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10 most influential architects of the 21st century (Part-1)

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” - Mies van der Rohe

People have always built and shaped their environment. And as long as people have been building, there have been architects. As the quality of the built environment evolved, so did the public’s appreciation for good design and function, and it was most definitely the architects overseeing them who were responsible for this new-found observation and appreciation of the built environment.


Architecture is arguably the very fabric that clads our society. Architecture begins with an idea – the role architecture plays in our everyday lives is astronomical. The maestros of architecture as we know them today did not start out to change the world, but their approaches, ideologies and philosophies have set them on radical journeys that have shaped the world and society as is visible to us today.


Famous architects yield influence, inspire their peers and shape the architecture of the world. As a result, this presence can heavily influence our lives and society. These are architects who are celebrated for being good, innovative, or different in what they have done through their professional life. We call them “star architects”, because their fame and celebrity is akin to that of movie/music stars.


Although it is difficult to name the world’s greatest architect, there are several master architects who are strong contenders for the title. This article will take a look at some of the most famous and influential architects of the 21st century and their built legacies.





1. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal

“Good architecture is a space where something special happens, where you want to smile, just because you are there. It is also a relationship with the city, a relationship with what you see, and a place where you are happy, where people feel well and comfortable—a space that gives emotions and pleasures.” - Jean-Philippe Vassal

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, photo courtesy of Laurent Chalet


Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal met in the late 1970s during their formal architecture training at Bordeaux. While Lacaton went on to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning, Vassal relocated to Niger, West Africa to practice urban planning. Profoundly influenced by the sparing resources within the Niger’s desert landscapes, they began their architectural doctrine, and built their first joint project here as well. They vowed to never demolish what could be redeemed and instead, make sustainable what already exists, thereby extending through addition, respecting the luxury of simplicity, and proposing new possibilities.


Throughout their careers, the architects have rejected city plans calling for the demolition of social housing. They proposed to focus instead on designing from the “inside out” to prioritize the welfare of a building’s inhabitants and their desires for larger spaces. Through both new construction and the transformation of buildings, honoring the pre-existing is authentic to their work. In a collaborative project with two other architects, they transformed 530 units within three buildings at Grand Parc in Bordeaux, France (2017). The main aim of this project was not just to upgrade technical functions but more notably, to add generous flexible spaces to each unit without displacing its residents during construction.

FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault



53 Units, Low-Rise Apartments, Social Housing, photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault


For over three decades, they have designed private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public space, and urban strategies. The duo’s architecture reflects their advocacy of social justice and sustainability - prioritizing generous space and freedom of spatial occupation through economical and ecological materials. This enables the architects to build larger living spaces affordably, as demonstrated by the construction of 14 single-family residences for a social housing development (2005), and 59 units within low-rise apartment buildings at Neppert Gardens (2015), both in Mulhouse, France; and in adjoining mid-rise buildings consisting of 96 units in Chalon-sur-Saône, France (2016); among others.



Transformation of G, H, I Buildings, Grand Parc, 530 Units, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin), photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault



Transformation of 100 Units, Tour Bois le Prêtre, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot), photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault


Current works in progress include:

  • Housing transformations of a former hospital into a 138-unit, mid-rise apartment building in Paris, France

  • An 80-unit, mid-rise building in Anderlecht, Belgium

  • Transformation of an office building in Paris, France

  • Mixed-use buildings offering hotel and commercial space in Toulouse, France

  • A 40-unit, private housing, mid-rise building in Hamburg, Germany.


They teach, have many publications to their credit, and among many past laurels, were awarded the Pritzker prize for Architecture for the year 2021.


They work and reside in Paris, France.



2. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, photo courtesy of Alice Clancy


Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara met at the School of Architecture at University College Dublin (UCD). They studied under rationalist architects who challenged preexisting thoughts and cultures of society. Shortly after graduating, they and three others established Grafton Architects. As the years passed, only Farrell and McNamara stayed with the practice.


McNamara attributes her awakening to the experience of architecture to her childhood, and the sense and experience of what a house could be to different people. She recalls the sensation of space and light manifesting in the house, and calls it “an absolute revelation”. Farrell, on the other hand, attributes her affinity to architectural experience to music and her childhood. Stone warehouses, crafted houses and a canal neighbouring streets and squares that cut wonderfully into the landscapes of Offaly, Ireland brought her close to nature, and she states that this has had a profound effect on how she sees the built environment around her.


Having done several projects of varying typologies in their native country of Ireland, their first international commission transpired 25 years later. They collaborated with Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan (2008) to build the Grafton Building, which was awarded World Building of the Year at the 2008 inaugural World Architectural Festival in Barcelona. This was the first of their many international projects, all of which have received critical acclaim from the international architectural community. They were also the recipient of the 2012 Biennale di Venezia Silver Lion Award for the exhibition, Architecture as New Geography.

