In the public eye lifestyle
Beyond offering a public service, institutional architecture projects the image of a city. Giving it personality is a way of talking about history, legacy, tradition and also the future. Let us consider some examples.
Architecture has not always received much attention beyond history books and travel guides. But last February, when the Trump government put on paper its intention to decree that from then on all government buildings in the United States that were built or refurbished should follow the neoclassical style – in line with the White House – public architecture began to hit the headlines.
“Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”: the heading of that document, which is still only a draft, deliberately paraphrased the famous slogan that carried the President to the oval office. It was soon hotly disputed, with complaints from the American Institute of Architects and the National Foundation for the Preservation of Places of Historical Interest, and a petition opposing it via change.org. But above all, it focused attention on an aspect of architecture that has the power not only to define a city’s skyline, but also to reflect its identity. “It was a realization that individual states and cities are already commissioning buildings that reflect their constituents’ expectations of pluralistic and progressive architecture,” wrote Matt Shaw, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, contributor to The New York Times and a regular speaker at Yale and Columbia.
It is in this type of construction that the principle of combining functionality and aesthetics, which is fundamental to design in general and architecture in particular, becomes more tangible than in any other (“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong” said Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, who was, incidentally, a pioneer of environmental activism). We are talking about spaces that play an essential role in the life of a city: where institutions are organised, justice is administered, people are educated, culture is promoted and disseminated, a community is created… and where there are buildings that are themselves a visual declaration of identity and heritage. And they do so drawing on the landscape as much as history.
“The circular shape of the building refers to the region’s geography, with Cerro Baul as its geographical and historical reference point. This is the place where the first ancestral cultures were established in south-western Peru,” the Barclay & Crousse team explain, referring to the Moquegua Regional Government Headquarters. A 14,500 m2 project focusing on a compact building which was completed in 2018, linking the central regional offices with a shopping centre, a public school and a municipal sports centre, thus shaping the city’s civic heart.
Designed by Saunders Architecture, the Illusuak Cultural Centre, in the Canadian city of Nain, the northernmost inhabited enclave in the Labrador region, where temperatures in winter plunge to 30 degrees below zero, also uses forms and materials that draw on the tradition and heritage of the area: raised as an elegant block of spruce wood with soft curves, it creates a deliberate contrast with the white mantle that usually covers the region, evoking the shape of its traditional sod houses. The word “Illusuak” in Inuit refers to a type of shelter that was used in the summer, built with the natural materials available, mainly clay, wood and stone. For their project, the Saunders team spent three weeks living with the Inuit community of Nain, taking notes on their way of life. To further involve the community, they presented three projects and invited them to vote for their favourite. Designed as a “community living room”, with an auditorium where classes are given, and there is a cafeteria, a craft shop, work areas and a theatre, “it is designed to fulfil several functional purposes, but also to create a strong cultural link with the creative heritage and vernacular architecture of the Inuit people,” representatives of the studio explain.
In the Ceuta Public Library, Paredes Pedrosa Arquitectos respected the fragment remaining of the medieval city of Merini, making it part of the interior with rows of suspended lamps indicating the direction of the old streets.
The CKK Jordanki Auditorium in the medieval Polish city of Torun, designed by Tenerife architect Fernando Menis, was built using brick, obtained, moreover, from the discards of a local factory. “It is the contemporary interpretation of a traditional material and a reference to the city’s façades and, ultimately, its cultural heritage,” he explains.
The Town Hall of Eysturkommuna, in the Faroe Islands, which also serves as a bridge over the river that passes through the village of Norðragøta, features glazed openings in the floor, which let you see running water, and a roof garden, where you can have picnics and which blends into the surrounding landscape. “The faint line between nature and construction is a central theme in traditional Faroese architecture, so that the spectator has difficulty in distinguishing where the landscape ends and the building begins. The main concept behind the Town Hall’s design is based on the notion of this ephemeral line,” explains Osbjørn Jacobsen, a partner in the Henning Larsen studio and creator of the project.
And, while drawing on, and sometimes reinventing, tradition and legacy is an option, there are also those who look to the future to build a new chapter of local history. This is the case of the Palais de Justice in Paris. Before lack of space forced it to disperse all over the city, its judicial heart shared space with Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité. When the French government put the project out to tender in 2010, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop presented the winning design, a proposal bringing the city’s judicial system together in a single building which is a vision of modernity inside and out. With 38 floors organised in three staggered blocks to minimise its visual impact on the skyline, the glass and aluminium exterior exudes a futuristic halo, while inside many of the fittings have been created with KRION™ in white, a colour that gives a modern look and, according to associate architect Stefano Marrano, was chosen because “we wanted to associate the idea of justice with whiteness.” At 160 metres high, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop construction has not only become the largest judicial complex in Europe, but also a stimulus for the development of the neglected Porte de Clichy neighbourhood.
The same principle was applied in the choice of 1100 KRION™ Snow White for the High Court in Lorient.
But looking to the future does not always mean turning your back on the past. In the Norwegian municipality of Bodø, the Danish ALL (Atelier Lorentzen Langkilde) studio has united two existing buildings (the old town hall and national bank) and combined them with a third which is new to create a completely contemporary town hall, while respecting history. The façades of the original buildings have been preserved, while that of the new building has a faceted structure whose geometry captures the dramatic changes in light within the Arctic Circle. “A link is created between the old and the new,” ALL tell us.
Finding a balance between past, present and future is a fundamental principle that Norman Foster included in the good architect’s manual, and one which is particularly relevant to civic constructions. When the Adeli & de Rham studio designed their project for the renovation of Conference Hall 17 at the UN headquarters in Geneva, there was no doubt about its purpose. “The brief was crystal clear: design a project that gave a subjective view of the UAE,” the team responsible tell us. The starting point in The Emirates Hall was a golden hawk holding the flag, and the seven stars of the seven emirates. While the wooden panels on the walls imitated the undulating sand blown by the wind in the dunes, the overall structure looks to the sky, “the unlimited and infinite sky that represents a futuristic and innovative vision of the country.”
A similar approach was taken by Zaha Hadid Architects in the construction of the Port Authority House in Antwerp. Working hand in hand with Origin, a leading consultant in the renovation and restoration of historical monuments, ZHA discovered that the original plans for the construction of the fire brigade’s headquarters, abandoned many years earlier, when the site was reassigned to the city’s port authority offices, included a tower that had never been built. With that in mind, they designed an extension in the form of a boat, which was positioned on top of the building, increasing the height of the original design without altering what was already built. “We only set one condition when the work was put out for tender, and that was that the original building should be preserved. There were no other requirements,” says Marc Van Peel, President of the Antwerp Port Authority. “We had five finalists who chose modern structures built on the original. They all combined old and new, but Zaha Hadid Architects’ project stood out.” Literally.