Sunday, 21 December 2014

Touching the earth lightly

The phrase was irrevocably appropriated to describe the work of Pritzker Prize winning Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt.  Which is a pity.  Not that Glenn's houses on the whole don't deserve the description.  Rather, because the work of some others may deserve it just as much.  Or, more subtly, because to identify the phrase so closely with a particular spindly shelter on pad footings, may actually do a disfavour to other approaches with less impact on the natural world.

I was reminded of this, by this year's winner of the Best Building in the World at the World Architecture Festival, the Chapel on the outskirt of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, by local architecture practice a21studio.

To read the project submission description gives you a quick overview of a far richer meaning of a 'light touch'.  If you then take the trouble to look at the work of the studio on their web site, you see that this is no accident.  Far from a formula in contemporary tubular steel and white space, the work of the practice varies from bamboo and thatch to steel mesh and stone gabion walls, as well as a recognisable thread of recomposed and up-cycled architectural salvage.

My first reaction on seeing the Chapel as the winner, was a warm welling of pride that my profession could still recognise and reward the merit of such work, ahead of the egotistic cash burns that these days masquerade as civic architecture around the world.  You have to suspend some conflicting beliefs about what exactly is 'architecture', because this building is by no means a monument, and borders ever so closely on ephemera rather than structural permanence.  It is instead Architecture because it is a superb example of an architect's skill, in making a building that engages its users' needs at many and varied levels, practical, social and symbolic.

I was initially concerned that while interesting to anyone committed to a social action agenda in architectural practice, this idiosyncratic winner in 2014 might not be visible for long in the architectural media. It has turned up on Dezeen and ArchDaily in their coverage of the WAF.  I hope to see it adopted by the architectural discourse, and even more hopefully, as a part of the mainstream of architectural practice.

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