Now twenty years old, the AR Emerging Architecture awards persist in their intent as a springboard for young talent – still we must consider what global recognition might mean
The very first winners of the AR Emerging Architecture awards were Norwegian architects Hans Olav Hesseberg + Sixten Rahlff with Eli Synnevåg for a small orphanage in the village of Chhebetar, nestled in the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas. Praised for its ‘modesty and tenderness’, the orphanage was described in the pages of the AR as ‘a small building made by very young architects from one of the richest countries in the world for people of one of the very poorest’.
The jury was unanimous, and the project won not because it was easily adaptable as a model or because its forms and spaces should be copied, but because it showed ‘essential, appropriate architectural imagination, realised with the greatest economy’. Twenty years before Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the judges were committed to the ‘ideal of ecological appropriateness’, looking for architects who did the least damage to the planet when building.
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It is reassuring to see that the initial criteria remain relevant two decades on, despite the changes in both editorial staff and judging panels – new judges are invited each year, and include architects who have been shortlisted in the past. The world’s battles and struggles have certainly intensified: economic inequalities are deepening, the climate crisis reaching the point of no return, and the promise of globalisation is slowly disintegrating. Yet the fundamental commitment to ‘find architecture that seeks to improve human life’ and that is ‘not simply concerned with form and the notion of architecture as an autonomous art’ remains true of both the AR Emerging Architecture awards and the editorial direction of the AR at large.
Established in 1999 by the then-Editor Peter Davey in response to the heavy-hitting Gold Medals, Pritzkers, and other lifetime achievement prizes, the AR Emerging Architecture awards were intended to ‘discover talent in an as yet generally unrecognised generation of architects and designers’. Davey thought there were perhaps already too many architectural awards at the time (what would he make of this today?), but he argued young architects often only received local recognition, at best, for what they constructed.
Over the years, we have insisted in these pages that the awards are a springboard, propelling young talent onto the international stage. The list of past winners and finalists, published last year in full (AR November 2018) is an impressive line-up of many now world-famous practices – the first edition alone included Schmidt Hammer Lassen, Shigeru Ban, Sauerbruch Hutton and Paredes Pedrosa. Several shortlisted names were starting to be recognised at home and found themselves at a tipping point, on the brink of something potentially very big. That’s the precise moment questions inundate the mind: how does an office grow? Is the next step to start doing projects all around the world or should we concentrate on opportunities at home? What does it mean for an architect to think globally, to be global?
‘The purpose of the awards is not to turn architects into ephemeral stars’
There were fewer questions raised about the implications of wealthy European architects undertaking work in Nepal 20 years ago. Educational tourism was not necessarily a source of worry, financing models were not fully investigated, and neo-colonial undertones were largely ignored. Although still undeniably prevalent in architecture today, the AR seeks to unpick some of these tendencies and expose them to scrutiny.
While the main idea, the criteria and even the age limit of 45 years have remained unchanged, the process has evolved slightly. Rather than judging projects from printed boards, we invite the shortlist to present their work to a panel. Architects are generally well trained to deliver well-rehearsed presentations, but the questions that follow help us get beneath the skin of these architects, and understand their deeper motivations and future aspirations.
Built work remains essential, but rather than concentrating on a single completed building, entrants submit a small portfolio – an isolated project could easily not be representative of an existing body of work, or indicative of the direction of travel. Looking into work currently in progress, personal projects and ideas only just germinating offers a privileged insight into the architects’ obsessions and preoccupations.
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Keen to encourage rigorous critical thinking over fleeting attention seeking, we are also interested in understanding the longer-term impact of the awards. How does the journey continue? What happens after the important turning point these young architects found themselves at? Which opportunities arose, and what choices were made? In 2016, we selected four names from our long list of past winners and traced their evolution to understand their motivation. The headline ‘Starmaker?’ was a slight provocation. The purpose of the awards is not to turn architects into ephemeral stars, and we want to remain mindful of the caveats and cautionary tales of pressures generated by early recognition.
Architecture of real quality is hardly about immediate impact. The publication of work and selection of winners comes with an important responsibility. As a herald of talent, it is a celebration of pioneering ideas and risk-taking, a commitment to inspire the profession and inject fresh thinking into times of economic meltdown and ecological devastation – with crisis can come opportunities. Emerging Architecture is a celebration of ingenuity, the realisation that serious considerations can be tackled with a spirit of optimism.
This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today