200 Best. A new canon for a new era

In the C.guide we have proposed a selection of 200 works that address in an exemplary way to the challenges and opportunities of contemporary architecture in the world. Check the complete list here.

Versión en español

The choice of the 200 best works of architecture from 1975 to the present day is based on two questions: What does it mean to make good architecture today? Can we speak of good architecture on a global level? This selection is a way of beginning to ask ourselves these questions collectively.

The modern movement, born at the beginning of the 20th century, gave birth to an architectural discourse with a universal vocation that has radically transformed the inhabited environment ever since. One hundred years later, the idea of a shared global architectural culture remains relevant. Although today’s architecture has become aware of the problems posed by a universalising discourse such as that of modernity – lack of sensitivity to cultural diversity, Eurocentrism or the growing spatial homogeneity of cities, to give just a few examples – it maintains the link with the modern genealogy through a fundamental idea: confidence in architecture as a tool for transformation and social progress. It is this invisible thread that we seek in our selection of the best contemporary architecture. Projects that manage not only to improve the environmental quality of the environment in which they are inserted, but also link up with the social, discursive and technological network that constitutes what we call a place. A network whose nodes must nowadays inevitably be sought on both a local and a planetary scale.

It is no longer a question of proposing a new city, as in the early modern era. It is about dialogue with the existing territorial complexity, from rural areas to large metropolises. We are looking for an architecture that improves the city by opening up spaces for citizens in the urban fabric, such as the Sant Antoni – Joan Oliver library (RCR) in Barcelona or the Praça das Artes (Brasil Arquitectura) in Sao Paulo. An architecture that tries to sew up the gaps caused by the great motorways built with the rise of the private vehicle, such as the Madrid Río intervention (directed by Ginés Garrido), or the recovery of the Cheong Gye Cheon canal in Seoul. Or that is committed to improving and updating inherited collective housing heritage, such as the paradigmatic renovation project of 530 social housing units (Lacaton & Vassal) on the outskirts of Bordeaux. 

Contemporary architecture flees from dogmatism and proudly claims a plurality of strategies and approaches when facing the complexity of the world. Perhaps the cause of this change is to be found, among other factors, in who is entering the architectural profession today. In a list like the one we present today, forty years ago we would have found only white and mostly Western men. By contrast, our Best 200 now includes authors from diverse backgrounds and, although still in the minority, a significant number of women architects. This trend is undoubtedly contributing to the intellectual enrichment of contemporary architectural culture, so necessary to face the great challenges we are facing. Among them, and surely the most pressing, is the climate emergency.

Reuse, recycling, reduction

The origin of the environmental movement dates back to the 1970s, almost coinciding with the beginning of the historical period included in this selection. It is no coincidence that the concern for sustainability is certainly the connecting thread of most of the works selected. Reuse, recycling and reduction are the key concepts. Faced with the evidence that we are already exceeding the ecological limits of our planet, it is necessary to reduce the means used in the construction of our environments. The reuse of what already exists appears in this context as an effective strategy. From the seminal Sesc Pompeia project (Lina Bo Bardi) to the recent Zeitz Museum (Heatherwick Studio) and the celebrated Tate Modern (Herzog & de Meuron), contemporary architecture shows how the spatial qualities of existing buildings can be the starting point for the most brilliant and creative architecture. One of the most significant projects of recent years, the High Line in New York (Diller Scofidio + Renfro), has converted the structure of an abandoned road into a public space that attracts both tourists and local residents. Its media impact has generated echoes around the world.

We are increasingly aware that an architectural project involves the mobilisation of a huge amount of material and human resources. A good project must therefore pay attention to how these resources are brought into play. The emphasis on process is key in projects such as the school in Gando (Francis Keré), the orphanage in Pondicherry (Anupama Kundoo) or the school in Rudrapur (Anna Heringer). All three reflect on the construction process as an important part of the project. The mobilization of local resources and the involvement of the future users in the construction of the space is as important as the final result. It is about activating the community and ensuring a transformation of the human ecosystem through an architectural exercise.

Building with nature and the community

This ecosystemic approach is key in the work of many of the other creators on the list. For example, in the work of the Office of Political Innovation led by Andrés Jaque, which defends an architecture that makes human and non-human actors collaborate; or that of Bangkok Studio, which, through projects such as the Elephant Museum, advocates an architecture that overcomes anthropocentrism.

