In the good old days, the P/A Awards were dominated by small houses, interior renovations, and wild ideas about whole cities. Architects who are now designing the most significant civic structures in the world, such as Thom Mayne, first received validation by receiving multiple awards for small projects and grand schemes. This year, the P/A Awards went to 3-million-square-foot cities, large museums, and towers connected by a bridge more than 200 feet above the air. The smallest project is a 24-unit residential project.
The projects are good—some of them are even beautiful—but they do not, at least to this viewer, evidence great originality or experimentation. Their very size mitigates against such deliberate weirdness. It is more difficult take chances when you are proposing a concert hall, a museum, or the carefully calibrated skin over an architecture school. Instead, what these projects evidence is the discipline’s sophistication. That skin, designed by Office dA with Adamson Associates Architects, is a brilliant solution to the question of how to densify an already-packed architecture school. Preston Scott Cohen shows, in his Taiyuan Museum, that he has learned how to not so much untangle the Gordian Knot, as to use it for its full potential to let public spaces and galleries interpenetrate. Similarly, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro intertwines a public pathway up the hill with indoor and outdoor projection spaces.
If there is one thing that ties many of these projects together it is that they break open the box even while (except in Cohen’s case) respecting it. Instead of having recourse to expressive shapes, or deforming surfaces into continual forms with the help of the computer, they use circulation and display elements so that the building’s edge becomes not just a programmatic container, but the core of the user’s experience. Nowhere is this truer than in the River Center Library, by Trahan Architects. The simple expedient of moving the circulation to the perimeter exposes the library’s typology and lets the designers modulate the façade into a stack of continuous curves.
The most utopian version of this scheme of showcasing open space over program is Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture's Matrix Gateway Complex, proposed for Dubai, which contains an entire city suspended within a three-dimensional grid. If it is ever built, it will bring the sensuality of Avatar to the dreams of continuous and multifunctional spaces of which technologically oriented architects have dreamed for so long.
None of this is necessarily brand new, and a cynic could find precedents for almost all of these buildings (the Cohen building reminds one of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome; the Matrix both of New Babylon and MVRDV’s 3D City; and Steven Holl’s LM Harbor Gateway of his own project in Beijing, for instance), but then one of the greater truths is that there is nothing truly new, whether in architecture or in any other field of culture. What matters is that all these schemes add incrementally and remarkably to what others have done with space and form.
What is missing is the kind of completely unexpected angle, form, or space that the P/A Awards showed at their best—when they concentrated on smaller things. What I wish for is a way to, in the words of singer Missy Elliott, “flip it and reverse it.” It is hard to flip a museum, a library, or an apartment tower. “To what then do we aspire?” asked Aldo Rossi once; “Certainly to small things,” was his answer. Architects (and jurors) might want to ask what worlds they might find in a grain of sand.