limerick, Ireland, local architect and 2022 Stirling Prize Winner Níall McLaughlin struck gold yet again. Located in the heart of the city’s Georgian Quarter, the interactive museum and cultural institution sits on the edge of a conservation area. Thus, McLaughlin’s approach necessitated a sensitivity to the local context. The resulting project is informed by the surrounding Georgian architecture, fitting in seamlessly amongst the nearby churches and city hall.
While the immersive exhibitions designed in collaboration with Event Communications are sure to be a draw (along with the retail space selling local artisanal wares, the café which broadcasts live rugby games, and several multi-purpose spaces which host cultural and civic events), visitors flock to the International Rugby Experience for the architecture alone. From the street, the façade’s deep vertical brick piers and horizontal pre-cast concrete elements boast a sculptural quality. The monochromatic palette of handmade red bricks and pigmented concrete carries indoors, the structure becoming more complex as you ascend through the building’s seven stories. McLaughlin masterfully employs natural light to animate the scalloped brick walls with an angelic glow.
Throughout, McLaughlin has layered many metaphors into the architecture. The exposed masonry structure, he explained “shows the way that the individual parts are knitted together to show a kind of strength.” At the top of the building, meanwhile, the glazed public hall offers panoramic views under a vaulted concrete ceiling, which evokes both the torsional forces of rugby and the strong social connections within the rugby community. With all the grandeur of a cathedral, this masonry marvel has turned the celebration of rugby into a religious experience.
Bringing a tropical respite to one of Canada’s coldest cities, The Leaf is the newest landmark in Winnipeg’s sprawling Assiniboine Park – one that orchestrates a beautiful merger of nature with building technology. Designed by KPMB Architects (in close partnership with Architecture49, Blackwell Structural Engineers and HTFC Planning & Design), the organically shaped building is wrapped in glass – as most conventional greenhouses are – but deviates from that expected typology in one significant way – a radical spiralling roof made from EFTE. Fashioned after the Fibonacci sequence, the spectacular structure mimics the spiral net of a nautilus shell or sunflower and caps four separate yet interconnected botanical biomes.
“We wanted to minimize shadow and maximize sunlight,” said KPMB architect and partner Mitchell Hall of the material choice, noting the drastic 80-degree temperature fluctuations of the region also came into consideration. To that end, three layers of the transparent and flexible material are supported by a 33-metre-tall steel diagrid and stitched together to create a quilt-like expanse where each individual “cushion” is continuously filled with air. This inventive setup optimizes solar gain and maintains a consistent thermal performance for the two extreme climates inside – the Hartley and Heather Richardson Tropical Biome and the Mediterranean Biome. Sightlines were kept clear by relegating the mechanical and electrical components to the very top of the structure, while natural ventilation and an open-loop geothermal system contribute to the building’s overall sustainability.
Along with the more than 12,000 flowers, trees and shrubs in the botanical gardens are an upper-level canopy walk that leads to the Shirley Richardson Butterfly Garden, and the ground-level Babs Asper Display House, a gallery space of sorts for seasonally rotating displays of artistic floral arrangements. As was KPMB’s intention, The Leaf has become a “transcendent experience, one that centres nature and sustainability and is welcoming to everyone.”
Around the world, the prospect of how to adequately care for aging populations represents a daunting societal and healthcare challenge. As old models face their limitations, new paradigms are arising that combine the provision of consistent medical observation and care with dignified living. The John Morden Centre is a stellar example of a project designed with the express intent to better serve its needs-based community.
To augment quotidian life for the residents of the Morden College retirement community, Mæ Architects created the daycare centre to bridge existing and new services into a holistic ensemble. The centre’s architecture is defined by a CLT frame and a warm tapestry of brickwork, as well as a distinct roof with soaring chimneys that knit the project into its context. An addition to the quadrangle campus of Morden College, and linked to it via a colonnade, it contains medical facilities as well as elegant and joyful public spaces, including a dining room, a chapel and a library. These zones are connected to each other – and to landscaped gardens – via another, meandering, colonnade. When it won the 2023 RIBA Stirling Prize, jury chair Ellen van Loon noted the project’s potential for “delivering a bold and hopeful model for the design of health and care centres for the elderly.” Here’s to the evolution of care models that beautifully accommodate the needs of aging populations.
