Letter from London: Welcome to a highly accessible WAF 2021!

Welcome to a highly accessible WAF 2021!

29 November 2021, Paul Finch

This column is written at the start of World Architecture Festival week – a digital edition for the second year in a row.

As you probably know, the reason for not staging our usual live event, which was planned to take place in Lisbon, is the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the ability of architects to travel freely. We found that too many of the practices shortlisted in the awards programme could not attend a live event, hence our decision. (We plan to be live in Lisbon in December 2022!)

Once that decision to go digital this was taken, we had to deal with some difficult logistics in respect of judging this year’s award categories. With a record number of more than 1,400 entries, we shortlisted more than 600 individual designs by architects from about 40 countries.

The tasks we then faced were, first, how to deal with the different time zones of architects presenting from across the world; and second, how to make this work with the time zones of the judging panels, themselves in different country locations.

We managed to do this by starting quite early in the morning, UK time, and viewing presentations from Australasia and East Asia first, gradually moving west (like the sun) across the globe during the course of the day, or in some cases two days. This allowed almost all the shortlisted architects to present their work at a reasonable hour.

To make the judging time zones work, we had to exclude a large number of judges from the east and west, to avoid them having to rise or finish at an unrealistic hour. So the judging base was narrower than usual, but we expect things to return to normal for 2022, with the usual representative global mix.

Having taken part in a couple of the online judging sessions myself, I can confidently say that the standard of both designs and presentations has generally been superb, with a host of excellent winners going through to what we think of as ‘Finals Friday’ at the Festival on 3 December.

For the first time, we have recorded all the category presentation and judging sessions, which are available for all registered digital delegates to view now and for 90 days after the Festival. So, ironically, the effect of the pandemic, while preventing us from staging our live event, is resulting in the most accessible Festival yet!

Tulip decision has big implications

Here in London, Foster and Partners’ proposed ‘Tulip Tower’, a 300-metre concrete shaft with viewing platforms revolving vertically at the top, has been blocked by the government and the mayor of London, despite the support of the local planning authority, no less than the City of London.

Does this signal a new attitude to embodied energy and materials? Is it really true that the tower would have seriously compromised the historic Tower of London, as heritage critics claimed?

The argument over this particular proposal, which was expected to attract more than one million visitors every year, is over – but some of the issues will re-emerge as London continues with intense levels of construction activity, both in London and across the country.

How will Cop26 play out around the world, as governments and industry combine to try to reach net zero carbon commitments? How will material manufacturers tackle issues around recycling and re-use? And will retrofit become the new normal?

Certainly the latter looks increasingly likely – and has done so for many years. Back in 2009, in a presentation at WAF in Barcelona, Autodesk predicted that most of their business would be based on retrofit and re-use over the next three decades. It seems inevitable that tax regimes will alter to reflect this change, though it will take more than woke-twerps gluing themselves to buildings and roads to bring this about.

The problem with this sort of virtue-signalling is that it gets in the way of serious thought an analysis about priorities and practicalities. For example, the implications for the construction sector of retrofitting a significant proportion of housing stock to bring it up to today’s standards are immense. You could forget about building anything else, without achieving a net increase in homes.

Similarly, no competent government will simply abandon huge tax-takes, especially post-Covid, without finding other sources of revenue, so simply switching from one VAT regime to another will only work if there is some adjustment of rates. The head-bangers don’t want to think about or discuss this, possibly because it is really difficult to decide on the best course of action, even given all the relevant researched options. More thought required.

Paradise in clubland

It is a decade since I last visited Annabel’s, the Mayfair club in Berkeley Square. On that occasion I had dinner with two great WAF supporters, Ken Yeang and Charles Jencks. Last week I went back to a dinner hosted by John Balmond of Balmond Studio (he is the son of renowned engineer Cecil Balmond). The occasion was the launch of a fabulous-looking apartment development at Southbeach Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Here is the press release on the project: ‘This exciting project brings a new offering to Weligama; with lifestyle-led residences that include state-of-the-art amenities such as a restaurant, poolside bar, gym, 35m swimming pool, an art gallery and a music room, providing a five-star hotel experience at a more long-term affordable price. Weligama is also home to one of Sri Lanka’s few swim-friendly beaches, with a sea that attracts surfers who are seeking exciting new breaks. When you invest in a property at Weligama, you are investing in breakfast by the pool with the turquoise Indian Ocean for company, afternoons spent surfing and snorkelling off catamarans, and evenings watching the sunset from the Southbeach Weligama bar.’

Of course, this sort of development raises questions about sustainable tourism and eco-diversity, both of which are championed by John Balmond locally. It is clearly not aimed at the mass tourism market – currently about two million people a year visit Sri Lanka. The government apparently wants this figure to increase to five million. If I were them, I would limit the numbers and put the prices up.

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