World Architecture Festival awards: could do better

The 2021 World Architecture Festival Awards have been announced, and they include some accolades for the Emirates – though only for four projects, all of which are (deservedly) serial winners of such competitions.

In the Completed Buildings – Display category, the outright winner was Grimshaw’s Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020 (top). For all kinds of reasons this feels like a great choice: the interior is as stunning as the exterior, the ambition as impressive as the vision, the sustainability message a moral for our times, the whole a catalogue of intelligent strategies for future sustainable living. We like it a lot.

The six winners for the Landscape – Urban Context category included two UAE-based entries, both coincidentally by Danish studios and both in Abu Dhabi. The excellent Al Hosn Masterplan, by CEBRA and DCT-Abu Dhabi, is settling in nicely; the masterplan transformed the area around Qasr Al Hosn, the city’s oldest and most important building, into a 140,000m2 “cultural parkscape” surrounding the historical building and the Bauhaus-ish Cultural Foundation from the 1980s. The project genuinely delivers a modern take on the Emirate’s heritage in a coherent and eminently usable manner.

Clean lines, uncluttered space, echoes of desert … the Al Hosn parkscape

The other project, which also won a best-of-the-best award as Landscape of the Year, is Al Fay Park on Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island. Designed by the Danish studio SLA Architects, Al Fay Park is a 27,500m2 artificial oasis dedicated to biodiversity and featuring a controlled microclimate. “Through our research on the flora and fauna of the region,” said SLA partner Rasmus Astrup, “we created a new way of thinking and designing the public environment in the Middle East. The park celebrates the nature of the place, showcasing its biodiversity by transforming a corner of the desert into a forest”. It is indeed impressive, with gently sloping pedestrian access paths that channel the breeze towards the centre of the space; bushes and low grasses to reduce the infiltration of sand; and more than 2,000 implanted native trees and shrubs, many of them ghaf trees.

Al Fay Park: sympathetic biodiversity on Reem Island

The Zayed National Museum was one of two Highly Commended entires in the Future Projects – Competition Entries category.

And that’s it. Ok, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has probably received more than enough accolades, but there are so many other candidates for recognition. Like the Etihad Museum or the marmite-ish Museum of the Future in Dubai; Dabbagh Architects’ cool, ethereal Mosque of Light; the clean, understated Arts Square district in Sharjah or maybe the light-touch conversion of the Al Jubail market; Zaha Hadid’s gorgeous Bee’ah HQ or X Architects’ Wasit wetlands centre …

But that’s the problem with awards like this. The World Architecture Festival is exactly what it says – an annual conference/exhibition/seminar programme (the 13th was held at the start of December in Lisbon) that celebrates architectural excellence from around the world. It’s not as academic as some similar events, and it certainly doesn’t have the under-the-hood feel of non commercial options such as architecture triennials; instead it’s effectively a giant networking and self-marketing opportunity for design studios from around the globe (WAF says it’s the largest such event) and it’s none the worse for that.

The WAF Awards are a key part of the Festival. There are more than 40 awards on offer each year in 33 categories, so there’s a wide range of projects to admire – and, for the entrants, a decent chance of winning at least something. The caveat is the one that applies to most such competitions: entries are submitted, it costs money (£850 plus VAT per entry plus the time and effort of preparing the pitch), and making the trip to Lisbon wouldn’t appeal to everyone – it’s a nice place, but a long journey for many of the world’s architecture pros. So to some extent the awards are self-selected, even before the jury gets to work.

This is probably unavoidable: it would take a massive (and expensive) operation to scan the globe for possible candidates for awards independently. Still, it’s disappointing that more of the UAE’s better buildings and landscapes don’t get a bit more international recognition.

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