Young architects deploy new tools to advance common values

Design Vanguard, our annual look at the best emerging architectural practices, is a window into the future, a glimpse of where the profession is heading. This year, two of our 10 winning firms are from Spain (despite the country's damaging recession) with work that demonstrates a powerful materiality, such as Venecia Park by Héctor Fernández Elorza Architects, featured on our cover. Other international winners come from Mexico, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. We're pleased, as well, to honor four U.S. practices—though young American architects have often had less opportunity to build than some of their foreign peers. With the economy picking up, these domestic designers are coming out of a period of intense experimentation, where they worked on installations, temporary structures, and unbuilt projects. Take Marc Fornes, who calls his Brooklyn firm TheVeryMany: he has been creating astonishing curvy and lacy sculptural forms, digitally designed and fabricated from thousands of computer-cut elements. The Oyler Wu Collaborative, a husband-wife team in Los Angeles, has designed elaborate temporary structures made of woven or criss-crossing lines of polypropylene rope, tubular aluminum, and other industrial materials. The results of such stunning exploratory efforts will surely have an impact on their architecture going forward.

Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief
Photo © Michael Arnaud

Many of the emerging architects in this issue share common ideas and sensibilities. Like Fornes's work, the projects of Akihisa Hirata of Tokyo allude to nature. But Hirata is equally concerned that contemporary architecture should not be so extreme that it loses “its connection to society. The problem facing my generation is reconstructing that relationship,” he maintains. Hirata's work fosters social interaction, as does an unusual project by Grupo Aranea of Alicante, Spain. For a park in the town of Elche, the principals—he is an architect, she a landscape architect—devised elevated footbridges that curve and flow across a river bed, to knit together two parts of the town.

Some Vanguard firms are actively activist, such as Rural Urban Framework, a nonprofit partnership based in Hong Kong, which designs modest interventions that seek to improve the lives of those remaining in the rapidly changing farming villages of China. The Monterrey, Mexico, architecture office of S-AR established a nonprofit arm to develop small-scale low-income housing. “We need to make beautiful places, but these works have to help make the country better for everybody,” says principal César Guerrero. “I think that's the point of architecture.”

Recently, I was on a design jury sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA and Pacific Gas & Electric Company as part of the Architecture at Zero program. The competition brief called for a net zero energy multi-unit affordable-housing project in the tough Tenderloin neighborhood of the city. One particularly outstanding project turned out to be from a student designer, Victor Bao, at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly is the leading undergraduate architecture program in the U.S., according to the annual survey we published last month in RECORD—and also is considered the top program in sustainable-design practices and principles. What was striking about Bao's work was the confident handling of energy-efficient strategies, seamlessly integrated into the design. This is how it should be: sustainable features shouldn't be add-ons or plug-ins that can be value-engineered out of a project. As we point out in this month's Continuing Education article, energy modeling can help design teams ensure that sustainability is an integral part of a project from the beginning. For an emerging generation of architects, this is how they are trained to think.

As we look at the small but meaningful gestures of this year's crop of Vanguard architects, we can't help but recall the mantra Think global, act local. Today's young architects are clearly innovating in their assured use of digital tools and sustainable strategies, but they are using architecture, even modest interventions, for a larger goal: to improve the life of communities around the world.