As the RIBA announces the winners of its 2018 Awards for International Excellence, Corinna Dean gives a flavour of the process that leads to the Institute’s ultimate International Prize
The RIBA International Awards are a relatively new arrival. The inaugural edition was launched in 2016, and awarded to Grafton Architects for its outstanding university building UTEC, University of Engineering and Technology, in Lima, Peru.
The awards, which occur every two years, are a definitive single-category award given to the most transformative building which demonstrates visionary, innovative thinking and excellence of execution, and makes a distinct contribution to its users and its physical context. The system is two-tiered. First, 20 new buildings are selected from the entrants to the RIBA International Prize; these are the winners of the RIBA Awards for International Excellence and this year’s batch is shown below. From this 20, four finalists are selected, one of which will be the winner of the International Prize, announced in November.
In contrast to the RIBA award, the World Architecture Awards (WAF) invites entries to 33 categories. However, the advantage of the seemingly more modest remit of the RIBA awards is that each winner of the Award for International Excellence is visited, allowing for a rigorous judging process.
This creates a grand global task in which around 20 architects are dispensed to visit each of the entries shortlisted from a total of 232. This year’s diverse entries ranged from Rogers Stirk Harbour’s 50-storey BBVA Ban in Mexico City, to a post-earthquake reconstruction project in Guangming Village, China, and the contemporary art museum Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, South Africa, by Thomas Heatherwick Architects.
Probably the hardest task is judging a large scale university building against a single dwelling. I was lucky enough to accompany the judging team to the relatively small island of Sri Lanka, which boasted two shortlisted entries, a studio dwelling and community learning centre. The contrast between the two entries was stark in their architectural ambitions.
To facilitate the judging process, the architects Marcus Lee (Lee Architects) and Greg Penoyre (Penoyre & Prasad) worked closely with the local representative from the Sri Lankan RIBA chapter –which was launched in 2017 by past president Jane Duncan. This forms part of the broader network in Asia and Australasia, and among many criteria it has been set up to achieve knowledge exchange in sustainable design.
The first visit was to a studio and dwelling at Rajagiriya, Colombo, by Sri Lankan architect Panlinda Kannangara, who conducted the tour for the judges. His informal approach allowed the judges to pause and ask questions throughout the visit as well as to experience the space in use. The four-storey in situ concrete building is wrapped with an envelope of fired laterite bricks, creating a shading screen and mitigating the need for air-conditioning. The undercroft space at ground level, which is used for parking, provides an architectural event in itself, with a full width view through to lush marsh land framed by the building. A processional staircase fitting the building’s classical plan takes visitors up to the dramatic piano nobile with folding glazed panels running the full height.
As we moved through the building each floor offered its own distinctive experience. Arriving on the the upper level we were met with expansive views: waterways extended to the east the with views of old Colombo, while to the west, against the background of the city’s rapidly growing skyline, the 46-storey ‘Clearpoint Tower’ boasts the tallest vertical garden in Asia as well as the luxury of 10 cantilevered swimming pools. In addition to a vibrant local architecture scene the city is experiencing a construction boom, fuelled by somewhat contentious Chinese investment. One such project is the creation of ‘Port City’, a sustainable metropolis with the addition of 233ha of reclaimed land next to Colombo Port, which will accommodate hotels, a golf course, apartments and a water sports area – although the absence of an environmental Impact Study has thrown the environmental credentials into question.
The rigour and elegance of the studio dwelling, coupled with its sensitivity to the local environment both in its dialogue with the waterways and its sustainability credentials, means it is a strong contender for one of the 20 Awards for International Excellence.
The second visit, a community learning centre in Kalkudah, the eastern province of Sri Lanka, was reached via seaplane. The area has been severely ravaged, by both the 2003 tsunami and 26 years of civil war. The Lanka Learning Centre was designed by Feat Collective – a Stuttgart-based not for profit office which consists of architects, designers, and political scientists – which worked with a local Sri Lankan aid worker to define the brief. Other similar projects will be rolled out by the collective as part of a larger aid programme.
The striking five-sided brick, concrete, metal and teak assembly mediates between the dispersed suburban edge and arid open terrain. Five buildings are grouped around a circular central space projecting an immediate impression of a safe haven for learning, which combines an inward focus while offering future agricultural/horticultural activity beyond the defined structure of the main building.
Such on-the-ground experience for the judges provides valuable insight to the context of a building. At the Lanka Learning Centre, local buildings are composed of a combination of traditional earth rammed walls with palm-clad roofs, and brick and corrugated structures, designed to combat extremely high levels of humidity. Simple design and low cost maintenance, plus the building’s versatility, enabled the centre to accommodate its diverse and wide ranging programme, which trains students in subjects from the growing hospitality trade to educating school children and training primary teachers. Local RIBA representative Nela de Zoyosa drew a cautionary note in observing the permeability of the building structure and its vulnerability to rodents, but in an overall assessment of the scheme Lee was upbeat. ‘The atmosphere is one of both delight and an overwhelming appreciation of context, creating a building of outstanding merit achieved with limited means,’ he said.
Returning to London the jurors, chaired by Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio +Renfro, deliberated over the shortlist. Grand jurors Diller, Joshua Bolchover of Rural Urban Framework and dance choreographer Wayne McGregor will make the final decision.
RIBA International Emerging Architect
Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes, founders of Brazilian architecture firm Aleph Zero, have also been announced as the recipients of the RIBA International Emerging Architect 2018. The pair desigbed the Children’s Village in Formoso do Araguaia, Brazil, with Rosenbaum – one of the 20 winners announced above. The Children’s Village provides boarding accommodation for 540 senior school children at the Canuanã School. Run and funded by the Bradesco Foundation, it is one of 40 schools providing education for disadvantaged local children and is the first of Aleph Zero's projects to use design to improve the quality of education.