Month: October 2014

On awards (3) Aga Khan Awards for Architecture

Appartments in Tehran, candidate project to the 2013 cycle

I once heard a sentence from an Architecture historian on how difficult it was to define architectural modernity from an Islamic or Arabic viewpoint (I know both terms represent different things, but for what he meant any of them could be used). He said it was still open to debate how an Islamic or Arabic rail station should look like.

In 1977 the Aga Khan, supreme religious leader of the Ismailites, set up an architectural award for projects that could deliver positive results for Islamic societies. The Aga Khan as a character is far from current western stereotypes: he is a monarch without land, spiritual leader for a part of the Islam, living in the west. The aesthetics awarded in this case are quite far from tradition; however, it would be difficult to say what tradition is, as the Islamic world encompasses such a wide array of territories and peoples, with the subsequent array of architectural traditions.

The award is held every three years, and the last edition was that of 2013. The list of awarded architects is not restricted to Muslims, taking into account the names, sometimes well known in the west. There is an Islamic cemetery in the Austrian Alps, a road and public transit project in Rabat- Salé (Morocco), a rehabilitation in Tabriz (Iran), interventions on an historical  city core in Palestine and a heart surgery clinic in Khartoum (Sudan).

I have followed for some years (from a distance…) the results of the awards, and noticed that they encompass a wide geographical variety, addressing contemporary architectural models, without a pre-defined aesthetical framework. I could even say that they seem quality architectures, although I do not know the places in which they sit; and Salé (Morocco) is not Salem (Massachussetts).

In fact I still wonder why an Arab or Islamic rail station should be that different from an European or Christian one… as the later are quite diverse. The idea of a culture that is not a general frame of reference, but rather a rigid set of rules, has always seemed difficult to me.

Biblio (103) CABE

biblio 103-cabe

The last general election in Britain in 2011 brought a wave of public spending reduction in many fields. Among these reductions the Council for Architecture and the Built Environment was considered redundant; it published good examples of design reviews concerning urban planning and architecture. Thank god, the National Archives keep a link to the contents of the old site.

Maps 2014 (38) Where the internet sleeps


John Heideman’s team at the University of California has drawn a map; in fact the study is called “when the internet sleeps”, but as the world is divided in time zones, the map is a good way to render the results. It is an animation showing the answers of an extraordinarily large amount of IP addresses to a ping testing whether they are on or not every 11 minutes for 35 days in 2013. The map shows that during the nights the computers in Europe, Japan, South Korea and  the USA (along with phones and other net-connected devices) are often always on, or at least much more often than in other countries with lower revenue. The reasons are being studied, and the text and graphs of the original website provide more information.


On awards (2) Previous thougths

Uptown, Oakland, a neighborhood selected in 2014 by the American Planning Association through its Great Places in America program

It is probably a good idea to propose some preliminary ideas before getting into the awards issue. I’m going to talk about awards to plans or documents that somehow have been approved by a public administration, or about ideas that have been built; I will even talk about awards to existing urban spaces in which there is no actual new construction. So architectural/urban competitions will not be included; don’t get me wrong, they can be really interesting (there can be interesting issues beyond the famous cases as the 1922 Chicago Tribune or the 1931 Soviet’s Palace competitions), but because I’m right now more interested in what I have described. Under these conditions, whatever receives the award must have been somehow endorsed by a certain amount of agents, resulting so from a (varying) degree of consensus.

An award is nevertheless similar to a competition or even to a school exam; you often see it just in one sense, as a choice between a set of proposals from which you pick the one more fit to the criteria you have set. But often it is also clear that the jury is also put to test (and sometimes fails). The award is a social construction based on a set of conventions, depending on the moment and the vision of the jurors (be it coincident or not with the majority views, even if they are far from reasonable), and even (let me hope that just in a minority of cases…) depending on the personal affinities with given candidates. Even if all the former can be interesting elements, I will not focus on them.

What I will focus on is, in the cases I will portray during the next posts, my vision on the awarded proposals when related to the remaining ones, as seen from a distance (for several reasons I will not talk about awards in my current direct geographical area). Judging their virtues is not always easy (even if sometimes you are tempted to say something is worthless…), but some questions arise that I think are worth sharing.

