Beyond Buildings


Holcim Award: Greener Pastures

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Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of serving on the jury for the Holcim Sustainable Architecture Awards. Now the Holcim Foundation (the nonprofit branch of one of the world’s largest concrete companies) has announced the winners, and I can reveal all—well, at least report on an interesting discussion we had during the jury meeting.


What I can tell you is that we finally seem to be moving beyond technological quick fixes or a first-do-no-harm defensiveness into greener pastures. Many of the projects were smart in ways that will truly help the planet. All of us were excited about the award winners, especially as they were from such different parts of the world and represented such different attitudes towards what makes sustainable architecture.


Kere School. Courtesy Holcim Foundation.


The Gold Award went to Kere Architecture’s secondary school in Burkina Faso. There was nothing not to like about this use of simple materials and straightforward design to create what we all thought would be luminous spaces where children in this isolated, rural area will be able to receive an education. The wood, straw, and mud structures will use the sun and wind for power, and we are pretty sure Kere will pull it off, because he has done similar projects already. Our only reservation was that this architect, born in Burkina Faso, living and working in Berlin, and collaborating with German designers, has already received so many accolades for the work he has done in his native country.


Brazil Music School. Courtesy Holcim Foundation.


Urban Think Tank designed a “civic infrastructure hub” for Grotao, Sao Paolo. A “music factory” that shelters areas for sports and play underneath spaces lifted up above a sloping park, the building will be a concrete frame. Though monumental, it will turn the basic methods of construction of the houses all around it into a civic form. The park will help stem erosion and provide not only passive green space, but also opportunities for all kinds of other activities.


Berlin Pool. Courtesy Holcim Foundation.


The Bronze Award led to some discussion. Specifically, Mario Botta and I disagreed about the contributions a swimming pool on the back of Berlin’s Museum Island would make to either the city’s ecology (it is actually part of a wider remediation project) or the social life of anybody except tourists and the yuppies now occupying the former East Berlin. I had and have no doubt that this will be a fun place to go swim, and that Tim Edler and Realities United are good architects, but I would have loved to have seen some projects in our awards list that were less about polite form and making things a little better, and more about critical transformation.


You can only give so many awards, I am sorry to say, and we gave found three great ones. Certainly none of the three awardees are example of traditional form-making, and their nature as objects is secondary to the effects they achieve. That already was for me a real mark of sustainability. Instead of adding gizmos and gadgets to buildings, or mitigating the effects of construction, at least two of these projects were integrated operations that will improve the social and ecological situation in which they appeared. If the Gold Award winner still was a more traditional building, it made possible and framed such a fundamental act of gathering that we imagined it would lead to greater sustainability in the future.


What I had hoped for beyond the achievements we awarded was a clearer focus on the reuse and renovation of what we have already made, and in such a manner that it does not necessary equate newness with clean lines and abstraction. There were several projects of this sort in competition, but we collectively decided on the great merits of the prizewinners. Next time, I hope for more rip and tear, reuse and rethinking.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.