Grain silos turned cutting-edge art venue. A moving monument to the Afro-American experience. The most eye-popping skyscraper in Asia (which is saying a lot). The past decade’s top architecture in terms of innovation and effect was as wide-ranging (and far-flung) as it was boundary-busting. Some of it was produced by Pritzker laureates (Koolhaas, Nouvel, Siza, SANAA) doing what they do, while others brought much-deserved recognition to equally talented future stars (take a bow, Ole Schereen). Following are Azure’s picks for the best and most influential buildings of the last 10 years, in order of completion.
Comparisons to Swiss cheese aside, the Rolex Learning Center by Japanese duo SANAA isn’t easily defined. Programmatically, it’s a 20,000-square-metre student hub (for the Swiss university Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) that coalesces libraries, gathering and social spaces, study environments, cafés, outdoor patios and more on a single floor. Conceptually, it’s a gracefully undulating structure (anchored in four corners and pierced by ovoid pores) that rises and dips as if forming a secondary landscape. And structurally, it’s an entirely separate feat involving a poured-in-place concrete shell with a lightweight steel and timber roof.
It should come as no surprise, then, that principals Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa cinched the Pritzker Prize only a few months later, propelled largely by the momentum of this project. The Rolex Learning Centre epitomizes what the pair, both separately and in their collaborative practice, do best: non-hierarchical programming paired with a muted architecture of striking transparency and blankness. At the decade’s opening, it was a paradigm-shifting structure, its design a calculated respite from the parametricism that dominated prior years.
“The CCTV headquarters may be the greatest work of architecture built in this century.” So wrote the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff when Rem Koolhaas’s flagship for the Chinese media giant was completed at the beginning of the 2010s. Composed of two 49-storey towers connected by a 75-metre cantilever, “Big Pants,” as Beijing residents ended up christening the building, effectively thumbed its nose at the skyscraper typology. The mega-complex, encompassing 473,000 square metres in total, was structurally engineered by Cecil Balmond of Arup to be supported by a cage-like steel frame visible on the exterior as diagonal slashes across grey glass.
From the outset, the CCTV project generated controversy because the client was widely regarded as a purveyor of government propaganda. Yet Koolhaas had a rose-tinted view of the future back in 2011, writing that China “can be the first nation to create truly open standards for its technological infrastructure spreading connectivity and opportunity.” Hmm…
It was the project that launched a forest’s worth of air-scrubbing plant-covered towers. And it’s still, more than half a decade after its erection, just as startling in person as it is in images. Milanese architect Stefano Boeri’s hometown “vertical forest,” a pair of residential high-rises designed in conjunction with agronomists Emanuela Borio and Laura Gatti, is without a doubt one of the most influential architectural projects not just of the decade but perhaps of the coming century. Beyond its arresting look, it has reinstated the importance of nature in even the most urban of contexts, almost single-handedly advanced the horticultural technology available for vegetated structures and, most significant of all, demonstrated that a large building complex can enhance instead of degrade a densely packed city’s environment, raising the bar in metropolises worldwide.
Of course, the complexity and expense of installing and maintaining a sky-high wood – Bosco Verticale’s plant inventory includes 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs and 15,000 other species, all of which require an advanced irrigation system and the sophisticated wiring of their roots the buildings’ fabric in order to survive – make such projects the purview (at least for now) of only the wealthiest occupants and settings. And the beneficial effect of all those air-borne plants is mitigated, as the British landscape architect Tim Waterman wrote in Azure in 2018, if a complex sits (as Bosco Verticale does) above an underground parking garage full of polluting Maseratis.
Nonetheless, Boeri’s groundbreaking construct, as Waterman also acknowledged, has had a positive net effect on the global greening of buildings. “Technologies that make good connections between landscape processes and building systems,” he wrote, “are being developed and perfected [as a result of the project]. A sophisticated interdependence is evolving.”
This is the most important American building of the 21st century so far. When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, the striking institution “changed the center of gravity” on the National Mall, according to Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott. But it did more than that. In form and function, the museum transforms both the city of Washington and the American mythologies that its older monuments and museums so forcefully espouse.
Throughout the museum, the chronologies of African American history are charted out in devastating clarity. The architecture tells a story, too: The building’s circuit conveys visitors from a subterranean darkness evocative of slave ships to the light-filled optimism of the early Obama era. As the history inside unfolds, framed views of D.C. landmarks emerge through strategic cutouts in the bronze scrim facade. After witnessing Emmett Till’s simple coffin, can the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument ever look the same? The design stakes its position on the Mall to create powerful new vantage points, indelibly weaving the museum’s curatorial narrative into the wider world. It’s a breathtaking achievement – and a hell of a building.
Even before it was built, the Abu Dhabi outpost of France’s venerable Louvre museum had already captured the imaginations of design students and practitioners the world over. In 2007, when the first renderings of the dappled “rain of light” falling into the open-air galleries from the monumental lattice-work dome above were released, the unprecedented complex was equal parts engineering-feat-in-waiting and a herald of the architectural ambitions of the oil-rich Gulf states, where a host of starchitect-level designers were also helming offshoots for other leading cultural institutions nearby.
Drawing inspiration from souks and Islamic geometry, the more-than-24,000-square-metre archipelago of 55 assembled white cubes (encompassing 23 galleries, an auditorium and a children’s museum) on the waters of man-made Saadiyat Island finally opened its doors a decade later. Topped by a dramatic 5,200-ton, 180-metre steel dome that casts a new light (figuratively and literally) on the threads connecting East and West, Nouvel’s museum is the architectural companion to the exhibitions within: a sensitive glimpse into the past through the lens of the present.
