Steven Song’s View on the World Architecture Festival: Lectures and Panel Discussions

FORM reader and founding partner of think tank team VIUM, Steven Song, attended the World Achitecture Festival, November 3-5 in Barcelona, Spain. What follows are his ruminations on his experience and his overall takeaway from the event:

From November 3 to November 5, 2010, an international group of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, critics, and students convened at Centre de Convencions Internacional de Barcelona (CCIB), the venue for the 2010 World Architecture Festival. World Architecture Festival was launched in 2008 as a celebratory conference that features seminars and panel discussions with leading figures in the field of architecture and urban designers, and competition entries of exemplary projects.

There were well over 500 submitted from all over the world. Shortlisted entries were sorted into different program categories – housing, cultural, sports, office, etc. – and at the end of the conference the jury selected category winners and one “World Building of the Year.”

The conference revolved around the theme of ‘transformations’. The theme was presented in several orientations.

Sean Griffiths of FAT Architecture offered his critique on current architectural practices with their obsession with space-making, and urged architects to celebrate ‘taste.’ Then, learning from his interpretation of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s celebration of the communicative function of architecture, Grffiths argued that semantic codes can be manipulated to create an original and meaningful architecture.

Bjarke Ingels of BIG shared with the participants his view on the future of automobile industry and how it will transform city living. According to Ingels, driverless automobile is the solution to traffic congestions and human errors in driving.

David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap’s team dealt with the theme of transformation via their Neues Museum renovation project. In order for the design team to build upon the existing structure and its site, their original relevance has to be interpreted first. This notion of ‘interpretation of a historic object’ brings architects to an interesting dilemma. We cannot transcend the situated nature of historical understanding. We always find ourselves standing in front of some historical objects, whether it is our immediate site, or a city, or in this case, an existing ruin.

And here, the architects discussed among themselves how best to approach this relic of the past upon which they were to build. When architects have such existing architectural fragments, should the missing parts be filled in with design intentions? Or should they be left barren, purposefully, so that the spectators who come to experience the building can fill in with their imaginations? I tend to like an approach that lies somewhere between the two ends, because understanding of an object from the past is always understanding it as something. Reproduction of the original meaning (as a relic of the past) is impossible and such prejudgment in the viewpoint of our present-day understanding makes interpretation possible and richer in meaning. So leaving a wiggle room for the viewer’s participation allows for the true experience of art. And such experience can be more interesting and positively more complex by fusing another layer of structure and fragments –by the new architects – to be read and deciphered by the viewers.

Joe Noero of Noero Wolff Architects explored transformation of an apartheid-era township through his civic/cultural project in a formerly Boer War concentration camp area – Red Location in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Notice the saw-tooth roof factory in this poster and juxtapose it with the roof of Noero’s museum — the saw-tooth profile of industrial buildings is interpreted by South Africans, and now by Noero, as a historic symbol of righteous battle for freedom and revolution of South African workers and trade unions.

In the panel discussion titled “Transforming Work and Public Space with Art,” Will Alsop presented his design methodology. For him, art and architecture is inseparable, even undistinguishable. At another panel discussion, Paul Finch, the head director of the conference, ‘unofficially’ quoted Alsop, “Form has nothing to do with function” as his response to Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum, “Form ever follows function.”

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