On awards (1)

Quartier de l’Europe, in Saint-Brieuc (France). The urban regeneration scheme has just received the Robert Auzelle Award

Awards are great as a way to see what is currently seen as interesting or innovative by people on a bussiness. So I propose for the next posts a glimpse on what is the current season of awards regarding urban planning and design, and their links to architecture, sustainable development and other issues.

Biblio (102) Visions and scenarios for the European territory in 2050



ESPON’s team has prepared a report edited by Andreu Ulied which summarizes the main messages from the ET 2050 ESPON project. This is a new iteration of the attempts to define a territorial vision for the continent set to deliver a more sustainable development and a more efficient way to address crisis through territorial governance. The polycentric vision is, as usual, one of the basic elements. There are interesting ideas in the report, but I’m afraid that their full use can only come if we Europeans find a way to get a better government scheme for the Union.

Maps 2014 (37) Genealogical map of Pennsylvania

pennsylvania genealogy


We Europeans tend to think that the US have no history. Incidentally, this happens to be true from an European viewpoint, as their written records are quite recent (a different perspective would give a more complex vision). Recent history shows some curious features. The Genealogical Map of Pennsylvania, compiled in 1933 by the State Government and already in its tenth edition in 1985, shows the complex journey of the subdivision of the state during the XIXth century, and even the XVIIIth century purchases. New York and Pennsylvania where part of the same country, but even so Erie county was ceded by NY to PA to ensure an access to the great lakes…. The map is useful not by locating the main family names, but the administrative divisions that allow you to go to the proper county office. In most of Europe the reference would be the parishes, as they were long the ones having the baptism registration books…

From Alps to Atlantic (7) Finding your way in a peninsula


La Coruña

I was born on a peninsula, and I like that kind of places. Some people from inland areas are somehow puzzled, as for them a coastal city should have water only in one direction, a far cry from what a peninsula is. These same people have a still harder time when they realize that a peninsular city changes its shape constantly; not that inland cities are different, but here the coastline provides a more apparent limit that makes things clearer.

The best way to find your way on a peninsula is to look for a tall element. A lighthouse, a hill, a chimney… if you have no such elements, you are in trouble, as ships can come from anywhere (thank god, in the Cadiz marshes you have shipyards with large cranes, power towers and a new bridge…).

Some have found a loophole: make city grow so much larger than your peninsula that it will no longer be noticed. But this is somehow cheating…


From Alps to Atlantic (6) Lacq


Some years ago, while in Paris, I had a chance to listen to a speech by Jean Paul Lacaze, a French urban planner among those that had been everywhere in all the relevant places, as he explained a curious story. He talked about the French experience with new towns, and the growing complexity of the criteria to choose a place (to erect a city, an industrial area or whatever) in consistency with the sustainable development paradigm. He spoke about the urban planning project linked to the Lacq gas field, in Pyrénées Atlantiques. The field was discovered in 1951 and is somehow the origin of the present Total oil group; there are some parallels with the current shale gas, as it was a hard to obtain resource (high proportion of hydrogen and sulphur), but a relevant input for the national economy. Lacaze said that while the presentation of the project to the press around 1957, the mayor said something like “we chose the better place, no doubt; Jean Paul and I, we drove for an entire day on my car around the municipality to find it”. That is a far cry from what could be considered good practice now, but it is how Mourenx, a city of 7.000 now (10.000 in 1968) appeared.

The gas field closed in 2013, and the economic base of the city suffered, as in many other mining areas, even if there is a set of industrial projects. The city seems clearly a “ville nouvelle” of the first model, even a hybrid with the previous “grand ensemble” model. It is an architecture of lineal multi-storey blocks on a rather regular street grid in which every chance is taken to introduce a curve (and the terrain gives some room for that).

That day, Jean Paul and the mayor chose a relatively flat area surrounded by two large sets of hills giving a certain visual protection when seen from the close industrial areas. Each neighbourhood has a tower, but individual homes have become more important (after all, that is France). The Plan Local d’Urbanisme is being revised, with moderate growth previsions.