Celebrating the EU Mies Award

John Hill
15. May 2022
The winners and finalists – architects and clients, both – at the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion on EUmies Awards Day. (Photo: Anna Mas)

The prestigious European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award needs little in the way of introduction: every two years the European Commission and Fundació Mies van der Rohe solicit nominations for the best building in Europe, convening a jury to determine an Architecture Winner and an Emerging Architecture Winner. The 2022 iteration stretched to three years due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Town House – Kingston University by Grafton Architects emerging as the Architecture Winner and La Borda cooperative housing by Lacol ending up as the Emerging Architecture Winner. Instead of simply handing out the trophies to them in a ceremony, the organizers held an all-day affair – EUmies Awards Day – at the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, giving trophies to the five finalists as well as the two winners, and holding talks with both the clients and the architects of the buildings that illustrate the best of architecture in Europe.

Anna Ramos, director of the Fundació Mies van der Rohe. (Photo: Anna Mas)

Following a welcome by Anna Ramos, who has served as director of the Fundació Mies van der Rohe in Barcelona since 2016, the clients for the seven projects took to the stage (the plinth of the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, actually) to give background on their projects and speak about their experiences. Obviously, the inclusion of a talk with clients accentuates the importance they play in all architectural projects, be they public or private, cultural or residential, big or small. Yet, there is an abundance of nontraditional clients and development approaches among the 2022 winners and finalists, which made for an especially interesting talk. Frizz 23, for example, was built on land that the city of Berlin sold to the developer/architect based on concept, not cost: cooperative commercial space that arose from workshops with neighborhood residents and collaboration with the same. Other buildings, such as La Borda in Barcelona and The Railway Farm in Paris took similar bottom-up approaches whose atypical approaches required innovative approaches that resulted in exceptional architecture.

The client discussing finalist Frizz 23 during the morning talk, "Before, during and after the architectural project." (Photo: Anna Mas)

It's not hard to imagine that cooperative housing and commercial space, urban agriculture, social housing, and the like bubbling up to the top of the 532 nominated works is due in large part to jury chair Tatiana Bilbao. As she said in a recent interview on World-Architects, she believes "architecture is for everyone" and "is a form of care"; as such, a focus on projects with a strong social bent is to be expected. Regardless, the renovation of an unremarkable 1960s school in Turin, a museum in Belgium, and the highest winner going to a university in London point to diversity in the seven projects, as well as the multiple voices of the jury, which also included Francesca Ferguson, Mia Hägg, Triin Ojari, Georg Pendl, Spiros Pengas, and Marcel Smets. Although the Mexican architect is spending a lot of time in Europe these days, Bilbao was not in attendance for the Awards Ceremony; instead, she spoke remotely from Copenhagen, summarizing the jury comments for each of the winners and finalists during the ceremony.

Jury chair Tatiana Bilbao speaking remotely from Copenhagen during the Awards Ceremony. (Photo: Anna Mas)

An unexpectedly appealing part of the Awards Ceremony – coming between the announcements, trophy handouts, and photo-ops for the finalists and then the winners – was a performance by vanholzer that featured two dancers on different planes of the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion. One, a figure in purple tights and matching puffy jacket, sat on a Barcelona chair holding a cigar, an apparent stand-in for Mies himself. While this figure remained still while seated, another dancer occupied the roof of the pavilion, performing movements that recalled the statue Dawn by Georg Kolbe in the pavilion's interior pool. Yet, with "Mies" seated in the chair, angled toward the dancer on the roof, perhaps the latter was more accurately a stand-in for Lilly Reich, Mies's collaborator on the pavilion and a personal companion until his move to the United States in 1938. In recent years the Fundació Mies van der Rohe has explicitly stated on its website that Mies and Reich designed the pavilion together, and in 2018 it founded the Lilly Reich Grant for Equality in Architecture, but the name of the foundation and the pavilion remain the bastion of Mies alone. But with the performance by vanholzer, all of the attention went to the dancer on the roof, not the figure in the chair.

A performance by vanholzer during the Awards Ceremony. (Photo: Anna Mas)

Following the Awards Ceremony that was presided over by Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, were three talks with presentations of the five finalists and two winners; the architects spoke and then held conversations with jury members. Italian architect Francesca Torzo, designer of the Z33 House for Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture in Hasselt, Belgium, spoke first, standing out from the presentations that followed in words that were more philosophical than descriptive and could be applied to other works by the architect, not just Z33. "A building is not an object," she said in a slow, deliberate manner that echoed her almost monastic design for Z33, "nor a social or political experiment. A building is a building." While such comments ultimately put Torzo at odds with the socially oriented approaches of La Borda, Frizz 23, and The Railway Farm, this single cultural building among the seven winners and finalists is far from the architectural icon one still associates with contemporary museums. It is quiet and poetic, a spatial labyrinth with rich material textures that provide continuity with the historical buildings it is a part of. Although here it remained a finalist, in 2018 it won the top International Piranesi Award.

Finalist Francesca Torzo presenting Z33 during one of three talks that took place in the afternoon. (Photo: Anna Mas)

The last talk of the 2022 EUmies Awards Day refreshingly found six women on the Mies Pavilion plinth: jury members Mia Hägg and Francesca Ferguson, Simona Della Rocca of BDR bureau (Enrico Fermi School, Emerging Architecture Finalist), Cristina Gamboa of Lacol (La Borda, Emerging Architecture Winner), and Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects (Town House – Kingston University, Architecture Winner). The presentation by the duo from Grafton touched on precedents that went into their design, the way the library and dance studio work spatially as a "3D web of space," and many other things, even a strong suggestion that the Mies Foundation should come to Dublin to illustrate the power of architecture in society and to improve matters in the architects' hometown. During the discussion, McNamara described how impressed they were when they returned to Town House after it was completed and occupied, and "the building was full of young people and there was not one figure of authority, no control, no security guards." Kingston University wanted an open, democratic space and that is what exactly what Grafton Architects delivered – much to their amazement.

Jury members in discussion with architects from Grafton Architects, Lacol, and BDR bureau during the closing talk at EUmies Awards Day. (Photo: Anna Mas)
World-Architects is Strategic Partner of the 2022 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award.

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