Like Zaha Hadid’s al-Wakrah Stadium in Qatar, however, the building also inspired important discussions around the treatment of migrant workers on construction sites throughout the Persian Gulf. As the region’s rapid architectural expansion continues, then, the Louvre Abu Dhabi isn’t just another Nouvel triumph, but also a looming reminder of the unseen labour – and human labourers – behind such landmarks.
When Thomas Heatherwick was hired to transform a derelict complex of Cape Town grain silos into a new museum devoted to contemporary art from Africa, he and his client, V&A Waterfront, envisioned a cathedral-like space that would draw cultural pilgrims from across the continent and beyond. The defining feature of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – named after philanthropist and ex-Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz, whose extensive art collection is on loan to the institution for 20 years – is certainly worthy of reverence: A vast, 10-storey atrium that was hewn, honeycomb-style, from the 42 soaring tubes that made up the original apartheid-era structure, it has been likened to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família.
But there is also so much more to the project, which is perhaps the past decade’s most creative example of large-scale adaptive reuse. The uppermost level of the museum, which includes more than 100 gallery spaces across seven public floors, is distinguished by a massive grid of “pillow” windows that offer commanding views. This grid is repeated on the adjoining building, where the grain elevator once operated. It now houses the Silo, a 28-room luxury hotel that soars six floors above the museum and also serves as a perfect roost for all of those anticipated pilgrims, of which there have been many.
It might seem odd to include a chapel among the amenities of a holiday retreat, but Capela do Monte, part of the off-grid Monte da Charneca Center in Portugal’s Algarve region, is beautiful enough to compel even the most committed hedonists onto their knees. Designed on a hillside by Pritzker Prize winner Álvaro Siza Viera, the small but monolithic structure, which is accessed by a single footpath, is distinguished by its boxy U-shaped facade. Beyond it is an entrance lobby open to the sky, from which abundant natural light descends to illuminate a series of tile murals depicting the life of Jesus. Based on sketches made by Siza, the bespoke tiles were crafted by Viúva Lamego, a century-and-a-half-old manufacturer headquartered in Lisbon. Inside the chapel, more tiles (these unembellished) line the walls, which contain simple pale-wood furnishings, including an altar, bench and chairs, crafted by a Porto-based studio.
As the Monte da Charneca Center is self-sufficient, Capelo do Monte was designed to function without running water, electricity or heat. (Its thick walls, for instance, are constructed of perforated bricks coated inside and externally with a limestone render, allowing it to heat and cool itself passively.) As a result, Siza has described the chapel as “a pure architectural project,” focused solely on form and effect. In these speed-driven, hyper-efficient times, such unalloyed exercises are getting rarer and rarer, which is more than a pity. Because as Capelo do Monte – an exemplar in this or any other decade – shows, there is tremendous value in simplicity. And beauty in purity.
In the Thai language, MahaNakhon translates as “great metropolis,” a reflection of the wide range of functions that take place within and around this utterly distinctive Bangkok high-rise, designed by Ole Scheeren when he was with OMA. In addition to the 200 Ritz-Carlton residences in the upper section of the tower, which rises to a total of 78 storeys, the Bangkok Edition Hotel occupies the lower part. In 2018, the building was capped off with a walkable glass platform, dubbed the Skytray, which cantilevers over the city from the rooftop observation deck.
For all its thrills and comforts, though, the tower is best appreciated from a distance. Featuring a dynamic facade formed by ribbons of cutaway balconies at various intervals, it takes full advantage of its tropical setting and expansive views, incorporating oversized terraces and skyboxes that protrude from the building. Indeed, King Power MahaNakhon is more modern sculpture than high-rise, redefining entirely how a skyscraper can look and operate. If Bjarke Ingels is the king of the twisting form, Schereen is a master of the pixelated structure. From its unique skin to its towering functional ambitions, his Bangkok masterwork is simply one of the most original tall buildings to appear in a long time.
Economists call it the “aerotropolis” theory. Popularized by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s 2011 book of the same name, it posits that the global connections provided by airports drive the 21st-century economy much as the seaport, railroad and automobile respectively shaped the world in the centuries before. But aerotropolis or not, it was a decade of unprecedented ambition in airport design, ushering in sparkling showpieces like Moshe Safdie’s Jewel Changi in Singapore and Grimshaw’s New Istanbul Airport. But it’s the striking Beijing Daixing International Airport, completed in the last year of the decade, that most emphatically embodies the new reality of global movement.
As the late Zaha Hadid’s final project, the airport is an appropriately monumental legacy for the architect. A sinuously graceful building on a colossal scale, it fans out from a showpiece central atrium in a flowing, floral array, making it an airport like no other.
But how will history judge aviation’s new wonders? Given the carbon costs of aviation and the stark inequalities of global mobility, are spectacular airports still a thing to celebrate? Hadid has left behind a marvel, but the challenge to decarbonize – and democratize – travel in the 21st century has become more urgent than ever.
BIG’s Copenhill/Amager Bakker power station project is one that we’ve been watching – along with the rest of the world – for years. A waste-to-energy plant envisioned as a model of urban infrastructure, the 41,000-square-metre building welcomes skiers (to slalom down its artificial turf spine), rock climbers (to scale its sides) and visitors of all ages and inclinations to enjoy its sinuous form.
Wrapped in a glass and aluminum facade, its metal bricks measuring 1.2 metres tall by 3.3 metres wide, the twisty building replaces the adjacent existing waste-to-energy plant. The new, higher-tech facility incinerates 440,000 tons of waste annually, converting it into enough clean energy to power and heat 150,000 homes. From ventilation shafts to air intakes, the equipment required for this feat necessitated a novel architectural design that would also provide 10 floors of administrative space and a 600-square-metre education centre for tours, workshops and conferences. And BIG delivered, well, big time: Copenhill is the Danish firm’s ethos of “hedonistic sustainability” writ large.