Building with nature is indeed one of the challenges of our century. In this respect, one encouraging trend is the restoration of the natural dynamics of degraded watercourses, making them compatible with human uses. The project for the recovery of the Wadi Hanifa wetlands in Saudi Arabia (Moriyama & Teshima Architects and Buro Happold) or the environmental regeneration of the Llobregat river in the metropolitan area of Barcelona (Batlleiroig) are excellent examples. They show that, in the age of the anthropocene, architecture can no longer simply be respectful: it must contribute to the collective process of ecological restoration of the Earth, acting locally and thinking globally.

This process must go hand in hand with human communities, increasing their resilience through infrastructures that respond to their needs, as in the Shangcun village hall (SUP Atelier) or Tapachula Station (Colectivo C733); creating collaborative processes that allow people to feel part of the construction of their habitat, as in the Superkilen public space (BIG) and the Byker Wall housing (Erskine); or building cooperative communities through architecture, as in the brilliant housing projects of La Borda (Lacol) or the floating community of Schoonschip (Space & Matter).

Understanding (or transforming) the place

On the other hand, contemporary architecture does not forget its responsibility in the construction of identity and collective memory: just as it dialogues with the dynamics of nature, it also does so with the historical strata of the places where it intervenes. Like a palimpsest, the best contemporary architecture draws a new layer without erasing the previous one, improving legibility and providing new avenues of meaning. Unforgettable examples of this are the Kolumba Museum (Peter Zumthor), the Escuelas Pías University Centre (Jose Ignacio Linazasoro) or the Neues Museum (David Chipperfield). All three are extremely sensitive interventions in historical densely meaningful contexts. Works that make the place breathe with a renewed impulse.

It is precisely the importance of “reading the place” which emerges as a key factor in contemporary practice. In many cases, to go with the flow of the place; in others, on the other hand, to act as a disruptive element, as a lever for change. This is the case of the Pies Descalzos school (Equipo Mazzanti), where architecture is built as a symbol of progress in a disadvantaged neighbourhood. On other occasions, it is a question of architecture becoming a seed of modernity in a context in need of new stimuli. Such is the case of the Heydar Aliyev Centre (Zaha Hadid), whose fluid forms contrast with the rigidity of the surrounding Soviet urban planning, or the Pompidou Centre in Paris (Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano), which, since its inauguration in 1978, has never ceased to be a reference point for the avant-garde of the city.

Spaces for sociability

We find ourselves in a context of global neoliberal hegemony. The public sphere is permanently under threat, and the uncontrolled expansion of the metropolis generates undifferentiated spaces where transit seems to be the only function. Faced with this panorama, one of the great challenges facing contemporary architecture is to generate places where it is possible to meet and share ideas. In the face of uncontrolled planning, public facilities are presented as opportunities to create the new agoras of contemporaneity. The Oodi Library in Helsinki (ALA Architects) and the Seattle Public Library (OMA) are two outstanding examples of this. The reading rooms are large, generously lit spaces with seating for relaxation. Authentic civic spaces, accessible and open.

School architecture is another field of experimentation where creators try to generate spaces for sociability. In the YueCheng Courtyard kindergarten in Beijing (MAD Architects), an undulating surface encompasses a historic building, creating a walkable landscape that connects with an old people’s home, encouraging intergenerational contact. In the case of the Farming nursery school (Vo Trong Nghia Architects), the roof becomes a large garden which, in addition to being a leisure space, is an open-air classroom where pupils learn agricultural techniques and principles of sustainability. The building functions as an educational tool prefiguring a desirable world for the future of its young users.

This is a list that raises questions and tries to identify the most hopeful vectors of architectural practice. We have travelled the world in search of projects that, instead of telling people how to live, ask them how they want to live; that are committed to communal living; that combine the latest technology with traditional building wisdom; that tackle the problem of rural depopulation. An architecture that recycles, that understands itself as a process and that seeks equity.

In short, an architecture that does not look the other way when facing the problems of our contemporary world, and which tackles them with optimism. Not a utopian optimism, but one that is down to earth, rooted in the best progressive tradition of architectural modernity born of the Bauhaus and always ready to broaden its gaze. Following the example of the recently deceased master Balkrishna Doshi, we believe that architecture must learn from diverse traditions and contexts, it must learn from the masterpieces of architectural history as well as from unplanned forms of living.

Sangath, one of Doshi’s works included in the list, can serve as a metaphor for the contemporary architectural culture that we at C.guide support. A meeting place and a place of reflection for architects from all over the world, where social and environmental sustainability are central, where the dynamics of nature are present and where technology is at the service of human wellbeing. We modestly hope that this list of our 200 best works will contribute to bringing architecture closer to society and help to draw the paths that architecture should take in the future.

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