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Talent and passion converge at the 2009 World Architecture Festival.

The World Architecture Festival in Barcelona brought together hundreds of architects from across the world to judge and be judged in an inspiringly public forum. The festival, of which AR is a media partner and which our parent company Emap runs, is a unique event combining a series of parallel juries, an awards scheme, a vast exhibition, a forum for new products and a stimulating lecture series, with keynote addresses by Uruguayan star Rafael Vinoly and Farshid Moussavi of London's FOA.

The festival culminates with the award of the World Building of the Year award, a title that has undertones of talent-show crassness, exacerbated by the impossibility of divining between radically diverse building types. How, for instance, do you compare an aviary with a winery, or a shop with a piece of landscape? Yet with this year's award going to Peter Rich's Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre and last year's to Grafton Architects' muscular, Milanese megastructure (AR March 2009), the signs are that this newest architectural accolade has the makings of an eagerly anticipated riposte to the raft of predictable, usual suspects prizes.

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Rich's project, a museum of archaeological relics set on a remote rural site in northern South Africa, is an undeniably worthy winner. Synthesising vernacular wisdom with modernity in a direct way, it succeeds in its quest to realise a resonant, contemporary African architecture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Rich has made extensive studies of many kinds of tribal architecture and brings an anthropological insight into how built-form relates to land, culture and people. 'We have a unique opportunity in South Africa to tell the stories of people who have never had their stories told,' says Rich.

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Set in a historically charged landscape where two rivers and three countries meet, the building's seductively undulating forms evoke traditional way-finding cairns of stones. Its timber vaults origins lie in Catalan construction, refined by MIT expertise and handcrafted by locals using the earth of the site. The transfer of construction skills to the community was another key aspect. 'We can work in a labour-intensive way because you're creating jobs for people,' says Rich. Shading devices of eucalyptus stalks, wire mesh and gold-painted polycarbonate temper the sun's intensity and show the poetic potential of cheap, ad-hoc materials.

Against strong competition, Mapungubwe prevailed in its initial Culture category. It was then pitted against the winners of the other 13 building types in a series of crits in front of this year's super jury, comprising Kengo Kuma, Farshid Moussavi, Tim Macfarlane and Suha Ozkan. Rafael Vinoly was chair and steered a toughly argued but good-humoured debate. The jury was impressed by rival contenders--such as the redevelopment of Father Duffy Square in New York by Choi Ropiha, Perkins Eastman, PSKB Architects (winner of New and Old) and WOHA's Bras Basah Mass Rapid Transit Station in Singapore (Transport). Both responded to complex urban problems in highly sophisticated ways. Jurors also admired the winning Landscape scheme from Chinese architects Turenscape.

But in the final analysis, Rich's building was clearly the most architecturally and psychologically powerful. 'It carries both weight and a message of complexity to the outside world,' comments Suha Ozkan. 'It's about roughness and unpredictability,' says Rafael Vinoly. 'It sends a message about alternative ways of working outside the current domination of form making. It's much more concerned about how things are put together.'

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Commenting on his building's success, Peter Rich made a call to arms that seemed especially apposite in the present climate of economic and ecological crises. 'Architects need to become activists,' he asserted. 'We need to be of service to a broader audience and to make changes so that it is not just one per cent of people who can afford to use an architect. That's what excites me.' For Rich the next stop is Ethiopia--he is working on the development of the heritage site of Aksum and its famous rock churches.

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Title Annotation:BARCELONA, SPAIN
Author:Long, Kieran; Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:659
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