Analysis 2015


Mirror, mirror on the wall – does the world need architecture, after all?

Lara Schrijver



Ladies and gentlemen,


It is an honor to be invited to analyze the projects submitted to the Euregional Architecture Prize, and indeed a privilege to receive this invitation for the 25th edition of the prize. Yet beyond celebrating the continued efforts of the EAP in presenting the finest work of five schools (U Liège, UHasselt, FH Aachen, RWTH Aachen and Maastricht Master of Architecture), this occasion feels like a privilege, because it offers a glimpse into the concerns, hopes and fears of upcoming architects – after all, these students represent the next wave of professional architects, who will contribute to shaping our environment over the next 30 years. And indeed, with apologies to Churchill, as such, they will be shaping us.


The projects submitted represent a variety of issues, which is perhaps not surprising given the diversity of the region, even as it is bound together by the idea of a broader ‘Euregional’ perspective. One may easily understand that the pressing concerns in Aachen and Liège, in Hasselt and Maastricht, are not identical.


The sheer diversity of the submissions in themselves was however striking, in particular since it was matched by a varying structure of final projects. Some projects began with a clearly defined program and site, and were to be completed in as short as six weeks (U Liège / Hubert; Maerschalk), leaving one with the desire to see more; while others were given complete freedom to define their research question, program brief, and site. These projects ranged from a 4-month period (RWTH Aachen / Chen) to a full academic year (MMA+ / Princen). These projects, as individual theses, were often quite thorough and consistent from concept to design proposal. However, their breadth of programs and approaches also proved quite difficult to compare.


As such, the schools seem to be experimenting with a number of different models of the ‘proof of mastery’ that is a design thesis – fitting, perhaps, for a profession that itself seems currently in crisis: uncertain both in terms of its responsibilities to society, and in terms of its own professional concerns.


A prize such as this, particularly when seen over a longer period of time, offers the opportunity for self-reflection, which is highly necessary to a time as this. As the analysts before me have done, I will take this opportunity to highlight a number of issues that I found striking within the range of projects presented. And in acknowledgement of Iwan Strauven’s call to a ‘slow debate’ in architecture [EAP 2013], I will trace a number of lines of thinking that have recurred in recent years, and still remain central to the future development of architecture as a profession.



The EAP shows particular distinctions between the schools, as Christoph Grafe noted in [EAP 2012?]. As mentioned above, even within the framework of a final project, there are many approaches to allowing students to demonstrate their mastery. Additionally, when comparing schools across a region, across three different countries and many more dialects, the accents and concerns of architecture and urban development demonstrate how closely design is bound to local urgencies. These areas are used as laboratories, where the immediate issues faced by architecture offer a springboard to envision alternate solutions to urban development (ULg / Feller+Szecel), to the treatment of local heritage (MMA+ / Cloudt), or to the dwelling needs of a region with shifting demographics (ULg / Van Eyll). As such, it shows architecture to be a discipline intimately bound to society, where its driving concerns arise from the local context.


context: urban fabric + local concerns

Many of the projects show a growing concern for the urban and historical context. This is visible in the proposal to reveal the military and agricultural history of La Chartreuse (Dewart, ULg) as well as in the re-use of an old air-raid shelter in order to respect the local heritage and improve urban connections as well (RWTH / Szelinsky). Although at times the program or the relation between history and new proposal seemed far-fetched, there is a heightened sensitivity to the surroundings, and to the history that has determined it. For example, Deimel (RWTH Aachen) proposes the rather unexpected program of a micro-brewery in order to reinvigorate the surrounding urban tissue in Solingen. The project for a hotel/long-stay housing complex (Evers, MMA+) uses the more plausible approach of a program the city is in great need of: it blends a long-stay housing program for expat families with a hotel in order to infuse an abandoned cinema with vitality and address the city’s lack of appropriate housing facilities.


heritage expanded

Importantly, although the issue of heritage has been crucial for some time, the very notion of heritage is slowly being expanded. No longer reserved for a limited spectrum of historically distinct buildings, the idea of heritage now extends to modern buildings, and is also no longer a sacred condition. These students are willing to question the value of the heritage, to transform or adapt, not merely restore. (ULg / Ancio+Thonon; ULg / Faniel+Toussaint). At times this leads to surprising proposals, such as that for a spa within the industrial legacy of Oberhausen (Schwalm), or student housing in the middle of Venice (Schmidt). At others, the undogmatic treatment of heritage leads to adding an entire building as tribute such as the Beethoven hall in Bonn (Michel) proposes, thus transforming the urban context yet maintaining the original in its original state. A similar display and use of industrial heritage returns in the proposal to make a music center and studios in the former harbor buildings of Westhafen, Berlin. (Kieven)


think local, act global

The issue of heritage shows how the local concerns may be expanded to extend to general questions within the discipline. This issue of heritage is present within many European cities, and the approaches here are informative. In essence, these students are inverting the 1990s saying ‘think global, act local’, where global awareness guided local actions. Instead, they demonstrate that treating local issues in depth, can offer insights that extend to the full breadth of global concerns.


