The 2018 World Architecture Festival in numbers.

Words by Glenda Venn

When faced with the overwhelming scale and volume of participants of the World Architecture Festival (WAF) it is difficult to get a broad perspective of regional or individual country performance. A gauge of ‘return on investment’ measured by how many shortlisted finalists did a country have and how many of those successfully converted into a Category Winner or Highly Commended Certificate – a win. 

While it is architectural practices who enter, and many have projects in several countries, the departure point for this review is to consider WAF as the equivalent of the World Cup of Architecture and to assess if there are any particular countries performing better than others. While it is a limited view, as not all practices enter the awards, can anything further be inferred from the results that reflect on the status of the built environment in that country?  

The logistics of managing so many parallel presentations and celebrations by the organising company EMAP Publishing is to be admired. 1072 entries are shortlisted down to 535 from 57 participating countries. Over the 3 day period of the festival held in Amsterdam from the 28th to the 30th of November the shortlisted practices pitched to win their category in well scheduled 20-minute slots in 17 booths housed in one venue. Winners go forward to present for Building of the Year to the Super Jury on the 3rd and final day. Over and above this main prize there are a further 7 overall special prizes such as the Future Project of the Year, Small Project of the Year, Glass Future prize and WAF X award amongst others (click here for the full list of prizes and winners )  Plus there are separate awards programs such as the Emerging Architect of the Year, the Architectural Photograph of the Year and the Architectural Drawing of the Year.  

It could be argued that achieving in this forum is purely a numbers game – the more entries you can afford, the more winners you will have. However if you review the results, one has to congratulate the process of the judging system as the awards given do not bow down to the pressure of the volume of shortlisted finalists of any one entity. Countries with 11 or more shortlisted finalists in the World Architecture Festival (not the INSIDE Hub interiors festival) did not necessarily win more recognition than a country with fewer, quality entries.

A case in example for volume of entries would be China who have 50 shortlisted finalists yet have only 4 winners – that’s quite an expensive way to gain a presence on this world platform of architecture. Compare this result for example to a country such as Iran with 4 wins from 11 shortlisted finalists which is arguably a far more acceptable success ratio. Further review of the Chinese results within the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Emerging Economy Block shortlisted finalists highlights that the awards conversion ratio of India and South Africa appear to be far more effective than the apparent Chinese ‘blitzing’ of entries.

(Regrettably this analysis only reflects the breakdown from shortlisted finalists to winners. It would be interesting to reflect on the volume of actual entries received before the shortlisting took place but I have worked only with the information that is publically available.)

Further, it cannot be assumed that the countries with better yields from their shortlisted finalist projects have better design environments and therefore are more likely to succeed. It is interesting to consider that focused entering for success can be seen in practices like BIG who had a limited number of shortlisted finalists yet converted 2 out of 3 to wins. Which is a conversion rate that must be far more rewarding in many ways than Woods Bagot’s results of 8 shortlisted finalists and 1 win. The value of single minded focus on projects deemed WAF winning material by an architectural practice could be seen for example in the approach of Koffi & Diabaté. Their Sports Pavillion in the Ivory Coast was their only shortlisted finalist and went on to win the Completed Building Sports category. Entering 1 project and walking away with a WAF category trophy for that project would have to represent, in this analysis, the most effective way of entering these awards.

Bio-Climatic Gymnasium in Ivory Coast by Koffi & Diabaté Architects

Continuing the questioning of countries’ performance the next step for review is to reflect on the economies of the countries or regions doing well, and to consider is the countries’ award success linked to a booming economy. In other words, how directly does economic growth of a country improve the opportunity for it to create award winning architecture?

It appears that the commonly held assumption that economic growth automatically equates to better architecture is not entirely accurate. Consider that China is the worlds 2nd largest GDP contributor with a GDP growth of 6.9% * and had 50 shortlisted finalists yet only 4 winning projects. Australia, which is 14th in the global GDP ranking, and has a GDP growth of 2.27* had 52 shortlisted finalists and 4 wins. Interestingly the UK at no. 5 in global GDP ranking with only 1.69% growth* managed to have the highest score of conversions at 29% – 8 wins from 35 entries – roughly just under 1 in 4 projects converted to a win. So it appears that the opportunity for architectural excellence does not necessarily directly link to the economic prosperity of a region.

Contradictory to the above, but worth reflecting on, is that Iran had a negative GDP of -1.48% before sanctions against it were lifted in 2016 and in a short time span has enjoyed growing success at WAF with a GDP of 4.28%*. One would have to acknowledge that while there is no guarantee that a growing economy equates to great architecture the potential is higher when there is a flow of money in the built environment.  Wearing this lens of opportunism, Africa, with its’ rapid urbanization and correspondingly high GDP growth rates, 7.7%* in the Ivory Coast, 7%* in Senegal for example, should increasingly provide opportunities for architectural practices and countries seeking to succeed at future WAF awards.

The one caution however would be that unless African architectural practices start to push for their space in their own countries and regions the opportunities will be lost to foreign practices. Only 38% of the practices with shortlisted finalists in Africa have a head office in Africa. This contrasts starkly with an overview of Australian or Iranian shortlisted finalists where you will see that winners in the country are predominantly practices located within the country. (Click here to view full 2018 WAF Shortlist)

Winning a WAF award undoubtedly impacts positive reputation, not only for individual architecture practices but also for the brand of the country where the project is located. Projects such as Heatherwick Studio’s Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, South Africa can be directly linked to growth in tourism and Mixed Use Projects like the WAF 2018 Building of the Year: Kampung Admiralty in Singapore by WOHA Architects can point to new constructs that increase commercial opportunity whilst positively impacting the environment and the community.

Exposure to WAF increases the opportunity for learning, not only about great architectural solutions that can easily be applied in many regions but also the skillful way in which to present  and tell stories about projects that captures interest and communicates the essence of thinking done and ultimately converts a shortlisted finalist to a win. In the words of Isaac Newton, It is the weight, not numbers of experiments that is to be regarded”.

*GDP growth as reflected at the end of 2nd quarter of 2018
Source: World Bank Data Catalogue