Universita Luigi Bocconi, photo courtesy of Federico Brunetti


Farrell and McNamara were appointed as 2018 co-curators for the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia. They have previously held the Kenzo Tange chair at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (2010) and the Louis Kahn chair at Yale University (2011).


They are Fellows of The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and International Honorary Fellows of RIBA. They were awarded the RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture by the RIAI in 2019 and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2020. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were the recipients of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture for the year 2020. They have taught and lectured internationally.


Significant projects include:

  • North King Street Housing (Dublin, Ireland 2000)

  • Urban Institute of Ireland, University College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland 2002)

  • Loreto Community School (Milford, Ireland 2006)

  • Solstice Arts Centre (Navan, Ireland 2007)

  • Offices for the Department of Finance (Dublin, Ireland 2009)

  • Medical School, University of Limerick (Limerick, Ireland 2012)

  • University Campus UTEC Lima (Lima, Peru 2015)

  • Institut Mines Télécom (recently completed, Paris, France 2019)

  • Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics (recently completed, Toulouse, France 2019)


Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics, photo courtesy of Dennis Gilbert



University Campus UTEC Lima, photo courtesy of Iwan Baan



Institut Mines Télécom, photo courtesy of Alexandre Soria



3. Arata Isozaki

“When I was old enough to begin an understanding of the world, my hometown was burned down. Across the shore, the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, so I grew up near ground zero. It was in complete ruins, and there was no architecture, no buildings and not even a city. Only barracks and shelters surrounded me. So, my first experience of architecture was the void of architecture, and I began to consider how people might rebuild their homes and cities.”



Arata Isozaki, photo courtesy of Opera de Lyon


Arata Isozaki was born in Ōita, Japan in 1931 prior to the onset of World War II. Isozaki graduated from the Department of Architecture in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo in 1954. Immediately after, he began an apprenticeship with Kenzo Tange. He established Arata Isozaki & Associates in 1963, when Japan had regained its sovereignty and was seeking physical rebuilding post the decimation of WWII.


He builds with the theory that while buildings are transitory, they should please the senses of the users presently passing through and around them. For him, change was the only constant. The post-war redevelopment of the architecture of Japan forced him to design dynamically, which he eventually adopted as his design style.


His work began locally, with many buildings in his hometown and Fukuoka, and quickly expanded to Gunma, Osaka and Tokyo. He demonstrated a worldwide vision that was ahead of his time and facilitated a dialogue between East and West. Because of this, he emerged as an international leader in architecture in the 1980s. His first international commission was the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1981-1986).



Museum of Contemporary Art, photo courtesy of www.archeyes.com


Isozaki went on to plan cities in accelerating economies, with his most recent developments in China and the Middle East. Through his critical writings, and as a jury member for important architecture competitions, he has played a significant role in bringing to realization the concepts of young architects around the world. Six decades of his work include philosophy, visual art, design, music, films, and plays, alongside his iconic buildings.


He is the recipient of many awards, including but not limited to, the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture (1986 United Kingdom), Leone d’Oro, Venice Architecture Biennale (1996 Italy), and The Lorenzo il Magnifico Lifetime Achievement Award, Florence Biennale (2017). He was an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Arts (1994) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998), and a member of the Japan Arts Academy (2017). He has served as a visiting professor at many U.S. universities. He was appointed to the first Pritzker Prize Jury in 1979, and continued on as a member for five years.



Team Disney Building, photo courtesy of Domus Italy


Allianz Tower, photo courtesy of Architect Magazine


Shanghai Symphony Hall, photo courtesy of Pinterest


He has more than one hundred total built projects. Some significant projects include:

  • Ōita Prefectural Library (Ōita, 1962-1966)

  • Expo ’70 Festival Plaza (Osaka, 1966-1970)

  • The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma (Gunma, 1971-1974)

  • Team Disney Building (Florida, 1987-1990)

  • Shenzhen Cultural Center (Shenzhen, 1998-2007)

  • Pala Alpitour (Turin, 2002-2005)

  • Central Academy of Fine Arts, Art Museum (Beijing, 2003-2008)

  • Allianz Tower (Milan, 2003-2014)

  • Qatar National Convention Center, (Doha, 2004-2011)

  • Shanghai Symphony Hall (Shanghai, 2008-2014)

  • Hunan Provincial Museum (Changsha, 2011-2017)


4. Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena was born in Santiago, Chile. He graduated as an architect from the Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992. In 1994, he established Alejandro Aravena Architects.