This brings me to a general note that I found striking within the submissions. As a whole, the range of projects shows the full spectrum of architecture’s role in society. It ranges from autonomous cultural production, where the very tools and ideas of architecture as construction, as art, as project in itself are central, to architecture as a service to society, pragmatically addressing the most pressing concerns of a changing time.



The more autonomous projects are deeply concerned with fundamental aspects of spatial experience. Here, space, light, composition and material may be central, but societal relevance is present in a more oblique manner, through literary or metaphorical references, or indeed in poetic provocation. This is clearly the case in two of the more radically poetic projects: The End of the World (Kielbassa), a proposal for a 28-km circular highway over the sea, beginning at the west point of the Algarve; and the city hall of Laleburg (Bindl), a book describing the design of a city hall for the fictional city of Laleburg. Both of these projects come from the RWTH Aachen, where projects appear to have become increasingly free. Other projects remain a little more earthbound, but nevertheless enter into this domain of autonomy, interpreting existing conditions in order to create a strong gesture that transcends its context (Breels). There is the open-air theater in Catania (Grunwald), which is extremely reserved and stunningly monumental. It concerns itself less with the societal need for a theater than with the siting and the phenomenological experience of the landscape and the harbor.



On the other side of the spectrum sit the projects with a social engagement. This varies from pressing local issues to general societal tendencies. One example is the École Rurale, which departs from a concern over the future of rural societies and uses not only design but the building process in order to strengthen the community (Fakchich). Similar concerns underlie the ‘plug-in’ proposal for elderly housing in small villages (Willems). Using a multifaceted approach, the project for a Sea Lab in Tanzania makes use of both traditional boat building techniques as well as new technologies and biomimicry as an aid in strengthening the local community and environment. (Frioni)


Of course, within the spectrum defined by ‘autonomy’ and ‘engagement’, most projects sit somewhere in between, including programs that address a particular social urgency yet also exploring conditions of architectural design.



With new tools come new responsibilities. For this generation, this may be seem an obvious statement: after all, they have been raised to understand that ‘the medium is the message’. However, the information overload that is typical of this time requires a particular reduction, and a strong sense of judgment. The submissions showed that no matter how media-savvy, and how strong the control is over representational techniques, the message is not always clear – the most crucial information was sometimes hidden in an unexpected corner, or buried deeply within an extensive documentation of the research. This then, is an ability that can use additional training: a critical gaze to the information presented, and the question of whether the key statements have been made. This is, after all, what clients will need the architect to do for them; to sift through the information and ensure that the central issues maintain priority.


beyond starchitecture: from spectacle to craftsmanship

Notably, the 30 projects submitted, seem to announce a fundamental turn from spectacle to craftsmanship. There was a striking near absence of what has come to be known as ‘starchitecture’.  While there are still a few projects that maintain a certain iconic drive, such as the coastal towers for Oostende (UHasselt / Cleuren; Lenaerts), even these aim at a tactile experience more than at spectacle. A large number of projects turned towards a more restrained mode of representation, to exploring materials and drawing techniques rather than iconic gestures and glossy computer renderings. Could this be a counterreformation in architecture, with humility taking the place of hubris, and sensitivity the place of radical gestures? (Potter; Schmoll)


craftsmanship and autonomy  

These projects raise the question: what should, or could, architecture be? Throughout the submissions, in the most diverse approaches – where there seems to be little agreement on what architecture is – there is a steady, pulsing sense, that it is important, that it has a contribution to make to society. This may be as diverse as offering space for ‘everything and nothing’ (Wommel), or as simply pragmatic as providing low-budget allotment housing (Zabek), or indeed as radical as envisioning a highway over the sea. Yet each project has faith in the importance of architecture to the everyday life that takes place within.


I must say that this 2015 EAP prize makes me look forward to what the future holds. The range of reflections on what the profession they are about to enter, should be, or could be offers a provocative view, turning to the many roles architecture may fulfill. Particularly, it is heartening to see that these students, after the radical gestures of modernism, after the ‘anything goes’ principles of postmodernism, and after a serious economic crisis that threatens the profession, still believe that architecture, after all, can make a difference. (Bindl)