Artists flock to urban centres for their creative energy — but cities don’t always make it easy for them to thrive. With New York rents soaring, it can be hard enough just to rent an apartment, let alone to lease a dedicated studio space. Enter Powerhouse Arts. Funded by philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz (to the tune of $180 million USD), the Brooklyn creative incubator operates as a membership-based centre combining wood and metal shops with print, ceramics and textile studios. (Rentable event spaces provide another stream of revenue to help with operations.) In the process, it helps the city’s creative scene to better tackle the accelerating threat of gentrification.
Yet as commendable as the complex is for the state-of-the-art facilities it provides and the livelihoods it supports, it is equally remarkable for demonstrating the merits of adaptive reuse. Once a power station but abandoned since the 1950s, the building has received a radical yet respectful transformation by Herzog & de Meuron (working in partnership with PBDW Architects). As Adrian Madlener discussed in our feature on the project, this reinvention maintains many of the original building’s rich layers — from its graffiti walls to its core structural elements. Meanwhile, a reinforced concrete addition takes the place of the previously demolished boiler house, adopting a red oxide and stone aggregate coating to tie into the weathered-brick exterior of the original structure it adjoins. Given the building’s harbourfront location, it also benefits from a new sheet-pile seawall structure that is prepared to protect against future storm surges. When the waves of neighbourhood change roll in, it helps for artists to have a safe haven.
MVRDV’s adaptive reuse project in Tirana, Albania preserves the city’s turbulent history under an oppressive dictatorship while simultaneously transforming a tomb of the past into a tool for the future. Originally designed as a museum for the now-deceased communist dictator Enver Hoxha, The Pyramid of Tirana is as visually exciting as it is deeply symbolic. The pyramid has had many uses over the years, from a NATO base during the 1999 Kosovo war to a nightclub. Today, it serves as a mixed-use cultural hub for Albanian youth.
With tall sweeping staircases, the Pyramid of Tirana rises into the sky. During its years of disuse, local kids often skateboarded or slid down its steep slopes and MVRDV’s design reflects this, maintaining one beloved stretch of slide. At the summit of the pyramid, a looking glass allows both the onlookers and the sun to peek into the interior. A new composition of colourful steel boxes holds cafes, classrooms, offices, festivals and more. MVRDV’s powerful design creates pockets of community and vibrant cultural space that symbolizes Tirana out of tyranny.
In Spain, architecture firm OFFPOLINN dreams up an enchanting haven of learning for young minds. As followers of the Reggio Emilia approach, a pedagogical method for children’s empowerment developed in the Italian village of the same name, the Colegio Reggio inspires and invites curiosity, exploration, and self-motivated learning with the belief that even the youngest children should be treated as the protagonists of their own lives. Fittingly, OFFPOLINN’s design embeds this playful, didactic ideology into the school’s very construction.
With a distinctive yellow facade featuring rounded windows like portholes in a ship, Colegio Reggio immediately sparks curiosity. 80 per cent of the concrete and steel building is covered in dense cork acting as both a sustainable energy-saver and a home for wildlife from lichens and mosses to butterflies and bats, inviting students to organically explore the natural world. Exposed pipes, wires, vents, and other mechanisms allow students to observe and learn spontaneously. Each of the facility’s six floors hosts a different age group: the ground floor, with the most access to the land, hosts the youngest children, the middle floors are home to older children, stimulated by water and soil tanks, and the eldest students share the top floor with a thriving greenhouse. With teachers everywhere, from birds and plants to the very walls themselves, the Colegio Reggio is a magical space to grow and learn.
Paris-based Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh has coined the phrase “archeology of the future” to describe her growing oeuvre, which is strongly driven by the local contexts in which she practices. Her marvellous new building for the Maroquinerie de Louviers in Normandy, which employs 260 Hermès artisans trained in leather goods, is a prime example. As we wrote in September, the low-slung building was inspired equal parts by the brand’s famous silk carré and by the graceful, gravity-defying movement of horses – as first captured by photographer Eadweard Muybridge – interpreted as a series of arches that animate the perimeter walls. Its bricks were made with soil from the site and carefully laid by master masons. (The Belgian landscape architect Erik Dhont also excavated the soil, transforming the toxic landscape into a healthy, thriving one comprising three hectares of undulating gardens that retain most of the site’s original trees.)