Alejandro Aravena, photo courtesy of Yahoo! News


Since 2001 he, along with his partners, has been leading ELEMENTAL, a “Do Tank” focusing on projects of public interest and social impact, including housing, public space, infrastructure and transportation. Together with ELEMENTAL, Alejandro has done work in Chile, USA, Mexico, China and Switzerland. ELEMENTAL has played a vital role in the reconstruction of Chilean cities after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile and destroyed livelihood and social infrastructure.

UC Innovation Center, photo courtesy of Nina Vidic


Quinta Monroy Housing, photo courtesy of Cristobal Palma


In 2010, he was named International Fellow of the RIBA, and has been a Board Member of the Cities Program of the London School of Economics and the Swiss Holcim Foundation since 2011 and 2013 respectively. He is also a Regional Advisory Board Member of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. He is a Foundational Member of the Chilean Public Policies Society and was one of the 100 personalities contributing to the Rio +20 Global Summit in 2012.


Aravena has taught internationally, including universities like the AA, London (1999), Harvard University (Graduate School of Design, 2000 and 2005), and London School of Economics. He has held the ELEMENTAL Copec Chair at Universidad Católica de Chile since 2006. He was the Director of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. He was a member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury from 2009 to 2015.


St. Edwards University Dorms, photo courtesy of Cristobal Palma


He has authored several books and monographs during his professional career span. Some seminal ones include:

  • Los Hechos de la Arquitectura (Architectural Facts, 1999)

  • El Lugar de la Arquitectura (The Place in/of Architecture, 2002)

  • Material de Arquitectura (Architecture Matters, 2003)

  • Alejandro Aravena; progettare e costruire (Milan, 2007)

  • Alejandro Aravena; the Forces in Architecture (Tokyo, 2011)

  • ELEMENTAL: Incremental Housing and Participatory Design Manual (Berlin, 2012)


His work has been published in more than 50 countries.


5. Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban was born in Tokyo in 1957. Throughout childhood, he excelled at arts and crafts, which pushed him towards becoming an architect. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1984. He worked with Arata Isozaki as an undergraduate intern. He has been taught by pioneers like Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk, among others.

Shigeru Ban, photo courtesy of The Pritzker Architecture Prize


Having been influenced by Alvar Aalto’s experiential and regional architecture on a trip to Finland, Ban decided to open his own practice in 1985 without any experience. In the subsequent year, he organized and designed the installations of an Emilio Ambasz, an Alvar Aalto, and a Judith Turner exhibition - as the curator of Tokyo’s Axis Gallery. During the Aalto exhibition, Ban developed “paper-tube” structures, which he then used to design seven houses as a series of case studies.


These paper-tube structures attained practical fruition when Ban heard about the inhumane conditions of the Rwandan War refugees. He proposed them to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and became their consultant. After the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, he built the “Paper Log House” for the former Vietnamese refugees who did not get a chance to stay in the temporary houses provided by the Japanese government. He also built the Takatori “Paper Church,” with student volunteers, which triggered him to establish Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN), an NGO for disaster relief activities.


Paper Church, photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Hirai


Center Pompidou-Metz, photo courtesy of Didier Boy de la Tour


Among VAN’s work are the following disaster relief campaigns:

  • temporary housing in Turkey in 1999

  • temporary housing in western India in 2001

  • temporary housing in Sri Lanka in 2004

  • temporary school after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008

  • a concert hall in L’Aquila, Italy

  • shelters after the Haitian Earthquake in 2010

  • partition systems in temporary shelters for the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011

  • the Cardboard Cathedral for the Canterbury Earthquake in 2011

  • temporary housing at the Miyagi prefecture, Japan


In 1995, Ban’s paper-tube structure development received the permanent architecture certificate from the Minister of Construction in Japan. In 2000, in collaboration with Frei Otto, Ban constructed a paper-tube grid shell structure for the Hanover Expo’s Japan Pavilion in Germany. This structure drew attention from all over the world for its recyclable architecture.



Curtain Wall House, photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Hirai


Cardboard Cathedral, photo courtesy of Stephen Goodenough


Ban has taught in many universities including Keio University, Harvard University, Cornell University and Kyoto University of Art and Design. He is currently working on creating architecture, disaster relief volunteering and in academia. His work consists not only of paper-tube structures but also laminated bamboo, shipping containers and wooden structures without metal connectors. In addition, he creates furniture and architecture made with carbon fiber.


Conclusion

Architecture has always distinguished itself from other art forms because it plays a functional as well as an aesthetic role, offering shelter, of course, but also shaping our daily experiences. Architecture also leaves behind monuments to moments in time, signifying in stone, glass and steel the various layers of history that define the evolution of a place.


“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” the noted German architect Mies van der Rohe once said, and there’s no better proof of this than the tremendous work done by these architects. If you want to explore more about them and other giants of the field, do go through the rest of the blog.


Please comment below if we have missed any influential architects of the 21st century!

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