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The AR's Alternative Designs of the Year

In a sideways take on the Designs of the Year Awards, James Haldane introduces The Architectural Review’s pick of products, technology and buildings that change lives for the better

In a ceremony at a central London hotel on Monday night, the Design Museum announced the winner of its distinguished Designs of the Year competition. Drawn from a shortlist of 70, the prestigious title was awarded to Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan. Immediately, eyebrows were raised – is this really the design to represent 2014? With its parametric gills and glaring whiteness, Azerbaijan’s newest architectural icon polarises opinion and reinforces many stereotypes – except for that concerning architecture and gender. Yet the expanding controversy has largely bypassed aesthetics, focusing instead on the regime’s human rights record.

As early as 2012, a Human Rights Watch report raised concerns over the blunt force being used to advance Azerbaijan’s oil-fuelled urban regeneration. ‘The government has pursued a programme of illegal expropriation and forced eviction across the city, without proper compensation of its residents,’ wrote Giorgi Gogia of HRW. The new cultural centre commission also carries a set of uncomfortable historical links to further exacerbate concerns. Heydar Aliyev – the project’s honouree – once held the most senior position of any Azerbaijani in the Soviet Union before being forced from office in 1987, amid allegations of corruption. He happens to be the current president’s father. The final addition to this perfect PR storm is the reminder that Zaha Hadid Architects last year purchased the Design Museum’s current building to facilitate its relocation to a new home, freshly refurbished by John Pawson Architects.

In the midst of this cacophony of insinuations and attacks, what’s required is a tonic to cleanse the aesthetic (and possibly moral) palate. Presented below therefore is an original and alternative list of design contenders from the past year, overlooked by the selection panel in their search to fill the competition’s seven categories. Ranging from wearable devices to emoji icons, they remind us to look beyond the extraordinary, to recognise the true ingenuity of the everyday.


ARCHITECTURE: Cardboard Cathedral, Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban began developing his paper-based ‘emergency architecture’ over two decades ago, but the Cardboard Cathedral represents a maturation of his approach and ethos. Created in response to the earthquake that hit New Zealand in February 2011 and killed 185 people, the building highlights the unifying power of design for local and global communities.

Ban arrived at the site of the previous neo-Gothic cathedral in Christchurch’s central square within one month of its violent destruction, and offered his services to the project free of charge. His construction, originally intended to be temporary, has met with such warm approval from its Anglican congregation that it is to remain permanently. This makes the Cardboard Cathedral the first major civic building completed in the Christchurch rebuilding efforts.


DIGITAL: Gravity Pad, Guillaume Couche, Daniela Paredes Fuentes, Pierre Paslier and Oluwaseyi Sosanya

It’s not easy to keep a design simple when refining a new technology, as the erratic field of rapid prototyping makes clear. The arrival this year of 3D-printing pens demonstrates that although advances are always being sought, solutions can quickly become over-complicated.

An alternative answer proposed by the Gravity Pad is to take the experience of sketching still further into the digital world, but without the convolutedness of CAD software.

The device takes the familiar utility of a graphics tablet, but combines it with flexibility of augmented reality. Developed as a functional prototype by a group of students at the Royal College of Art in London, the Gravity Pad looks set to elevate augmented reality technology from an amusing gimmick to a purposeful application.



FASHION: Atmospheric Reentry, Maiko Takeda

As the protégé of designers Philip Treacy and Issey Miyake, milliner Maiko Takeda represents a combination of traditional craft skill with an avant-garde vision. ‘Starting from the simple question of what it would feel like to wear a cloud’, her aim with Atmospheric Reentry was to create a collection that ‘blurs the boundaries of surrounding space for the wearer’. The work also carries synesthetic references, as Takeda drew additional inspiration from Robert Wilson’s 1976 production of Philip Glass’s opera, Einstein on the Beach.


FURNITURE: The Public Office Landscape, Herman Miller and Yves Behar

Counteracting the contemporary cult of originality in design, Living Office seeks to rescue a much-maligned and often misappropriated idea from the past: the office cubicle. Admittedly, it’s not a glamorous brief, but given the hundreds of millions of person-hours spent in offices globally every day, it’s certainly a worthy one.

The endeavour combines the technical knowledge and manufacturing infrastructure of Herman Miller with research from Swiss designer Yves Behar on how to best organise collaborative work environments. The project also sees the furniture-maker taking on a form of consulting role for its corporate companies, rather like IBM’s historic diversification away from hardware manufacture to service provision.


GRAPHICS: 250 New Emojis, The Unicode Consortium

The smiley face is dead, at least in its traditional form of a colon with a bracket. In its place, we have the alphanumeric code that underwrites the now ubiquitous ‘emoji’ icon. Whether on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iChat or any other messaging platform, the emoji has suddenly become communicative device of choice. This year, the industry standards organisation the Unicode Consortium (sadly nothing like as excitingly sinister as they sound) has released 250 new designs.

While you ponder whether the new thumbnail of the Mona Lisa or the Dove of Peace better expresses your sentiments, the humble emoji has ignited a global debate on the future of electronic communication. From highlighting the dominance of the English language on the Internet, to raising issues of fair social and ethic representation, the emoji has been a real conversation starter.


PRODUCT: Moto 360 Watch, Motorola

Ever since comic book hero Dick Tracy sported his two-way wrist radio, the idea of a smartwatch has tantalised the popular imagination. Yet for so long it remained frustratingly out of reach (a Casio wrist calculator loses its appeal pretty quickly). But with developments in microprocessor and battery technology, the wearable future has arrived.

Hardware components, however, are only half the story. While Samsung, LG and Nike have all been exploring this sector for several years, it was Google’s release this year of a wearables-specialised version of its explosively successful Android operating system that’s been most significant. Of the various new devices announced to run on the system, the round-faced Moto 360 is surely the most handsome. Rectangular screens can stay on the desktop, thanks.



The car market is famously resistant to change. As consumers, we’re used to seeing the same fuels, brands and vehicle shapes year after year. It’s for this reason that the BMW i3 represents such a significant development in vehicle design. Released as the first mainstream product from the ‘BMW i’ sub-brand, it underlines the German automaker’s pursuit of a bold electronic future.

The innovative use of a carbon-fibre reinforced plastic for the car’s internal structure minimises weight and energy demands, but has required an enormous investment in retooling from BMW. While competitor vehicles may have made it to market earlier and at lower cost, early reviews suggest that this model will be remembered for marrying strong environmental credentials with a sophisticated user experience. BMW has proven that electrification needn’t dull the ‘ultimate driving machine’.

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