Arches of varying expanses open onto the interior courtyards, the central one planted with an oak tree flanked by two slender green spaces on either side. These grand gestures imbue the contemporary structure with a timeless character and a sense of having always been there. The project’s green moves, meanwhile, render it akin to a modern machine: it is positioned to take full advantage of natural light and ventilation, making up for the difference with geothermal energy (13 probes at a depth of 150 metres) and more than 2,300 square metres of solar panels. A new factory created for a time-honoured craft, the Maroquinerie de Louviers shows how to elegantly bridge past and future.
Buffalo’s AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox) has long been respected for its remarkable collection of modern art, which unites works by Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró and other masters of the 20th century. As you might hope, each of these historic canvases is given due respect in the rehang that has accompanied the institution’s latest expansion, led by Shohei Shigematsu and OMA’s New York team working alongside Cooper Robertson. And yet as we wrote in our September issue story about the project, it’s likely to be the museum’s more recent acquisitions — a 6.1-metre wide canvas by Mickalene Thomas, or a button-clad sculpture by Nick Cave — that leave the strongest impression after a visit to the revamped AKG.
Inside the new Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building, a gemlike building draped in a “veil” of over 540 triangular glass panels, expansive galleries create ideal viewing environments for admiring large-scale contemporary spectacles. The structure also feels refreshingly wide-open to its surroundings, thanks to an outer perimeter that wraps around its more focused interior galleries. In terms of materials, totemic marble frames around the building’s oversized doorways combine with industrial accents — such as the steel railings that follow a curving staircase — to result in a setting that feels grand and never stiff. Indeed, the Gundlach Building seems intent on demonstrating that art can be fun — along with being powerful, beautiful and inspiring. In this way, it becomes a looser, almost surrealist abstraction of the stately architecture that define the AKG’s other two structures, the neoclassical Wilmers Building (which the Gundlach Building connects to through a serpentine glass passageway) and the modernist Knox Building.
Both of these older structures have received respectful facelifts of their own as part of the AKG’s larger revitalization project. To wit, the grand staircase at the Wilmers Building has been reinstated, connecting to a new front lawn that replaces a former surface parking lot. Meanwhile, the biggest new architectural statement at the Knox Building is actually an artwork: Common Sky, by Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann of Studio Other Spaces, creates a canopy over the Knox Building’s formerly open-air courtyard to introduce a new all-season social hub. Considered altogether, the rebooted AKG accomplishes a rare artistic feat: introducing a bold addition with its own identity while also managing to strengthen the design of the overall.
With its playful yet rational design, the Gabriel García Márquez Library is the perfect ode to its namesake — the celebrated Colombian author who popularized the literary genre of magical realism. Designed by emerging Madrid practice SUMA Arquitectura, its form recalls a pile of stacked books, with a façade of folded prefab fibreglass pieces that evoke the books’ pages. The library has been a welcome addition to Barcelona’s long-neglected Sant Marti district, which was previously lacking in public infrastructure.
The building’s muscular mass-timber structure works to frame stunning spaces both inside and out; it cantilevers over the main avenue to form a welcoming portico that serves as an urban living space and welcomes visitors inside. The interior is organized around a central triangular atrium which bathes reading rooms in natural light — and serves as a solar chimney for natural ventilation. The atrium’s impressive spans were achieved using a hybrid spatial truss system comprised of CLT panels, glulam pillars and diagonal steel suspenders. While the structure is undoubtedly complex (the architects utilized a manufacturing model to develop the system before testing and refining it on-site), it gives the appearance of being completely effortless, with connections and hardware carefully hidden from view.
“For us, structure is not just a matter of solving the load requirements of the building with the minimum amount of matter. It creates connections and participates with the envelope and the furniture to create an atmosphere in which every space is different,” SUMA principal and co-founder Guillermo Sevillano told us in our initial coverage of the project. “The whole thing works as a very complex ecosystem in which you cannot take out one part without altering the others.”
From a humble seniors centre to monumental cultural institutions, the best architecture projects of the year exhibited both formal prowess and strong social spirit.